Slavery in literature has been a crucial and defining template for understanding past and modern human rights abuse. Due to the influence that these literary works can have on our understanding of history, it is important that the content be authentic, unbiased and historically factual. The two novels: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Kindred by Octavia Butler, there are two very different accounts of being a slave, both of which the readers assume to be historically accurate for the most part. In order to help prevent readers from accepting a false account of history as the truth, it is important to assess the historicity or the historical actuality of these events. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, often received criticism due to the fact that Stowe is a white woman and would not have an accurate account of what being a slave is like, however, the novel also played a huge role in the abolishment of slavery, and is said to have been based off of real slave narratives. Kindred, written by Octavia Butler, shares the same anti-slavery theme, but differs in the depiction of the slavery experience, providing a seemingly more historically accurate, first-hand perspective, as the main character of the novel time-travels onto a real plantation. By examining the historicity of these novels, not only the issue of “what really happened” but also the issue of how modern observers can come to know “what really happened”, it is apparent that both novels accurately represent history, just present the facts in different contexts.
Both authors, Stowe and Butler, conducted extensive research on the topics of slavery before composing their novels to assure the utmost historical accuracy, and this proves true as the majority of events in both novels can be backed with factual evidence. Both novels include the separation of slave families, which is very historically accurate. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe includes the heart-wrenching separation of Susan and Emmeline, and Mr. Haley splitting a mother and son as he only purchases one of them. Similarly, in the book Kindred, Butler illustrates the topic of slave family separation mainly through the actions of slave owner Mr. Weylin, who sells away members of slave families if they displease him in any way. Both novels describe topics of familial separation historically accurate. Also, in both novels, Butler and Stowe frequently rehash accounts of slaves being treated like property and abused.
Despite the similarity of the historically accurate recount of slavery and factual information in both novels, they greatly differ in how they present this information to readers. First of all, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was originally published in 1852, 4 years before slavery was even abolished, and Kindred was originally published in 1979, a time when slavery is most commonly talked about in history books. The intended audiences in both time periods have vastly different beliefs, values and opinions of slavery which influence the way in which they perceive the history in both novels. Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin first started piecing together her novel as a response to new, strict fugitive slave laws. Her novel was soon released into a society that still largely accepted slavery and largely rejected the accurate facts and negative portrayal of slavery. Readers were so apprehensive to accept her novel and the horrors of slavery it included, that it received very harsh criticizing, and serious talk about banning it. Although the largely white intended audience was not receptive of the way Stowe presented the facts of slavery, her novel still outsold the Bible and played a huge role in abolishing slavery. In contrast, Octavia Butler’s Kindred was released long after slavery was abolished, but only a few years after the height of the Civil Rights movement. Butler was inspired to write her novel due to her belief that modern generations are beginning to minimize the horrors of slavery and lose sight of much of slavery involved. Butler was careful in how she presented modern-day readers with the facts and events of slavery and toned down the blood and gore compared to other slavery literature like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Instead of making readers face the horrid reality of slavery like in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Butler also wanted to make readers understand the lasting effects of this dark past on present times by adding a modern twist of time travel in her story.
Additionally, the genre and way in which the information is presented in both novels has a great influence on how the reader perceives and interprets it. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe writes her novel in third person, allowing the reader to look in from the outside without making them feel like part of the story. Most of her intended audience was still participating in slavery and gained lots of knowledge by acting as a spectator of their own heinous deeds as they read her novel. Contrastingly, Butler published her story in a time when slavery was strictly history for the majority of her readers. For this reason, she incorporated time travel in order for modern-day readers to immerse themselves into her story and more accurately understand and come to terms with the dark past and how far we have come since.
Harriet Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Octavia Butler’s Kindred novels both portray the grim reality of slavery in a very historically accurate way. However, each publication differs in the intended audience’s values, norms and beliefs at the time they were released. Due to these differences, it is important to examine the way in which the information is presented to readers because it can largely affect the way in which they interpret and understand the facts, regardless of how historically accurate they are. Overall, both texts present the same historically accurate information in different ways that best suit the society and readers of its time.