Gates Takes a New Look at 'Uncle Tom' In the 1950s, Uncle Tom's Cabin went from being a literary phenomenon to an object of scorn, with its title character symbolizing black self-loathing. Henry Louis Gates has re-examined the book in a new annotated edition.
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Gates Takes a New Look at 'Uncle Tom'

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Gates Takes a New Look at 'Uncle Tom'

Gates Takes a New Look at 'Uncle Tom'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" poses all kinds of problems for readers - historical, political, literary. "Uncle Tom" was the best-selling novel of the 19th century. Abraham Lincoln called it the book that started this great war. James Baldwin called it just a very bad novel, while Edmund Wilson described it as a much more impressive work than one has ever been allowed to suspect. The novel was and may still be a social phenomenon, and it remains one of the most discussed books in American history.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Hollis Robbins' new annotated of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" enters the literary fray from all sides and finds the truth in the margin. We'll talk to them both about this much maligned and much praised book.

Later in the hour, we'll talk to the director of an IMAX film about making his movie in the middle of Hurricane Katrina. But first, what does "Uncle Tom's Cabin" mean to you? Is it the novel, the long series of images that it spawned, is it the black power insult of the 1960s? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is

Henry Louis Gates Jr. joins us from the studios of our member station in Boston, WBUR, where he chairs the African and African-American Studies Department at Harvard. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. HENRY LOUIS GATES (African and African-American Studies Department, Harvard University): Nice to be back.

CONAN: And Hollis Robbins is co-editor of the book. She is a member of the faculty at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins. She joins us by phone from Jackson, Mississippi. Nice to have you on the program as well.

Ms. HOLLIS ROBBINS (Peabody Institute, Johns Hopkins University): Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

CONAN: And Mr. Gates, I wanted to start with your very first annotation about "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and that's about the different subtitles that this book had at various times.

Mr. GATES: Yes, that's right. "The Man That Was a Thing" - think about how profound that was, because of course that's what slavery tried to do. It tried to objectify human beings. It took away our ancestors' names even. It grouped them with the chickens and the cows and the pigs and the horses. You couldn't even appear by two names in a federal census until 1870 if you were formerly a slave, of slave descent, precisely to objectify you and make you a thing.

CONAN: And what were some of the other titles that she considered?

Ms. ROBBINS: Well, in the English-language versions, they've got - they published it variously under "Slave Life in America," "A Tale of Life Among the Lowly," "The History of a Christian Slave." I think those subtitles were more a matter of selling the book, situating it so that the reader would know what it was going to be about since there's very little bit - only a very little bit about the cabin.

CONAN: Yes, indeed. That's right.

Mr. GATES: And in fact, when - even though she changed the name or minimized that aspect of the name when she published it in book form after it had been serialized of course in The National Era, she still kept that phrase in the first chapter. She used it several times, that this man resisted being turned into a thing or the slaveholders were attempting to turn the man into a thing. It was a very powerful notion because often my students ask me, Neal, how could anyone who had interacted with a slave have thought that they weren't actually a human being?

CONAN: Right.

Mr. GATES: But many of the apologists for slavery argue that. You know, remember the great chain of being? Many, many people starting in the 18th century argued that persons of African descent were, as a result of polygenesis, not descended from the same, as it were, Adam and Eve as Europeans and in fact had more in common with the animal kingdom than they did with human beings.

Even Thomas Jefferson in Query 14 of "Notes on the State of Virginia" said that - and this is almost a direct quote - that the orangutan prefers African females over his own female of the species, suggesting that Africans and orangutans slept together. That's Thomas Jefferson, the father of the Declaration of Independence and probably the father of Sally Hemings' children.

CONAN: Well, let me ask you both, though, about a reading or I suspect re-reading - and I know, Henry Louis Gates, you wrote in the introduction of course you read it before, and I suspect that's true of Hollis Robbins as well. But what was it - the first thing you had to do in entering this project was presumably go back and re-read the book?

