Proslavery Literature: "Anti-Tom Novels," An Overview
Proslavery Literature: "Anti-Tom Novels," An Overview
The publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin on March 20, 1852, was a national event. The story of plantation life in the American South, and its depiction of the brutalities of slavery, struck a nerve with readers across the country. In its first year, Uncle Tom's Cabin sold some 300,000 copies, a phenomenal number for the time. In England, some 1.5 million copies, both authorized and pirated editions, were sold in the first year.
Critical reaction to the novel was both pro and con, and usually based on the novel's antislavery message rather than on any literary quality it might have possessed. Writers from both the North and South were so enraged by what they saw as the book's distortion of Southern life and the institution of slavery that they wrote their own novels in answer to Stowe's story. Between 1852 and 1865, over twenty-five such Anti-Tom novels were published. According to Lucinda MacKethan (2004), writing in the online journal Southern Spaces:
Slaves in the Anti-Tom works are generally the happy, singing, childlike stereotypes that Stowe herself helped to cement…. The vision that these novels promote is of a South in which slaves and masters enjoy a mutually supportive, familial bond that is only severed by the ignorant or greedy machinations of abolitionists. The North's capitalistic labor structure is indicted, while the master is cast as the enlightened descendant of the southern heroes of the Revolution, and the guarantor of the rights of (land and slave owning) man. None of the refutations had anywhere near the persuasive impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Probably the most successful of these novels was Aunt Phillis's Cabin; or, Southern Life As It Is, written by Mary Henderson Eastman (1818–1887), which sold some 20,000 to 30,000 copies, making it the best-selling of the Anti-Tom novels. Joshua David Bellin (2000), writing in Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, called Aunt Phillis's Cabin "one of the most popular and venomous of the many Southern attacks on Uncle Tom's Cabin." Until this novel, Eastman had been known for her book Dahcotah; or, Life and Legends of the Sioux around Fort Snelling, a book chronicling her and her husband's experiences while stationed for ten years at the army outpost of Fort Snelling in the Minnesota Territory.
Aunt Phillis's Cabin is a talky novel that parodies Uncle Tom's Cabin. The virtues of slavery are discussed and pointedly contrasted with the drudgery of life for free blacks and laboring-class whites in the North. Several quotes from Uncle Tom's Cabin are included within the text and Eastman ends the novel with a concluding remarks section:
I have no wish to uphold slavery. I would that every human being that God has made were free, were it in accordance with His will…. Neither do I desire to deny the evils of slavery, any more than I would deny the evils of the factory system in England, or the factory and apprenticeship system in our own country. I only assert the necessity of the existence of slavery at present in our Southern States, and that, as a general thing, the slaves are comfortable and contented, and their owners humane and kind (Eastman 1852, p. 280).
Southern reviewers of the time praised the novel. A reviewer for the Southern Quarterly Review found that Aunt Phillis's Cabin "is truthful, which cannot be said of Uncle Tom, which lies like a dragoon; but the attraction of the work, as a story, though considerable, cannot compare with those of the abolition books. Truth never yet could hold a candle to falsehood where the medium of both was invention" (April 1853, p. 523). A critic for Debow's Review found that Aunt Phillis's Cabin was "the very best answer to that gross libel upon the South, denominated 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'" (January 1853, p. 87).
While Aunt Phillis's Cabin directly confronted Stowe's popular novel, other Anti-Tom works took aim at the harsh capitalism of the North. The Cabin and Parlor; or, Slaves and Masters, written by Philadelphian Charles Jacobs Peterson (1819–1887) under the pseudonym "J. Thornton Randolph," contrasts the exploitation of Northern free workers with the more humane system of slavery in the South. The novel tells of a plantation family fallen on hard times. When the family patriarch dies, leaving behind debts, the Courtenay family must sell their plantation. The son, Horace, goes to the North to work as a shop clerk while the daughter teaches school. The harsh labor conditions of the North, and the ruthless quest for profit, are dramatized in the story of Horace. Not paid his wages because he has not sold enough goods, Horace is unable to afford a doctor when he falls dangerously ill. At one point, describing his own ordeal, he speaks out against the North's heartless economic system, accusing the business owners by claiming that they essentially turned poor white orphans into slaves who they work to death. Ironically, the Courtenay family's former slaves, who have been sold to neighboring planters, are more economically secure and are even able to assist their former owners.
A similar attack on the Northern economic system is found in Frank Freeman's Barber Shop: A Tale (1852), by Baynard Hall (1798–1863). Freeman is an ironically named slave who, coaxed by Northern abolitionists into running away to freedom, finds only economic uncertainty in the North. When he is offered an opportunity to move to Liberia, the free black state created in Africa for former slaves, Frank jumps at the chance.
Other Anti-Tom novels sought to restore peace between the North and South, a peace that had been disrupted by Stowe's abolitionist tirade. Robert Criswell's novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" Contrasted with Buckingham Hall, the Planter's Home; or, A Fair View of Both Sides of the Slavery Question, published in 1852, is essentially a love story. A Southern man wants to marry a Northern woman, but their fathers object. But when the Northern father sees firsthand life in the South, discovering that planters are humane and their slaves happy, he consents to the wedding. With this symbolic merging of the nation, Criswell hoped to help alleviate the growing division between North and South. As he explained in a preface:
The Author in laying this work before the public has but one motive in view, which is to contribute his mite in endeavoring to allay the great agitation on the Slavery Question between the North and South, which threatens to dissolve our glorious Union; and as that talented authoress, Mrs. Stowe, in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," has increased that agitation, the author hopes to modify it somewhat, by representing the Planter and Slave in a more favorable light…. If the book proves to be one drop of oil cast upon the tempestuous sea of agitation, his wishes will be accomplished (Criswell 1852, Preface).
