Tom Foolery

There are neither Confederate monuments to be torn down in Japan nor Battle Flags to be lowered . . . but if there were, there could well be some Japanese who might wish to protest such symbols. While my wife Rieko would certainly not be among them, when she was attending high school one of her standard 1953 English text books contained an excerpt from Chapter Seven, “The Mother’s Struggle,” in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Life Among the Lowly.” Since, in Japan, any alternate view of life in the South has been confined almost exclusively to the translations of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel “Gone With the Wind” and the film version of her book three years later, Stowe’s distorted picture of the ante-bellum South undoubtedly made a lasting impact on the minds of many young Japanese. Given that the events leading up to the South’s secession and the ensuing War Between the States had received virtually no press coverage in Japan at the time, Stowe’s 1852 work of abolitionist propaganda has had an unusually long history in the country.

Less than a decade after Stowe’s book had been published and America’s Commodore Matthew Perry had rudely aroused Japan from its two hundred fifty years of hibernation, the first Japanese emissaries embarked for the United States to officially meet with the leading government figures in Washington, including President James Buchanan and soon-to-be President Jefferson Davis. Even though their 1860 visit to America took place only six months prior to South Carolina’s secession, and they could certainly see that ominous clouds of war were gathering just south of the Federal Capital, no mention was made of such events in any of the journals or reports later compiled by the Japanese officials. Moreover, except for some consternation about the steep decline in the price of silk caused by the events taking place in America, there was little or no coverage of either the War or its aftermath. Even so, not only had Stowe’s book somehow made its way to Japan soon after the Reconstruction period, but one of Tokyo’s leading newspapers at that time, the “Kokumin Shimbun” (The People’s Newspaper), translated and published the novel in serial form from 1887 to 1888 under the title “Tomu no Bouoku” (Tom’s Hut). This was also the manner in which the original version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” had first been published in America in 1851, as a forty-part series in the “National Era,” an abolitionist weekly newspaper in Washington, D. C. Due to the popularity of Stowe’s initial serial, she expanded her work and a year later it appeared as an illustrated two-volume book. Likewise in Japan, excerpts from the translation were also published in book form under the same Japanese title in 1907, mainly to be employed as a primer for school use. Then, in 1923, a completely new translation was prepared by Michio Nagashiro in Hiroshima, a woman well known for her previous translations of Western classics, from Shakespeare and Tolstoy to the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson, and published under the title “Dorei Tomu” (Slave Tom). Since 1923, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” has been reprinted or retranslated twenty-one times in Japan, the latest being in 1993 under a more literal version of the original title, “Uncle Tomu no Koya.”

Within five years of the book’s publication in America, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” had already been translated into twenty different languages, as well as an English version printed in London the same year as in America that quickly sold over two hundred thousand copies. The British reprint, however, was not primarily a polemic against slavery in the South, but rather a jab at America in general. This could clearly be seen in a statement by a prominent advisor to the British government, Nassau William Senior, who wrote, “The evil passions which Uncle Tom gratified in England were not hatred or vengeance of slavery, but national jealousy and national vanity. We have long been smarting under the conceit of America . . . we are tired of hearing her boast that she is the freest and the most enlightened country that the world has ever seen. Our clergy hate her voluntary system . . . our Tories hate her democrats . . . our Whigs hate her parvenus . . . our Radicals hate her litigiousness, her insolence, and her ambition.” In 1901, there was a similar instance in China when Lin Shu, an author who had translated much Western literature into Chinese, presented his version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which he entitled “A Record of the Black Slaves’ Plea to Heaven,” As in England, Lin Shu’s translation was not conceived as an attack against slavery in the South, but rather as a sequel to the Chinese novel “Bitter Society” in an effort to draw a parallel between the treatment of all Black slaves in America and the racial persecution of Chinese laborers in the American West and the abusive conditions under which they were forced to work.

Perhaps one of the most famous quotes relating to the War Between the States has been attributed to President Lincoln during his apocryphal meeting with Harriet Beecher Stowe at the White House in November or December of 1862. When greeting her, Lincoln was supposed to have said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” This remark did not actually appear in print until 1896, the year Stowe died, and as neither Stowe nor any writer during her lifetime made any reference to either the visit or the remark, it can be assumed that the events were nothing more than literary myths . . . much like her depiction of life in the ante-bellum South. It cannot be denied though that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” as well as Stowe’s later anti-slavery novel, “Dred – A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp,” had a tremendous impact on public sentiment in both the North and throughout the world. Unfortunately, however, two aspects which attempted to reveal the reverse side of slavery’s image are seldom referred to today, even though much material had been written on both subjects . . . the two being the numerous contemporary literary responses to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and a more critical look at Stowe’s credentials as a chronicler of life in the Nineteenth Century South.

In 1852 alone, the year “Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in book form, at least eight novels which painted an alternate and far different picture of life in the South were published with several, such as “Aunt Phillis’s [sic] Cabin – Southern Life As It Is” by Mary Henderson Eastman of Virginia, selling tens of thousands of copies throughout the country. In the next few years, over twenty more such books became popular, with the two that are considered to be the most important being “The Sword and the Distaff” by the eminent South Carolina novelist and historian William Gilmore Simms in 1853 and “The Planter’s Northern Bride” by Caroline Lee Hentz of Massachusetts a year later. All three books were published in Philadelphia, were reprinted a number of times and were widely read in both the North and the South. It should also be noted that with few exceptions, all of these books were published in the North, with many being written by Northern authors. After the War, such literature began to fade from public view and are today not only generally ignored, but branded as nothing more than revisionist, pro-Confederate works by Southern racists.