Mr. GATES: Oh, absolutely. For me, now I - as I mentioned in the introduction, I first read it in the eighth grade. But I first became aware of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" watching "The Little Rascals." And Eliza escaping across the ice flows was both hilariously funny and very, very moving for me. And in fact doing this research, Hollis and I looked at a lot of the film versions, including "The Little Rascals." But it was full of surprises for me.

The biggest surprise for me was that the transformation of Uncle Tom from an almost mythical hero to black people, a transformation from that hero status to become the ultimate term of race betrayal is one of the great mysteries and ironies in African-American history, Neal, and it happened in 1919. We can even pinpoint. Do you know that Frederick Douglass, writing in 1892, DuBois writing in 1903, James Weldon Johnson writing in his autobiography, "Along This Way," all hailed "Uncle Tom" as one of the great works of American literature and one of the best things that happened for the cause of African-American people.

Frederick Douglass wrote that in the midst of these slave troubles came the book known as "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a work of marvelous depth and power. Nothing, Douglass continues, could have better suited the moral and humane requirements of the hour. Its effect was amazing, instantaneous and universal. Now that was Frederick Douglass. And as we point out in the book, Douglass reviewed this book, talked about this book over and over in Frederick Douglass' paper, his own newspaper, between 1852 and 1854, and even defended it when a black man, Martin Delany, one of the fathers of black nationalism who claimed he had read it but was basing his opinion on his wife's opinion. He wrote in and said, remember in - key to "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Mrs. Stowe says that it's - Uncle Tom was based on the figured of Josiah Henson, who wrote his own slave narrative. And Martin Delany writes in and says, if it was based on Josiah Henson, maybe Mrs. Stowe should give Josiah Hanson the royalties.

And Douglass fought Martin Delany and fought everybody who with - and believe me, no other black person traduced this book. The only people who were criticizing Mrs. Stowe in the page of Frederick Douglass and most of the other press in the North were apologists for slavery.

CONAN: And what happened in 1919?

Mr. GATES: Well, 1919, the strangest thing happened. In an address - yeah, you remember Marcus Garvey.

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. GATES: Marcus Garvey is the modern father of pan-Africanism. And Marcus Garvey came from Jamaica in 1915 looking for Booker T. Washington. Booker T. Washington was his hero. But Booker T. Washington died in 1915, and Garvey went on to found the United Negro Improvement Association, and Garvey became the most populist black nationalist in the history of black nationalism without a doubt.

And at his rally - or first of all, Garvey enunciated this concept in 1919 saying, the old-time Negro is gone, buried with Uncle Tom. And then at a rally in August 7, 1920, one of his lieutenants, the Reverend George Alexander McGuire, declared and I quote, "The Uncle Tom nigger has got to go and his place must be taken by the new leader of the Negro race - not a black man with a white heart, but a black man with a black heart."

And that was the beginning. And it culminated of course with Malcolm X. And Malcolm X in 1963 famously called Martin Luther King an Uncle Tom. And it wounded King. Martin Luther - Malcolm X said, just as Uncle Tom back during slavery used to keep the Negroes from assisting the bloodhound or resisting the Ku Klux Klan by teaching them to love their enemy, or pray for those who used them spitefully, today Martin Luther King is just a 20th century or modern Uncle Tom or religious Uncle Tom who is doing the same thing today to keep Negroes defenseless in the face of an attack that Uncle Tom did on the plantation, to keep those Negroes defenseless in the face of the attacks of the Klan in that day. The irony, Neal, is that Uncle Tom didn't do any of this.


Mr. GATES: Uncle Tom was a hero. Uncle Tom sacrificed himself twice. He refused to flog a slave that - a slave named Lucy that Simon Legree wanted him to flog, at great risk to himself. I mean he was beaten severely because of that. And finally he was beaten to death because he wouldn't reveal the location of two black women, both mulattos, who had escaped and who were hiding in the attic of Simon Legree's mansion. He knew where they were. He wouldn't give them up, and so Simon Legree had him beaten to death and killed.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GATES: How did this transformation occur?

