Uncle Tom Mania
Slavery, Minstrelsy, and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s

Sarah Meer

Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an ideological battleground


"Provocative, scholarly, original, and eminently readable, Uncle Tom Mania will become the standard work on the transatlantic reception and transmission of Uncle Tom's Cabin, traced through copycat novels, proslavery anti-Toms, dramatic adaptations, rewritings by Stowe and her contemporaries, minstrel Toms, and nineteenth-century debates on gender, class, and nation. Drawing on a wealth of fresh, primary materials, Meer makes a major contribution to the understanding of literary texts and their readers, popular culture, cultural history, and history per se."
—Judie Newman, Professor of American Studies, University of Nottingham

"Meer's dense yet clearly argued study is a thoroughly researched tracing of the complex interplay between minstrelsy as a major influence on the construction of blackness in the nineteenth century and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The strength of Meer's book lies most notably in the extraordinary range of primary materials she has mobilized in her dissection of the myriad shifting debates about slavery and race that were spawned on both sides of the Atlantic by Stowe's novel. This study enriches our sense of the complex phenomenon that was 'Tom Mania' and provides an enlightening portrait of the intense transatlantic cultural exchange between the United States and Great Britain at the time. Such exchange involved not just fiction, but theater, popular music, travelogues, political commentary, and autobiography; and Meer navigates all of these forms with insight, imagination, and a sensitivity both to historical specificity and to the integrity of each text."
—Richard Yarborough, Associate General Editor, Heath Anthology of American Literature

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Titled after “Tom-Mania,” the name a British newspaper gave to the international sensation attending the 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this study looks anew at the novel and the songs, plays, sketches, translations, and imitations it inspired. In particular, Sarah Meer shows how the theatrical mode of blackface minstrelsy, the slavery question, and America’s emerging cultural identity affected how Uncle Tom’s Cabin was read, discussed, dramatized, merchandised, and politicized here and abroad.

Until Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Meer says, little truly common ground existed on which the United States and Britain could debate slavery. In addition to cutting across class, gender, and national lines, the novel tapped into a huge, preexisting transatlantic appetite for blackface performance. Even as it condemned slavery, however, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was ambiguous about racial equality, and it portrayed blacks in demeaning ways. This gave copycat novels and minstrel stagings leeway to stray from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s intentions. Minstrel-show versions in particular had a huge influence on later incarnations of the Uncle Tom story, converting the character into “a comic, or worse, a proslavery stooge”—a scorned figure in our popular memory.

To look at how and why Uncle Tom’s Cabin “both advocated emancipation and licensed a plethora of racist imitators,” Meer places it in the context of contemporary minstrel sketches, melodramas, songs, jokes, newspaper commentaries, slave narratives, travel writing, proslavery novels, and even Uncle Tom merchandise like china figurines and wallpaper. She goes on to discuss Harriet Beecher Stowe’s travelogue Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands and her second novel, Dred. The publication of each unleashed the political energies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its revisions yet again.

Page count: 352 pp.
Trim size: 6.125 x 9.25


List price: $30.95

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Sarah Meer is a university lecturer in English at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Selwyn College.