It is disconcerting to realize that one of the greatest villains in American literature is a son of the Green Mountains.
Although not appearing until the latter part of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s vivid characterization depicts a man whose coarseness, greed and sadism so epitomized a racist stereotype that his name became an archetype for violent brutality.
Vermont-born Simon Legree was created by Harriet Beecher Stowe for her novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as a boldly drawn critique of the American slaveholder. Legree’s elemental embrace of chattel slavery represented a crude and exploitative capitalism: the original and greatest sin of colonial America and later the United States.
Stowe’s novel employs several other characters that became stereotypes in the pantheon of American history, not the least of which is Uncle Tom, a creation as reviled today as he was esteemed by 19th-century abolitionists.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published in 1852 to great acclaim and financial success. In April, the Burlington Courier noted, “The publishers have printed 40,000 copies and although they have 3 paper mills making paper and 3 Adams’ Power Presses running 24 hours in the day, (Sundays excepted) and 100 binders plying their art, they are still some thousands of copies behind their orders. Wonder if this book is popular with anybody except ‘our sort of folks.’”
By “our sort of folks,” it seems likely that the writer meant northern abolitionists. Historian James Kirby Martin observed in 1993 that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “sold more copies than any previous work of fiction. 5,000 copies in two days, 50,000 copies in two weeks; 300,000 copies in a year; a million copies in 16 months. It was translated into 37 languages and inspired at least 20 songs, two card games, countless plays and stage shows, a comic opera, and more than 30 ‘anti-Tom’ replies (with titles like Uncle Robin in His Cabin in Virginia and Tom Without One in Boston). Yet Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ the most famous novel in American history, was out of print in the United States during much of the twentieth century.”
With its extraordinary success there was constant discussion and debate regarding Stowe’s novel. As might be expected, it was regarded as a touchstone for the abolitionist movement and even, to a degree, credited with fomenting the Civil War. A well-known but apocryphal story has Abraham Lincoln meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe for the first time on Thanksgiving Day in 1862, and in his greeting famously stated, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.”
In Vermont, there was little dissent from the notion that the novel depicted an accurate portrayal of the horrors of slavery. In the Vermont Christian Messenger for June 8, 1853, a polemicist from Northfield who signed the piece “L.D.C.” opined, “The conduct of the slaves while in bondage, is here truly depicted — their mock cheerfulness while in the presence of their masters and overseers — but their real degradation and wretchedness while in their lonely cabins, or in groups by themselves, talking of their treatment and sufferings, and planning means to escape.”
Stowe presents Simon Legree as a morally debilitated Yankee, who leaves refinement and domesticity behind him, at first seeking a living as a merchant seaman.
In Joseph Conforti’s “Imagining New England” (2001), he describes the author’s depiction of the villain: “Stowe’s demonic slave master conveys her anxieties for the male, market-driven Yankee character unleavened by Republic domesticity. Legree’s brutal behavior is a corruption of his Yankeeness. Legree is a rootless, unattached, mobile Vermonter. Legree’s mother had trained her only son “with long, unwearied love and patient prayers. But Legree despised her counsel and left home to seek his fortunes.” His Yankee journey in pursuit of worldly reward carries him to the south where his sharper’s values are unchecked.”
As contrary to the culture of the Green Mountain State as one might imagine, the character of the violent slave-master evolved into an archetype of evil for Americans made heartsick by the notion of slavery.
What may have been more arresting to the pre-Civil War reader from the Green Mountain State is how frequently Vermont is evoked in a way to understand the northern attitudes toward the free and the enslaved black man.
Stowe uses Vermonters as a means to compare white attitudes toward slavery, as well as slaves. The characterizations run the gamut from the lascivious evil of Simon Legree to the indifference of Ophelia St. Clare, a Vermont spinster whose abhorrence of the enslaved victims is equal to her hatred of the slave-owner.
By novel’s end, however, St. Clare is transformed by the purity of the Green Mountain State as she returns to Vermont with her Topsy, who is also changed by the Vermont experience.
A 1977 essay by George Bryan in Vermont History explores the reason why Stowe would attribute such therapeutic power to those damaged by the cruelty of the south’s peculiarly vile institution.
Stowe, it seems had availed herself of the famous mineral springs in Brattleboro in 1846. After 10 years of childbearing and housekeeping, “in 1846 she became mentally and physically unable to cope with her domestic situation, Mrs. Stowe sought the restorative waters of Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft’s spa in Brattleboro. She underwent the hydrotherapy regimen for eleven months, including cold-water baths, cleanses, and she reportedly drank 30 glasses of water a day.”
But she also found time for more traditional Vermont experiences.
“I wish you could be with me in Brattleboro and coast downhill on a sled, go sliding and snowballing by moonlight,” she wrote to her husband. Believing herself cured, she returned to her family in Cincinnati only to relapse. Her husband brought her back to Brattleboro, and they lived at the spa for 15 months.
Stowe’s version of Vermont matched her restful stay in Brattleboro. The state, through the efforts of Rowland Robinson and others, had acquired a reputation for offering comfort to fugitive slaves. It also was the first state admitted to the union to constitutionally outlaw slavery within its borders.
When Stowe plans for the two vicious African overseers of Simon Legree, Sambo and Quimbo, to find sanctuary in a free state, she sends them to Vermont, where they repent their lethal beating of Uncle Tom and are redeemed as faithful Christians.
Finally, it is Simon Legree himself who purges the decent, abolitionist sentiments from his soul, cruelly rejecting his Christian mother and upbringing. Imagining New England delineates the evil man’s downward trajectory.
While the novel fell from popularity through the 20th century, it survived for a time, especially in Vermont, in the guise of dramatic entertainment.
“Tom Shows” were plays based on Harriet Beecher Stowes’ novel that combined equal parts emotive melodrama and blackface minstrelsy. The play’s characters became overdrawn caricatures and as offensive as the stock roles in the minstrel show.
For some reason, this sort of entertainment lasted longer in Vermont than elsewhere and, in the 1940s, the great African American writer Ralph Ellison was shocked to find one being produced near Waitsfield, where he was visiting friends and commencing work on his novel “Invisible Man.”
“I had seen, in a nearby Vermont village, a poster announcing the performance of a ‘Tom Show,’ that forgotten term for blackface minstrel versions of Mrs. Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ I had thought such entertainment a thing of the past, but there, in a quiet northern village it was alive and kicking, with Eliza, frantically slipping and sliding on the ice, still trying — and that during World War II! — to escape the slavering hounds. What is commonly assumed to be past history is actually as much a part of the living present as William Faulkner insisted,” he wrote.
Paul Heller is a writer and historian who lives in Barre.
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