CONAN: Well, let's see if we can get some listeners in on the conversation. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail: We're discussing the annotated edition of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" with its co-editors, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Hollis Robins. And let's talk with Lindis(ph). Lindis is on the line with us from Prescott, Arizona.

LINDIS (Caller): Yes, I hope I can get everything in and make sense of this. First of all, I lived in Los Angeles for many years. I was an actress, and I was in a play about Uncle Tom. I played Cassie. And we had tremendous difficulty getting black actors. The minute they knew what the play was, they said, oh, no, no, no. I'm not going to do that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

LINDIS: And I was - I hadn't read the book, I'm ashamed to admit, and I was surprised because I believed that Uncle Tom was a good person. Anyway, that was that. We did the show.

Ms. ROBINS: What year was that?

LINDIS: In the '90s.

Mr. GATES: Mm-hmm.


LINDIS: And I left L.A., and I moved to Scottsdale, and then I came to Prescott. I picked up a copy of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" six months ago. I could not put the book down. It is extraordinary. Uncle Tom is the most amazingly wonderful person you could ever imagine. I mean even the introduction by someone called Alfred Kazin says that Uncle Tom is a Jesus figure.

Mr. GATES: Hmm.

LINDIS: And he is. He believed so strongly in his idea of God that nothing - and believe me, I'm not a church person...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LINDIS: ...nothing would come between him and God.

Mr. GATES: In fact, ma'am...

LINDIS: He was incredible. I was up 24 hours reading this book...

Mr. GATES: Well...

LINDIS: ...crying my eyes out the whole time. And I thought this is the most amazing thing I've ever read.

CONAN: And we'll get a response from Henry Louis Gates when we come back from a break, because we're just about out of time, so hang on the line with us. Will you, Lindis?

LINDIS: Pardon?

CONAN: Can you hang on the line over the break?

LINDIS: Sure, sure.

CONAN: All right, I'll put you on hold if I can find the right button. For once I did. All right, we'll be back with Lindis, our caller from Prescott, Arizona; also with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Hollis Robins, co-editors of "The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin." If you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail,

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. And we're discussing today the new annotated edition of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" with its two editors, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Hollis Robins. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the chair of the African and African-American Studies Department at Harvard. Hollis Robins, a member of the faculty at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins. Still with us on the line - if this is Lindis, Lindis calling us from Prescott, Arizona just before the break. Henry Louis Gates, she was explaining to us that she, after appearing in a play about the book, actually read it six months ago and found it to be a revelation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GATES: Well, Hollis and I did a book event, a marvelous book event, at the New York Public Library about a month ago, I guess. And the last question asked from the audience was this. Who would I characterize as being an Uncle Tom today, meaning not in a derogatory sense - and Neal, we have to come back to explain why the shift from Uncle Tom being a hero within the black community to be a term of derogation, why that came about.

But I was really - and they looked at me and they wanted me to come up with somebody. And the person who, ironically enough, comes closest in my mind to conforming to the characteristics and beliefs of Uncle Tom was none other than Martin Luther King himself. Martin Luther King - think about it - sacrificed himself for his people, just like Uncle Tom did. He was a deeply religious, devout Christian. He wasn't self-serving. He was large of heart and generous of spirit. I mean if there was a 20th century Uncle Tom, it was Martin Luther King, but not in the sense of Malcolm X - Malcolm X intended it; in the sense that Harriet Beecher Stowe drew the character.

Wouldn't you agree, Hollis?

Ms. ROBINS: I think that's absolutely right, though I'm glad you're actually embracing your answer this time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROBINS: Because I think people were a little shocked that anybody would - even now, after our book, when people have started reading it, that it's hard their heads around the idea that Uncle Tom is actually a lovely character, just like the - our caller just said, that he's good, he's kind, he's gentle. And Stowe was very deliberate in her characterization of him, though he's obviously an uneducated person and he speaks in dialect, except when he's quoting the Bible.

Mr. GATES: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ROBINS: His English is beautiful, his English is perfect, and she really wanted him to be seen as a speaker of the Gospel.

