“Pray Also for the Heathen at Home:” Colonialist Rhetoric in Uncle Tom’s Cabin

  • Abstract:

    Contemporary scholarship analyzing Uncle Tom’s Cabin is both vast and varied. Although scholars have applied many theoretical lenses, rhetorical analyses, character analyses, genre studies, and various philosophical approaches to UTC, they have focused much of their attention primarily on Stowe’s treatment of her black characters, and they have often come to the consensus that she treats them stereotypically and offensively. As valid and enlightening as many of these critiques are, their primary focus on black characterization has obscured the function of Uncle Tom’s Cabin within the dialogue of growing American sectionalism in the 1850s and her equally simplistic and offensive portrayals of white Southerners. This essay contextualizes Stowe’s novel within the social and political maelstrom leading to and following the Compromise of 1850. I employ Sterling Brown’s framework for Negro stereotypes, in combination with Michael Meyer’s theory of character mirroring across races, to compare Stowe’s black characters to her white Southern characters and to argue that Stowe—through her depiction of Southern speech and her creation of stereotyped Southerners—reaffirms the North as the moral, religious, and cultural center of the nation. In effect, she echoes the ideas of other Northern writers in response to the Compromise of 1850 and expresses sentiments that are as much anti-Southern as anti-slavery. Stowe’s view of slavery is more Jeffersonian than egalitarian and her novel is filled with colonialist rhetoric that treats the South as a tropical colony of improvident, shiftless, and brutish subjects, and the North as a temperate center of Christian leadership.