These True Stories Inspired the Classic Books You Hated Reading in School
These True Stories Inspired the Classic Books You Hated Reading in School

These True Stories Inspired the Classic Books You Hated Reading in School

Jennifer Conerly - September 2, 2018

These True Stories Inspired the Classic Books You Hated Reading in School
The lithograph of a theater poster advertising a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. W.J. Morgan and Co., 1881. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Wikimedia Commons.

16. Minstrel shows destroyed the legacy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

In the nineteenth century, the United States was in turmoil over “the slavery question.” Pro-slavery factions resisted the growing abolitionist movement that called for the end of the practice as violence escalated across the nation. Harriet Beecher Stowe was an author and vocal abolitionist from a prominent Calvinist family. While living in Cincinnati, she met several free blacks who shared their experiences in slavery. These experiences would encourage her in her abolitionist writings.

Some escaped slaves detailed their journeys to freedom in a new literary genre: the slave narrative. In 1849, Josiah Henson wrote of his experiences in his memoir, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. Using the Underground Railroad, he left Maryland and settled in Canada, where he helped other escaped slaves start new lives. The following year, when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the law threatened to prosecute anyone who helped runaway slaves, even in free states.

After Harriet Beecher Stowe read Henson’s account, she wrote a novel about slavery in the United States in protest of the Fugitive Slave Act. The publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 had two goals: to strengthen the abolitionist movement and to help slaveowners sympathize with their slaves. It became the most famous American novel of the nineteenth century, bringing the conditions of slavery front and center to an already volatile nation.

In the aftermath of the novel’s popularity, minstrel shows traveled around the country, even making an appearance in Europe, to entertain the masses. These “Tom shows” made fun of Stowe’s characters, emphasizing ethnic stereotypes. They continued to tour until the early twentieth century, when these negative images transferred to the film industry. Reaching an even wider audience, these representations have lasted through the decades, having a lasting effect on depictions of African-Americans in the media. In recent years, scholars have reexamined Uncle Tom’s Cabin for what it is: a novel that became an effective political weapon.


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