Mr. GATES: Now, one of the problems I think that contemporary readers, particularly African-American readers - and, Neal, you have to remember, we did this book to recuperate "Uncle Tom's Cabin" for the African-American community, for a new African-American reader, in the same way that my dear friend and colleague Jane Tompkins and many other feminists in the '70s and '80s writing about Harriet Beecher Stowe recuperated her for feminists. No one had done that, though black people have written about this book extensively. There wasn't an edition that had done that sufficiently, and that was at least my motivation for doing it.

But one of the problems with trying to get young black readers to read the whole book is the...

CONAN: The first two words. Uncle Tom.

Mr. GATES: Well, yeah, but, you know, the word nigger is used 11 times in the first chapter. There's all kind of unconscious racism. For example, in chapter six, which is called "Discovery," she says, Very soon about a dozen young imps were roosting, like so many crows, on the veranda railings, each one determined to be the first one to apprise the strange master of his ill luck. And then: Won't he swear, said little black Jake. Yes, he does swear, said wooly head Mandy. You know, it's all the wooly-haired and all that black this and that, which is certainly partaking of racial attitudes of that time, but contemporary black readers have a hard time getting over that. I figured that if we could annotate that out and get them through that, they could realize how profound, an effect, as James Weldon Johnson said in 1933, this book has had...

LINDIS: Can I say one more thing?

CONAN: Yes, go ahead, please, Lindis.

LINDIS: I just wanted to say, yes, that Tom was good and kind and compassionate, but he was also enormously strong, both physically and mentally.

Mr. GATES: He was.

LINDIS: I mean he was a powerful figure, and after 24 hours of reading this, I thought, oh, good God, if only we had him in the White House...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LINDIS: ...what a different world this would be. I mean this man, he's extraordinary...

Ms. ROBINS: Well, it's very...

LINDIS: You read the book, yes, there are - and I'm white and I'm - you know, it's hard to put myself in the place of blacks, and I read some of those things and, yeah, they make your skin crawl. But you have to say, it was written in that time.

Mr. GATES: Mm-hmm.

LINDIS: And I think Harriet Beecher Stowe must have been an amazing woman to write this when, you know, when slavery was an accepted part of life.

Mr. GATES: Well, and it didn't bother contemporary black readers.


Mr. GATES: That's what the most curious thing of all. Don't you agree, Hollis?

Ms. ROBINS: Oh, absolutely.


Ms. ROBINS: And the illustrators of the era, the early illustrators show - depict Uncle Tom exactly as you described him...


Ms. ROBINS: ...strong, brawny, barrel-chested...


Ms. ROBINS: ...the kind of man that is a manly, manly man.


CONAN: And yet we have this image of this doddering old, white-haired bald guy.

LINDIS: Exactly.

Ms. ROBINS: Exactly. That was the later illustrators, especially in the scenes with Little Eva, sitting on her lap - on his lap.


Mr. GATES: Right.

Ms. ROBINS: Suddenly he became bespectacled, he had - he became bent over, gray hair, balding, because the idea of this brawny, strapping black man with a small young blond sitting on his lap just wasn't going to do during Reconstruction.


Mr. GATES: Yeah.

CONAN: Lindis, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

LINDIS: You're welcome.

Mr. GATES: And ironically, Neal, those images, those transformations occurred precise - at the end of Reconstruction and in a period called Redemption. And then when Jim Crow is instituted legally in the 1890s...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GATES: ...there's a proliferation, literally, of tens of thousands of what we call Sambo art, derogatory images of black people, black people stealing chickens and watermelons, with big, thick lips and mispronouncing the King's English, almost to put the genie back in the box, because black people had never enjoyed as much power in this country as they did between 1866 and 1876, Radical Reconstruction. So there was a massive attempt to redefine the public image of the African-American, and Uncle Tom took it on the chin, along with every other image of a black person, because of that.

CONAN: Well, representations in the novel have pervaded American culture since its publication. This is a recording of a man named Len Spencer reading the flogging scene from "Uncle Tom's Cabin" back in 1904.

