Harriet Beecher Stowe and Cuba
Uncle Tom’s Cabin theatre poster, showing Eliza crossing the ice, 1881
by Judith Newman
“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” Abraham Lincoln’s apocryphal greeting to Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862 has become known in literary history, after the colossal impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). The first American novel to sell over a million copies, it led to frenzied Southern attempts to counter its portrayal of slavery in a plethora of “Anti-Tom” novels, plus children’s versions, dramatic adaptations, “Tom troupes” of actors who performed nothing else, and the abundance of what we would today call “tie-ins”: Topsy dolls, board games which reunited slave families, Staffordshire figurines, Uncle Tom wallpaper, sheet music, and even, socks. In the run-up to the Civil War it was possible to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin yourself, read it in abridged form to your children, see it on stage, weep over it into an Uncle Tom handkerchief, and recover over supper on an Uncle Tom plate.
But without Cuba and Cuban literature, it would not have packed the same punch.
In the novel Stowe models her major characters, Augustine Saint Clare, his nephew Henrique, the enslaved Tom and tragic Eva on their counterparts Agustín, Henrique, Sab, and Carlota in Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda’s Sab (1841), one of the earliest anti-slavery novels to come out of the Americas. Although censored and seized when an attempt was made to import it into Cuba in 1844, parts of the novel were copied and clandestinely circulated, to circumvent Spanish censorship. Set in its author’s native Cuba, Sab’s plot centres on whether women can intervene in a slave system, and is frankly pessimistic. Stowe gave a better account of women, and of the ability of slaves to defy the system, emphasising black heroism in defence of liberty in the characters of George and Eliza Harris, who make it to freedom.
Because the novel first appeared as a serial in the abolitionist newspaper National Era, its publication coincided in 1851 with intensive coverage of the filibustering expedition of Narciso López, from America to Cuba. At this time the official extension of American slavery to Cuba was a real danger; many Cuban planters would have preferred annexation by the Southern United States to giving up slavery. López hoped that Cuba would join the Union as a slave state, and he had considerable Southern support, notably in New Orleans, where the local press fell in eagerly behind the conspiracy to invade and ‘liberate’ Cuba.
The plot of Uncle Tom’s Cabin swerves suddenly to New Orleans after thirteen chapters set in Kentucky. Unlike other newspapers of the period, the Era put fiction in prominent position on the front page, not separated from the news; readers of Stowe were following the novel and events in Cuba on the same page. Stowe was writing against the clock and the news from Cuba saturates her novel, suggesting characters, incidents and events. When López was defeated and garrotted in Havana, and fifty-one of his men faced the firing squad, the fate of the executed Americans, widely portrayed as anti-colonial freedom fighters, liberating Cuba from the Spanish, provoked riots in New Orleans where the mob damaged the home of the Spanish consul and gutted the office of La Union, the local Spanish newspaper.
But Stowe had a very different understanding of freedom, interrupting plot-events in Louisiana with a chapter entitled ‘The Freeman’s Defence’, in which George Harris fights off attacking slave-catchers, in a no-holds-barred gunfight, and demonstrates that the American who was really defending freedom was an escaped slave, not a white filibusterer. Though outnumbered, George successfully defies the opposition, declaiming what Stowe calls his own declaration of independence:
We don’t own your laws; we don’t own your country; we stand here as free,
under God’s sky, as you are, and by the great God that made us, we’ll fight
for our liberty till we die.
Rousing words, and designed as a firm rebuff to the notion that López was a martyr in the cause of freedom.
A postscript remains. Stowe followed Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1855 by writing a drama, The Christian Slave. It was memorably performed in London in 1856, and created expressly for performance by Mary E. Webb, the child of a fugitive slave mother and Spanish father. Mary Webb had been educated in a convent in Cuba and Stowe emphasised her Hispanic background by introducing her in the character of the enslaved Cassy, singing in Spanish. The Christian Slave adapted Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but with no happy family reunions, no concessions to Southern views, and an emphasis on the cost of slavery to women. Stowe gives Cassy seven of the last eight scenes, including a four-page monologue relating how all her dreams of domesticity and love were torn apart by slavery. Avellaneda’s influence was clearly long-lasting.
About the Author:
Judie Newman is Professor of American Studies at the University of Nottingham. She is the recipient of the Arthur Miller Prize, a former Chair of the British Association for American Studies and a founding Fellow of the English Association. She was the first modern editor of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred : A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (Edinburgh University Press, 1992, 1998, 2014), and has published essays on Stowe and religion, the Civil War, travel writing, and dramatic adaptations of her work. She is a member of the Advisory Board for The Collected Works of Harriet Beecher Stowe (forthcoming, Oxford University Press). Her latest publication on Stowe is “Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Cuban characters” in (Re)mapping the Latina/o Literary Landscape, ed. Cristina Herrera and Larissa Mercado-López.