An Anti-Tom novel that proved to be popular throughout the country, and was reprinted several times after the Civil War (1861–1865), was The Planter's Northern Bride, by Caroline Lee Hentz (1800–1856). In Alabama Heritage, Philip Beidler described Hentz's novel this way: "Famous and immensely popular in the North and South during Hentz's own lifetime, her novel is even better known today as the most eminent and fully achieved of the pre-Civil War southern novelistic replies to Stowe" (2005, p. 28). Hentz was a successful novelist with a string of popular titles to her credit when she published The Planter's Northern Bride in 1854. Born in Massachusetts, Hentz had married and settled in North Carolina, where her husband was a university professor. The family later lived in several other cities in the South. Based on her own experiences with Southern slavery, Hentz felt she was better qualified to discuss the topic than was Stowe. In her novel, Hentz tells of Eulalia, a Northern daughter of a strong abolitionist who marries a Southern plantation owner she meets when he is visiting New England. Although she has been raised to despise slavery, Eulalia finds herself the mistress of a plantation, where she grows to realize the benefits of slavery. Hentz contrasts the plight of Northern workers, prone to being tossed out of their jobs without compensation, with the relative stability of workers in Southern society. Plantation owners clothe, feed, and house their slaves, whereas Northern factory owners have no concern for their workers. As Carme Manuel Cuenca wrote in the Mississippi Quarterly: "If Stowe had described how the family was disrupted because of slavery and family destruction was the target of her criticism, Hentz reverses the scheme and shows how slavery is the only political system that cares, nurtures and reconstructs—when torn apart—the white and black, Northern and Southern family with women at its core" (1993, p. 136). When there is a slave revolt, caused by a Northern abolitionist preacher who stirs up discontent, the novel becomes "less a defense of slavery than a frantic plea to the North to curtail abolitionist meddling with Southern life before it initiates a bloodbath" (1993, p. 136), as Nina Baym explained in Women's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820–1870.
While the Anti-Tom novels were never as popular or influential as Uncle Tom's Cabin was, the genre did create some lasting stereotypes that were commonly found in fiction throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. In women's fiction, Southern and Northern lovers marrying in the face of disapproval from their family was a frequent plot device. Depictions of plantation life as genteel and courtly, and of slaves as docile, contented servants, were also found in many later American novels. By the early twentieth century, Thomas Dixon (1864–1946) had written several white supremacist novels, including The Clansman (1905), which utilized these themes. When Dixon's works were adapted to film by D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) as the classic movie Birth of a Nation, many of these ideas gained a widespread legitimacy they had never had before.
Baym, Nina. Women's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820–1870. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Beidler, Philip D. "Caroline Lee Hentz's Long Journey." Alabama Heritage 75 (Winter 2005): 24-31.
Bellin, Joshua David. "The Squaw's Tale: Sympathy and Storytelling in Mary Eastman's Dahcotah." Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 17, no. 1 (2000): 18-32.
Criswell, Robert. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" Contrasted with Buckingham Hall, the Planter's Home; or, A Fair View of Both Sides of the Slavery Question. New York: D. Fanshaw, 1852.
Cuenca, Carme Manuel. "An Angel in the Plantation: The Economics of Slavery and the Politics of Literary Domesticity in Caroline Lee Hentz's The Planter's Northern Bride." Mississippi Quarterly 51, no. 1 (Winter 1997): 87-104.
Eastman, Mary Henderson. Aunt Phillis's Cabin; or, Southern Life As It Is. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo; 1852.
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Gwin, Minrose C. Black and White Women of the Old South: The Peculiar Sisterhood in American Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.
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Jordan-Lake, Joy. Whitewashing "Uncle Tom's Cabin": Nineteenth-Century Women Novelists Respond to Stowe. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2005.
MacKethan, Lucinda. "Genres of Southern Literature." Southern Spaces (February 16, 2004).
Meyer-Frazier, Petra. "Music, Novels, and Women: Nineteenth-Century Prescriptions for an Ideal Life." Women & Music 10 (2006): 45-59.
Peterson, Beverly. "Aunt Phillis's Cabin: One Reply to Uncle Tom." Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South 33, no. 1 (1994): 97-112.
"Review of Aunt Phillis's Cabin; or, Southern Life As It Is." Debow's Review (January 1853): 87.
"Review of Aunt Phillis's Cabin; or, Southern Life As It Is." Southern Quarterly Review (April 1853): 523.
Rouff, John C. "Frivolity to Consumption: Or, Southern Womanhood in Antebellum Literature." Civil War History (September 1972): 219.
Smith, Karen Manners. "Southern Women Writers' Responses to Uncle Tom's Cabin." In The History of Southern Women's Literature, ed. Carolyn Perry and Mary Louise Weaks. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
Stanesa, Jamie. "Caroline Hentz's Rereading of Southern Paternalism: Or, Pastoral Naturalism in The Planter's Northern Bride." Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South 3, ns (Winter 1992): 221-252.
Tracey, Karen. "Little Counterplots in the Old South: Narrative Subterfuge in Caroline Hentz's Domestic Fiction." Journal of Narrative Technique 28, no. 1 (1998): 1-20.