Mr. GATES: Wow.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. LEN SPENCER: (As Simon Legree) Now, Tom, I mean to promote ya. I'm gonna make a slave driver of ya. Here, take this contrary girl, Evaline, who don't want to be a lady, and flog her, you hear. Flog her.

I hope master won't send me back. I ain't (unintelligible)

What? You can't? Well, you will before I have done with ya.

CONAN: Clearly did not spend a lot of money in the special effects department.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GATES: But that's great.

CONAN: Yeah, but that's sort of the audio equivalent, isn't it, do you think, Hollis Robins, of those picaninny figures?

Ms. ROBINS: Oh, absolutely. That's actually...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROBINS: I hadn't heard that. That's wonderful. But she had a - she was not only made fun or had caricatures of black and white, but of rich and poor. And rereading it again over the weekend, I was realizing just in the first page that she has a hand fetish. In whatever the class of person - white, black, rich, poor - anybody who's poor has big, ugly, thick, coarse hands...

Mr. GATES: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ROBINS: ...and she describes Simon Legree's hands, especially in some of the whipping scenes, as just a big ham-fisted - he loves just hitting slaves with his big hands.

CONAN: I was amazed in, Henry Louis Gates, of course reading the annotated version - I was forced to read the book for the first time...

Mr. GATES: Good.

CONAN: ...Simon Legree doesn't show up until almost the end.

Mr. GATES: I know, but he's so memorably bad and evil that that's the character who looms large. But he is - but weren't you surprised at how Cassie tricks him...


Mr. GATES: going up into the attic and pretending to be ghosts, that big bad Simon Legree could be faked out by these two black women hiding up in the attic just above his head?

CONAN: And that basically - not that that would happen - but that it would happen in a novel published then, yes, of course.

Mr. GATES: Yeah, absolutely.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. GATES: And - but we need to go back to why this transformation happened. Why could Uncle Tom become this term of abuse? And you know what happened, Neal?


Mr. GATES: Something called the Great Migration. In 19...

CONAN: After the Second World War.

Mr. GATES: That's right. Well, it was really starting about 1910. But in 1910 there were about 480,000 black people living in the North. By 1920, there were almost 700,000. And by 1930, there were 1.1 million black people living in the North. What happened was, black people - rural Southern people became an urban Northern people. And this created one of the biggest clashes of - within the race of class. The old established black people in the North looked at these rural, basically illiterate pre-Industrial migrants coming up from the South and they were horrified of them. I mean, they wanted to draw a distinction between them and us, as it were. And that is precisely when the term became one of abuse. They started referring to these migrants as Aunt Janes and Uncle Toms. And you know, they hadn't had a lot of direct contact with white people. They didn't look white people in the eye, and so they became a metaphor of a passive kind of black person.

And in 1919 - the year that Garvey annunciates his theory of the Uncle Tom - that's the summer of - it's called the Red Summer, summer of race riots, because of the soldiers - black soldiers coming back from Europe and World War I demanded equal rights.

All these factors blended together to create this phenomenon and poor Uncle Tom was a person, or the character, who suffered because of it.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Jane. Jane with us from Charlottesville in Virginia.

JANE (Caller): Yes. Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JANE: I was just going to suggest a contrarian point of view why the term Uncle Tom might in fact really be accurately considered derogatory by black civil rights leaders. And that is that at that time the notion of, you know, the super-black - really the kind of black individual who was, you know, perfect in the eyes of - perfect and therefore acceptable in the eyes of whites really became something that was, you know, racist in its own way.

Mr. GATES: You mean like Sydney Poitier in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"

JANE: Yeah. I can barely hear you, but yes, exactly right. And you know, that that was the only way that whites found, you know, black men to be palatable is if they were, you know, somehow superior super-beings. And that's sort of the interpretation as a white person that, you know, I always considered Uncle Tom to reflect.

