Lesson 7: Stowe's Reviewers

This lesson asks students to read, evaluate, and respond to the earliest reviews of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Included are both positive and negative reactions to the novel, and most reviewers had mixed feelings. However, all clearly agree on one point: Stowe's novel had hit a national nerve. Writing in the 1850s, just a few years before the Civil War, these reactions to Uncle Tom's Cabin do far more than evaluate the novel's literary merits -- much more prevalent are expressions of the anxiety these authors feel about women's roles, race, and an increasingly shaky national unity.

For this activity, students will use a questionnaire to evaluate excerpts from the "American Reviews" on the Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture site. After sharing their findings, students will write their own reviews of Uncle Tom's Cabin, incorporating or refuting the arguments of the 19th century reviews.

Section of Novel
While this lesson is not dependent on students' having read specific chapters of Stowe's novel, students will be able to best evaluate the arguments of Stowe' reviewers if they have read at least several chapters. See the Progression of Selected Chapters for suggestions about excerpting the novel.

Length of Lesson : 1-2 days

Materials Needed
  • Lesson 7 Questionnaire
  • Excerpts from American Reviews
    Review 1: from Frederick Douglass' Paper (Rochester)
    Review 2: from the Southern Literary Messenger: Thompson review (Richmond)
    Review 3: from the North American Review (Boston)
    Review 4: from the Western Journal and Civilian Review (St. Louis)
    Review 5: from Putnam's Monthly (New York)
    Review 6: from the Southern Literary Messenger: Holmes review (Richmond)
    Review 7: from the Boston Morning Post (Boston)
    Review 8: from Graham's Magazine (Philadelphia)
  • Worksheet: Building Your Review

    Skills Focus -- based on Virginia's Standards of Learning (SOLs)
    History and Social Science:
    VUS.6 The student will demonstrate knowledge of the major events during the first half of the nineteenth century by
    c) describing the cultural, economic, and political issues that divided the nation, including slavery, the abolitionist and women's suffrage movements, and the role of the states in the Union.
    11th Grade English
    11.3 The Student will read and analyze relationships among American literature, history, and culture.
    * Describe how use of context and language structures conveys an author's point of view in contemporary and historical essays, speeches, and critical reviews. 11.7 The student will write in a variety of forms with an emphasis on persuasion.

  • The Lesson

    1. Have the following 2 questions written on the board as students enter class: "What did the book reviewers have to say about Stowe's novel when it was first published? How might a Boston review differ from a Richmond review?"

    2. As a class, spend about 5 minutes discussing students' expectations of what these reviews might contain. Create a class list of arguments reviewers might make in favor of the novel, and arguments they might make against it. (This activity should help build enthusiasm for the reviews that the students will read next, and it can be revisited at the end of the lesson to compare students' findings to their initial hypotheses.)

    3. Divide the class into small groups of 2-3 students. Distribute 2 reviews along with the Lesson 7 Questionnaire to each group (or have students print them directly from the student site). Because the language of these 19th-century reviewers may be challenging to some students, encourage students to read and discuss the reviews together in order to determine the authors' arguments. Depending on the time allotted and the reading level of the class, teachers may decide to give each group only one review or to read the reviews as a class, having each student fill out a questionnaire as the class discusses the review together.

    4. After students have read their reviews and completed the Lesson 7 Questionnaire, discuss their findings as a class (or have two groups meet together to compare their findings). Revisit the students' expectations from the beginning of the lesson to discuss whether or not these expectations were confirmed. To extend the discussion, consider asking such questions as:

      • The newspaper editors and contributors who reviewed Uncle Tom's Cabin made up only a tiny percentage of the millions of people around the world who were reading the novel. In what ways were these reviewers representative of all of Stowe's readers, and in what ways were they not representative?

      • In what ways can you tell that these authors had read other reviews of Stowe's novel? Can you find places where one author supports or refutes the arguments of another?

      • How did the author's assumptions and beliefs about society (in terms of race, gender, religion, social class, government, etc.) influence the way they interpreted Stowe's novel?

      Teachers might also ask students to compose their own interpretive questions about the reviews and their relationship to the novel. See Unit1: Lesson 2 for activities that help students ask interpretive questions.

    5. Distribute the Building Your Review worksheet (or have students print it from the student site). This worksheet assists students in responding to the reviewers' arguments in order to construct their own reviews of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Teachers may want to assign this worksheet as homework, or the review could be a final project.