LIVE from the NYPL: Uncle Tom's Cabin Reconsidered: A Conversation with Henry Louis Gates & Margo Jefferson

November 29, 2006

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Once declared worthless and dehumanizing by the novelist and critic James Baldwin, Uncle Tom's Cabin has lacked literary credibility for over fifty years. Now, in a refutation of Baldwin, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and his co-author, Hollis Robbins, demonstrate the literary transcendence of Harriet Beecher Stowe's masterpiece.

As the annotators show, there has never been a single work of fiction that had a greater effect on the course of American history than Uncle Tom's Cabin. The 1852 epic reified the barbaric cruelties of slavery like no other previous work, transforming it for many Northerners from an abstraction into a hated reality and a blight on the nation. It was in no small part due to Stowe's writing that the debate over slavery became so fevered by the middle of the 1850s.

Despite its historic significance, the novel, which had once influenced writers like Balzac, Zola, and Dickens, gradually lost currency as a masterpiece. No longer seen as the powerful symbol of forbearance, the character Tom became conflated with pejorative symbols, and the book helped define America's attitudes towards race, gender, and even sexuality in the twentieth century.

Now, over fifty years after Baldwin's essay, in a ringing refutation of Baldwin, Henry Louis Gates Jr. demonstrates the literary transcendence of Harriet Beecher Stowe's masterpiece and reinvigorates this classic American story, allowing the modern reader to re-experience Stowe's great American saga from a wholly unique perspective.

This event is co-presented by The Studio Museum in Harlem. 





photo of Thelma Golden by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders 

About Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is most recognized for his extensive research of African American history and literature, and as W.E.B. Dubois Professor of the Humanities, for developing and expanding the African American Studies program at Harvard University. He has discovered and restored thousands of works by African American writers, most notably Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig (1859), which is widely believed to be the first novel by a black American. He outlined his theory of signifyin' in Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self and The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. He edited The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, and co-edited The Civitas Anthonology of African American Slave Narratives and Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience.


About Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson was a staff critic for The New York Times from 1993 to 2006. She wrote about books, theater and eventually became a Critic-at-large. She has written and performed in two theater pieces. In 1995 she received a Pulitzer Prize, and her essays for Grand Street and The Nation have received awards from The Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines and The American Library Association. Her book, On Michael Jackson, was published by Pantheon in 2006. She teaches at Columbia University and at Eugene Lang College, The New School University.



About Thelma Golden

Thelma Golden is Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem. She joined the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1988 as a curator organizing many notable exhibitions, including Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art. At the Studio Museum, Ms. Golden has organized a number of groundbreaking exhibitions, including Chris Ofili: Afro Muses 1995-2005; Freestyle; Material and Matter; Glenn Ligon: Stranger; Martin Puryear: The Cane Project; and Isaac Julien: Vagabondia.