Mr. GATES: Well, it's interesting that - that's called - in literature that's called the noble savage convention, or the noble Negro convention. And George Harris - remember George Harris in the novel - he's very, very noble. I mean, George Harris is a black man - he's a mulatto - but he fights back. He fights the white man.

I mean, when he's being pursued by the slave catchers he shoots. He defends himself. And then finally - and this was the part of the book, the only part of the book that disturbed Frederick Douglass - he repatriates to Liberia. He becomes a columnist. You know, he leaves the country. And Mrs. Stowe apologized for that later and said that if she wrote the book again she would leave that part of the book out.

CONAN: Marcus Garvey must have liked that part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GATES: Marcus Garvey loved that part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Jane.

JANE: Sure.

CONAN: We're talking with the co-editors of a new annotated edition of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." They are Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Hollis Robins. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's talk with Phil. Phil on the line with us from Honolulu.

PHIL (Caller): Yes. Good morning, gentlemen.

CONAN: Good morning where you are. Good afternoon where we are.

Mr. GATES: Yeah. I wish I were in Honolulu, Phil.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GATES: Not in 21 degree Boston.

PHIL: First of all, I really honor and so pleased to hear this discussion and I really appreciate it.

Mr. GATES: Well, thank you.

Ms. ROBINS: Thank you.

PHIL: When I was coming into my young manhood, back in the late '60s, there were two books that I read. One was "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the other one was "Nigger" by Dick Gregory.

Mr. GATES: Oh, I loved "Nigger by Dick Gregory. I wrote about it in my memoir "Colored People."

PHIL: Oh, well, when I read that - I think I was 17 years old, maybe - it just turned my head around.

Mr. GATES: Yeah, me too. I did a report on it in my class at school and the teacher wouldn't say the name out loud. It was a battle of wills between us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PHIL: I appreciate that.

CONAN: She said thank you for your report on mmmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PHIL: I gave the book to my son and I said, here, take this book, read it. Don't leave it laying around, because someone will see the title and make all kinds of assumptions about the book and about you.

Mr. GATES: Mm-hmm.

PHIL: And I think in a similar way that has happened with "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Because I think that over the years - and I'm a middle aged black man - I have heard Uncle Tom, Uncle Tom, Uncle Tom, but the Uncle Tom that people were talking about was not the Uncle Tom that I read in the book.

Mr. GATES: Mm-hmm. That's right.

PHIL: And much of what I think has happened - and I'm not a literary scholar by any means - but what I think has happened is that there have been so many generations of folk who have heard that phrase Uncle Tom in such a disparaging way that people just make the assumption that that's what Uncle Tom was.

Mr. GATES: Absolutely. I'm sure Malcolm X never read this book. If he had read the book...

PHIL: That was my thought, yes.

Mr. GATES: Yeah. He'd never read the book. Nobody's read it. Black people stopped reading this book. That's why Hollis and I have edited this and we hope to revitalize it just in the black community. What we need is a good, honest movie about "Uncle Tom's Cabin" with a very compelling protagonist. And I hope that will happen soon, a Hollywood movie.


PHIL: That would be exciting.

Mr. GATES: Yeah.

Ms. ROBINS: Well, there've been a few versions. One with, I guess, Phylicia Rashad, and one with Eartha Kitt. But they haven't been quite dramatic enough.

Mr. GATES: No. Neal, who would you cast as Uncle Tom? See, I want to ask you a question.

CONAN: As Uncle Tom? Well, Denzel Washington is not big enough.

Mr. GATES: Well, or how about - was Jamie Foxx big enough? I've never seen Jamie in person.

CONAN: Well, Jamie played a bunch of athletes. You'd have to think he'd be big enough.

Mr. GATES: Yeah. Or - and Will Smith played Muhammad Ali.

CONAN: And Will Smith played Muhammad Ali, yeah.

Mr. GATES: You'd probably have to give him...

PHIL: What about James Earl Jones?

CONAN: I think he's too old at this point.

Mr. GATES: Too old.

PHIL: Yeah. That's - yeah.

Mr. GATES: Remember, Uncle Tom's got three little kids.

