UNCLE TOM’S CABIN AS THE CULT PHENOMENON OF ITS DAY

The novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the cult phenomenon of its day. An entire Tom-themed material culture shot up around the commercial success of the novel. Not to mention countless re-tellings of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in “spin-offs,” like plays and poetry, known as tie-ins in our modern day usage.

According to Stevenson it was the novel’s immersion in popular culture (its appropriation of the already popular minstrel shows) that made it a bestseller and helped spark a material culture that fed on the modern consumerist culture of the 19th century. There were games, toys, dolls, puzzles, decorative plates, vases, even postcards; anything produced for entertainment or decorative purposes was Uncle Tom-themed to attract the cult following of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This cult phenomenon even spread to Europe, especially England, where most of the Tom-themed material culture was produced for consumption.[1]

The countless tie-ins that grew from the novel are reminiscent of the tie-ins that grew from the cult phenomenon that is the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003). The material culture that sprung up around Buffy the Vampire Slayer would not have been without the show’s immersion in popular culture (many references to cult television shows, comic books, and movies in various episodes) which fed off the changing forms of media in the late 20th and early 21st century. Since the show’s inception, it has spawned a spin off show and countless comic books, novels, and video games which broadened the “Buffyverse.” Similarly, Buffy even has a large fan following outside of the United States, notably the United Kingdom.

What more than likely contributed to Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s admirable achievement of cult status was the fact that it started out as chapter installments in the National Era newspaper. Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin on a weekly basis allowed its readership to become deeply attached to the characters, especially Eva and Uncle Tom. Its readership developed an emotional stake in how the narrative would conclude, so much so that when the installments of Uncle Tom’s Cabin did in fact conclude, the readership wanted more of the world Stowe had transported them to week after week. Consequently, the narrative spun off from the newspaper into a more permanent form of media, the novel, which enabled its readership to transport itself again and again into Uncle Tom’s world.

Like the newspaper installments of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, television shows were also meant to be ephemeral. That is until 20th Century Fox, for example, began releasing Buffy the Vampire Slayer television DVD box sets, giving the television series a sense of permanency. As well as giving the fans the ability to watch the show over and over outside of television reruns.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin memorabilia were collected as tokens of sentimentality for the series of installments they had devotedly read in the National Era. For instance, the followers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin put their collected figurines[2] and decorative plates on display in their homes for friends who were also anti-slavery to see, as well as to commemorate the scenes and sentiments from the narrative like Eliza’s riveting escape across the ice.[3] This is reminiscent of the memorabilia that continues to be collected by fans of the “Buffyverse.” Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there are Buffy the Vampire Slayer figurines[4] for fans to collect and even decorative plates[5] that commemorate specific scenes and loved characters from the series they had watched religiously week by week.

Forms of memorabilia also found their way into the text of Uncle Tom’s Cabin itself in several instances throughout the novel. The first instance is in Chapter X when Master George gives Tom a silver dollar to hang around his neck and tells Tom to “remember, every time you see it, that I’ll come down after you, and bring you back.”[6] In Chapter XIX, when Tom shows Eva the silver dollar she exclaims, “Oh, he’ll certainly come, then!”[7] When Tom gets Master George’s reply to his letter about what has been happening in Kentucky, Tom wants to frame it and hang it up in his room as some sort of relic.[8] Then there is the case they found while arranging St. Clare’s body for the funeral. Inside “was the miniature of a noble and beautiful female face; and on the reverse, under a crystal, a lock of dark hair.” It can be assumed that the St. Clare kept the case close to his heart to keep the memory of his beloved mother who was responsible for the kindness he exuded towards his slaves and his thoughts on the system of slavery.[9] Before Eva passes away she gives away a lock of her hair to each servant of the house:

“There isn’t one of you that hasn’t been very kind to me; and I want to give you something that, when you look at, you shall always remember me, I’m going to give all of you a curl of my hair, and, when you look at it, think that I loved you and am gone to heaven, and that I want to see you all there.”[10]

Eva gives a lock especially to Topsy so that when she looks at it she can be reminded of how Eva wanted her to be a good girl.[11] In Chapter XXVIII, Topsy is overtaken by Rosa who thinks Topsy had stolen something only to find a small book containing a verse of Scripture and a lock of Eva’s hair, Eva’s message to Topsy to be a good girl remembered.[12] Within the pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the tokens of remembrance kept by the characters were ways for them to keep someone close after parting by death, or parting by the system of slavery, to keep the spirits high.

The cult following of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, kept memorabilia of the world in order to keep the characters close to their heart and to remind them of the joys and sorrows they felt while reading the narrative, much like the collectors of Buffy the Vampire Slayer memorabilia. So, when Uncle Tom’s cabin concluded, much like with Buffy, the readership needed things to keep the characters close and relive the telling of the narrative in new forms. Hence, the material culture that sprung up to feel that need.

[1] Louise Stevenson, “Virtue Displayed: The Tie-Ins of Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Interpret Mode, 2007, 13 March 2009 < http://www.iath.virginia.edu/utc/interpret/interframe.html>.

[2] < http://www.iath.virginia.edu/utc/tomituds/8124f.htm>.

< http://www.iath.virginia.edu/utc/tomituds/8126f.html>.

< http://www.iath.virginia.edu/utc/tomituds/8115f.html>.

<http://www.iath.virginia.edu/utc/tomituds/8119f.html>.

[3] <http://www.iath.virginia.edu/utc/tomituds/plates/platesf.html>.

[4] < http://us.st12.yimg.com/us.st.yimg.com/I/timespacetoys_2044_31742905>.

< http://us.st12.yimg.com/us.st.yimg.com/I/timespacetoys_2044_34505252>.

< http://us.st12.yimg.com/us.st.yimg.com/I/timespacetoys_2044_13316084>.

[5] < http://www.buffycollector.com/plates/index.shtml>.

[6] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Boston: John P. Jewett, 1854, 14 March 2009

< http://www.iath.virginia.edu/utc/uncletom/utfihbsa10t.html> 151.

[7] Stowe, < http://www.iath.virginia.edu/utc/uncletom/utfihbsa19t.html> 31.

[8] Stowe, < http://www.iath.virginia.edu/utc/uncletom/utfihbsa22t.html> 62.

[9] Stowe, < http://www.iath.virginia.edu/utc/uncletom/utfihbsa29t.html> 146.

[10] Stowe, < http://www.iath.virginia.edu/utc/uncletom/utfihbsa26t.html> 105.

[11] Stowe, < http://www.iath.virginia.edu/utc/uncletom/utfihbsa26t.html> 106.

[12] Stowe, < http://www.iath.virginia.edu/utc/uncletom/utfihbsa28t.html> 130.