The second aspect that should be considered is Harriet Beecher Stowe herself. She was born in Connecticut in 1811 and as a child was undoubtedly influenced by the abolitionist preachings of her minister father, Lyman Beecher, who was also extremely anti-Catholic and a leading temperance advocate, as well as the opinions of her brother Henry who later became one of America’s major abolitionist leaders. It was, however, not until 1832, when her father became the president of the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati and moved the family to Ohio, that Stowe’s anti-slavery feelings were said to have truly developed. She also became a teacher at the school and later married one of its professors, Calvin Elias Stowe, a widower from Massachusetts who, like Lincoln, was a supporter of the movement to obtain freedom for the slaves in America and colonize them in Africa. The couple also became close friends with several leading abolitionists in the area including John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister in Ripley whose home was an important “station” along the runaway slave conduit, the Underground Railroad. It was also in Cincinnati that the twenty-two year old Stowe had her first and only glimpse of actual life in the South. This was during her sixty-mile journey to Washington, Kentucky, to pay a short visit to one of her students, Elizabeth Marshall Key whose father was a nephew of Chief Justice John Marshall of the Supreme Court and their home now the Harriet Beecher Stowe Slavery to Freedom Museum.

Stowe later claimed that while in Washington, Miss Key took her to see a slave auction in the town . . . an event she said made a lasting impression on her life and provided the inspiration for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” two decades later. Such auctions, however, were certainly not unique to the South, as numerous others like it had taken place throughout the North until the latter part of the Eighteenth Century . . . and Northern slavery even longer. Furthermore, the institution of slavery did not come initially to the American South, but to the Massachusetts Colony less than a decade after the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620 and did not end there until 1783. In Stowe’s home State of Connecticut, while slavery was officially banned a year after Massachusetts took such action there were still slaves in that State as late as 1842 . . . three decades after Stowe was born. In fact, while the entire Northeast officially ended slavery prior to or just after 1800, slavery continued in a majority of those States well into the Nineteenth Century, with the last being New Jersey where it did not end until after the War Between the States. In Ohio, it was a decade after Stowe’s arrival there in 1832 that the State passed a law which called for any slave entering Ohio to be considered a free person. Prior to that, particularly in Cincinnati, the sight of slaves still in bondage or those being sought by slave hunters was practically an every day occurrence.

In 1850, Calvin Stowe accepted a professorship at his his alma mater, Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and it was there that his wife obtained her true inspiration for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The previous year, a congressman from Massachusetts who had once been the mayor of Boston, Samuel Eliot, published a book under the ponderous title, “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself.” While Henson was illiterate, and the book was based entirely on interviews with Eliot, the work is classified as an autobiography. The book received little public attention and sold only six thousand copies during the next few years, with one of them being read by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The titular character in Stowe’s book, as well as her description a slave’s life in the South, were based almost entirely on Henson’s narrative, a fact Stowe later admitted. After this became known following the publication of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the Henson book was reprinted in both Canada and Great Britain and sold over a hundred thousand copies. It was also used as an exhibit in the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Museum in Dresden, Ontario.

Despite the fact that ex post facto laws are expressly forbidden in the U. S. Constitution, the South now stands in the docket of the court of political correctness, indicted on such biased evidence as that provided by “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and put on trial for events that were neither criminal in their day nor even considered to be cause for public condemnation. Nineteenth Century slavery is also now being unfairly regarded as exclusively a Southern evil, despite the fact that the institution had existed in all of America for over two centuries, as well as throughout the world since the beginning of recorded history. It is also being charged that Southern hands alone wielded the whips on slavery’s back, even though corporal punishment was also a common practice for Northern slaves who broke the rules. Some would even have us believe that flogging itself was a practice unique to slavery or the Ku Klux Klan when in fact, it was carried out in the U. S. military until after the War Between the States and far longer in American schools and, of course, the home. Furthermore, corporal punishment for such crimes as wife-beating had been advocated by many American presidents, including Lincoln, and has never been ruled unconstitutional as either cruel or unusual. Such punishment also remained a part of the county’s criminal justice system until well into the Twentieth Century, with the last legal flogging taking place in 1952 when a Delaware man who had been convicted of beating his wife received twenty lashes.

Also overlooked in all the charges against the South is the argument that while its slavery is now considered to be not only an unforgivable moral evil, but also a heinous criminal offense for which some form of punishment must continue to be meted out, this certainly was not always the case. During the first half of the Nineteenth Century, there were, of course, some in both the North and the South who deemed slavery to be morally wrong, but the majority regarded the still legal practice to be entirely normal and an acceptable form of labor. Moreover, few if any comparisons are now made with the “free” men, women and small children in the North who were once forced to work long hours for little pay under unsafe, unhealthy and even inhumane conditions. It should be noted as well that these so-called “free” workers, unlike Southern slaves, were not provided with food, clothing, shelter or medical attention by their employers . . . and could be deprived of their employment at any time. These are some of the arguments that were also presented in the many scholarly works written to refute Stowe’s propaganda, and could be used today in the South’s defense. Sadly, such evidence is now suppressed, ignored or is completely unknown by the current panel of self-appointed judges and jurors.

About John Marquardt

John Marquardt is a native of Connecticut but a Southerner at heart. After attending the University of Georgia, Marquardt realized the truth and the value of the Southern tradition. He served in World War II and spent his career in international trade. He currently resides in Tokyo, Japan. His Japanese wife loves Charleston and Savannah and admires Southern culture. More from John Marquardt

You might also enjoy these articles...