PHIL: That's right.

Mr. GATES: That's what we write about in the introduction, Neal, the fact that he's desexualized. And even for James Baldwin, when he wrote his famous essay - the 1951 essay - he didn't realize how sexually powerful Uncle Tom is in the novel.

Ms. ROBINS: Though Stowe works very, very hard to make sure we don't see it, I think it keeps - it keeps emerging, the sexuality keeps emerging. Not just with Uncle Tom, but all the different marriages, all the women who are always attractive, who are attracted to their husbands, who have white men ogling at them. It's a very, very sexual book.

CONAN: Phil, we have to let you go. Thanks very much for the call.

PHIL: Well, thank you again for the discussion.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

Mr. GATES: Thank you.

CONAN: And Henry Louis Gates, we know you have to leave as well. Probably something unimportant like a class or something you've go to teach.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GATES: Not on a holiday. Unfortunately, it's a memorial service for my dear friend Lisa - a film about my dear friend Lisa Goldberg, the head of the Revson Foundation, who recently departed. So I'm sorry I have to go.

CONAN: All right. We thank you for your time. Hollis Robins, though, is going to stay with us to take a couple more of your calls on "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

When we come back from a break, we're also going to be talking about a new film called "Hurricane on the Bayou," made in IMAX during the hurricane. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Right now we're talking with Hollis Robins, co-editor of "The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin," a member of the faculty at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins. And if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. And e-mail is

Let's get another caller on the line. And this is Merle. Merle with us from Galloway in New Jersey.

MERLE (Caller): Yes. I'd like to - I'm sort of glad that Professor Gates left, because I want to take this is a little less intellectual direction, and that was how I was affected by the portrayal of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in the show "The King and I," which really spoke to the dignity of man as a whole.

CONAN: "The Small House of Uncle Thomas."


Ms. ROBINS: What affected you about that or was...

MERLE: I thought it was a wonderful parallel. It was a way of bringing home exactly what, you know, Rogers and Hammerstein had in all of their plays, if you look at a subtext, of the dignity of mankind.

CONAN: And it's interesting that in the introduction to the book, Hollis Robins, it's written that though the facts as presented in the little house of Uncle Thomas in the movie are all wrong, that somehow they manage to get the metaphor right.

Ms. ROBINS: They get it exactly right, that it's about whatever you need to do to leave. Whatever you need to do to be free, whatever you need to do to escape from the shackles that are both emotional and physical shackles there. Which is, I think, the better parallel for "Anna and the King of Siam" as well, especially given - well, given the strange domestic makeup of the palace there, with all of those various children and not a sort of monogamous family structure. Which was sort of Stowe's critique of slavery, was that there was no nuclear family or nuclear family kept getting...

CONAN: Shattered, yeah.

Ms. ROBINS: ...exploded. Yes.

MERLE: Yes. Thank you very much. I'm really - as an elementary school teacher, I'm really enjoying this discussion.

Ms. ROBINS: Thank you.

CONAN: Ok, Merle. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

Ms. ROBINS: May I ask you a question, Neal?

CONAN: Sure, go ahead.

Ms. ROBINS: You had never read it before, this book?

CONAN: I had never read it before being asked to - being assigned to do this interview, yes.

Ms. ROBINS: Why do you think that is?

CONAN: I think because it fell so far out of favor in the 1950s, when I grew up and was going to grammar school. By the end of the 1950s, the book was completely out of favor and I never saw a reason to read it - I'm embarrassed to say. And now that I've read it, I've had to, of course, revise all of my thinking about what the fundamental nature of the book was; indeed, what the fundamental character of Uncle Tom was.

But let me - in the course of answering your question - ask you one. And that is, does anybody read "Uncle Tom's Cabin" today?

Ms. ROBINS: Well, absolutely not. I mean, that's - I came to it in graduate school at Princeton, was assigned it in a 19th century literature class. And like the previous caller said, it's a book that you don't want to leave lying around. It's a book you have to explain. You know, why are you reading that?


Ms. ROBINS: And it was very surprising, in The New Yorker, John Updike confessed that he had never read it. Nobody seems to have read it. I mean, I was surprised the first time I read it. I thought, well, hey, this isn't half bad. It's actually quite good.

CONAN: It gets a little turgid in spots.

Ms. ROBINS: It's a little turgid. Was there any spot that particularly surprised you or...

CONAN: It was - seemingly there's the vivid villain, as Professor Gates pointed out, Simon Legree. And why anybody would keep him in their pocket for so long offended me dramatically. I mean, you want to wheel him out a little bit earlier; things might have gotten a little more exiting.

Ms. ROBINS: Well, and it's very interesting how she keeps the sex at bay, and I think in very interesting ways, with Legree. I mean, clearly he wants Emmeline when he buys Emmeline, for what he has had Cassie for. For a mistress. But every time he's about to get close to her and you get this specter of some pretty dramatic sexual violence, she gets him drunk or she gets him sort of concerned about superstition. And his evil is - even though of course at the end he flogs Tom to death...


Ms. ROBINS: ...his evil is very latent, very looming, and very frightening. He doesn't - he doesn't explode.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one last caller in on the conversation. Let's ask Theresa to join us, Theresa calling us from San Jose in California.

THERESA (Caller): Yeah. Hello?


Ms. ROBINS: Hello.

THERESA: Hi. I'm reminded in your discussion - first of all, let me tell you how much I appreciate seeing great works of literature reexamined. But I was reminded as you were talking - or I saw a parallel to the character of Jim in "Huckleberry Finn."

Ms. ROBINS: Yes.

THERESA: Who's often been characterized and caricatured as sort of the ignorant, superstitious black man, and sadly I think Toni Morrison has even written, you know, a tract about how that book should be struck off the canon.

But in fact if you actually, you know, read the book, Jim is the one and perhaps the most moral character in the book. He is a father figure to Huck. He teaches Huck ethics and morality. And yet he has been - he's really known, I think, in the same way that you're discussing Uncle Tom, in a much different light. And I was wondering if you had any feelings about that character.

CONAN: I think a lot more people read "Huckleberry Finn." But go ahead, Hollis Robins.

Ms. ROBINS: Well, I think that's an excellent parallel. And I think one of the things that Stowe was trying to do - and I'm not sure about Twain. But Twain's dislike of religious doctrine, of this doctrinaire idea that you had to believe to a certain sect, you had to be baptized, you had to have agreed to this or that doctrine in order to go to heaven - that Stowe embraced the idea of natural goodness and a natural Christianity.

And in this way she was - she was sort of thumbing her nose at her father, her doctrinaire father, that Uncle Tom is unschooled, like Jim, and yet utterly humane and utterly good. But at the same time I would agree with you that that sort of utter goodness Christianity, Christ-like figure, sits very uneasily with the superstition.

THERESA: That's definitely true. But Jim is the only person who actually teaches Huck to be unselfish and tells him when Huck famously plays the trick on him that he's dead. And he says - he says to Huck, that there is trash to treat your friends that way.

And the fact that Twain puts this black runaway slave in the place of Huck's father is quite amazing to me, always has been. And I hate to see the book trashed.

Ms. ROBINS: Now when did you first read "Uncle Tom's Cabin"?

THERESA: I read "Uncle Tom's Cabin" years and years ago when I was in junior high, I think. I would certainly agree with your characterization of it. I don't find it a particularly great book, not in terms of - you know, not artistically.

But certainly the fact that it's probably the first book to see African-American characters as fully realized human beings with their own lives and their own families, it's a real, you know, turning point in literature.

And I think it's terrific that you're reexamining it and bringing it back into the public consciousness.

CONAN: Theresa, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

THERESA: Uh-huh. Bye bye.

CONAN: And Hollis Robins, thank you so much for your time today.

Ms. ROBINS: You're more than welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: Hollis Robins, co-editor of the annotated "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and a member of the faculty at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins.

When we come back, "Hurricane on the Bayou."

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