The Small House of Uncle Thomas

Things on the cast album that seemed pedestrian suddenly made sense.

Many bloggers, including this one, will start a blog post and then move on to something else, leaving it in incomplete draft form.

Such was the case of this piece about the two musicals my wife, my daughter and I saw, both in June 2011, at the Mac-Hadyn Theater in Chatham, NY, about a 40-minute drive from our house in Albany.

The first show we viewed was Annie. I’d seen TV productions of it, I’m sure; certainly the one with Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan. But the stage performance made it more real than I remembered.

So my wife asked if I wanted to go see The King and I. She could hear the ambivalence in my response.

You see, I thought I knew the story well enough that I didn’t need to. I remember seeing the movie, or at least segments of the movie. Moreover, I own the 1977 Broadway cast album, even though I had never seen the musical. And while the hits Hello, Young Lovers, and Getting to Know You and Shall We Dance? are strong, the totality of the listening experience of this Rodgers & Hammerstein piece was lacking; this was, to swipe a phrase, “a puzzlement.”

Yet seeing the performance in person brought this chestnut to life for me. Things on the cast album that seemed pedestrian suddenly made sense. In particular, the reprise of I Have Dreamed was a real revelation.

And there is this whole long section in the second act not even hinted at on the cast album: the narrated dance “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” From Wikipedia: “Hammerstein found his ‘door in’ to the play in [author Margaret] Landon’s account of a slave in Siam writing about Abraham Lincoln.” At some level, that rewrite of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with its revisionist happy ending, is the core value of the whole musical.

So maybe I only viewed scenes from the movie. Regardless, seeing this production was a revelation. Glad I saw it.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin-Classics Illustrated version, by Fred Hembeck

And then, the evil Legree stalks off, satisfied that he’d dealt out a sickening sort of justice.

The first blogger I knew personally was my friend Fred Hembeck. One of his posts that most impressed me, and probably got me to start blogging a couple months later, was his February 25, 2005 piece on a particular comic book. Fred has allowed me to reprint his story. After a mention of an accidental(?) coloring error in an issue of Sgt. Fury:

I soon realized Gabe WASN’T the first African-American I’d encountered in the comics. A full three years earlier–maybe four–I read a couple of key issues of CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED.

One was their adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s historic 1852 novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”…

Before we get to that particular story, first a few words about CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED in general.

They scared me.

Compared to the sunny Harvey and Dell comics I was used to at that point–this was when I was a mere lad of 6 or 7, and not yet fully aware of the DC and Atlas titles out there, bear in mind–the dark and overly delineated artwork looked to be from another century, and the stories themselves, though greatly watered down from their sources, included what ALL the great classics did–DEATH, and lots of it!

(I touched on this topic in pictorial form in an episode of my “Little Freddy” stripCLASSICS ILLUSTRATED website, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was originally published in 1943, and was never overhauled. The stiff and archaic appearing linework provided by an artist named Rolland Livingstone nearly two decades before I had a chance to read it was the only pulp paper pictures the Civil War-inciting saga was ever to know. To my younger self — and even still now — the drawings look as if they actually could’ve been done during that era, and at age seven, I found that very notion unsettling.

I also learned that seven full pages had been eliminated from the 1943 version by the time 1960 rolled around, what with ALL comic books reducing their page counts in the interim years. Perhaps that’s why the story seemed a bit disjointed–and the Cabin in the title totally absent from the action — when I sat down to read it for the first time in over forty years last night…

(And no, I’d never actually read the original, but oddly enough, it was one of several books ninth-grader Julie was assigned to read this fall for her English class in the new school she’s going to, along with “The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn”, “Ragtime”, “The Joy Luck Club”, “The God Of Small Things”, and “My Antonia” –and that was six more books than she was obligated to read during the entirety of her two-year tenure in our local public school junior high, one of several motivating factors for her change of scene, but that’s a topic for ANOTHER time. And no, she didn’t READ the comic book version, though I DID offer to let her peruse it after she’d successfully completed her paperback, mainly as an aid in assisting her prepare for testing. True to past form, Julie pooh-poohed the comics and managed just fine without it. For the record, while she found some of it needlessly repetitive and overly talky, she enjoyed the book for the most part, as there was plenty of engaging melodrama to draw readers in. I’ll say!…)

Let’s see if I can give this to you as succinctly as possible…

Uncle Tom is an older, beloved slave on a plantation in Kentucky. When his owner gets into difficult financial straights, he has no choice but to sell Tom to an auctioneer, with the provision that he be appraised of just who purchases Tom, so that, once his money troubles are behind him, he can go out and buy back Tom. This of course, sounds awful to a modern audience, but in the story, this fellow’s clearly one of the GOOD GUYS!?!

While Tom goes off to the auction, there’s a side plot concerning a less accommodating woman slave, who instead runs off to avoid being put up for sale. In trying to escape her pursuers, she has to cross a raging river, breathlessly stepping from one chunk of ice to another in a desperate effort to make it to the other side–all the while holding her infant child in her arms! This sequence was made famous on stage and silent movie versions of Beecher Stowe’s book, and rightfully so–it’s an unforgettable image.
Too bad the comic devotes a mere four tepidly rendered panels to perhaps the single most visually unique passage in the whole tome.

On the way to auction via steamboat, Tom befriends a beautiful blonde child named Eva — and after he dives overboard to save her from drowning, her grateful father buys Tom, and brings him back to his even more impressive plantation–which is only fitting, because, if anything, he’s an even NICER guy than Tom’s original owner!

One of the chores given to the wise and patient Tom is teaching a little wild child by the name of Topsy to read — AND to have a positive image of herself. Naturally, this is happily accomplished in a matter of panels.
But tragedy soon rears its ugly head, when lovable little Eva collapses, and, despite the prayers of everyone, white and black alike, is soon taken off to a better place by a couple of rather unique travel agents…

Folks, THAT sequence scared the living bejeezus outta me!!

I couldn’t have been all that much older than that cute little girl when I first read those panels, and it was all just so–have I used the term “unsettling” already? Well, pardon me for repeating myself, but that’s the word that fits it to a tee. At that age, whatever passing thoughts about death I’d had generally concerned older people–WAY older. Little kids like me didn’t croak. And certainly, none of my comic book friends–Dennis, Lulu, Tubby, Dot, Audrey, and all the rest (let’s just leave Casper out of this discussion for a moment, okay?..)–none of THEM was ever in any danger of taking the nap that never ends! But here, in THIS comic book, that was the last we were ever going to see of the sweet Little Eva! Brrr. And just eyeball that overly symbolic send-off! Geez–all of sudden, I’m afraid of angels!

Well, back during that first read-through, I didn’t quite comprehend how much the plot turned on the youngster’s sad demise, but now I found myself suitably impressed with the twisted plot machinations the author surrounded the event with. Had she been alive today, Miss Harriet would’ve made a fine contemporary writer–of SOAP OPERAS!!

Follow me here: on her deathbed, Eva makes her daddy promise to free Tom if anything should happen to her, and good to his word, shortly after the funeral, the plantation owner informs the grateful slave that he plans to make good on his pledge to his late daughter. He’ll sign the necessary papers tomorrow.

Uh oh…

First, though, it’s off to the local cafe for a whiskey. Been a rough day, after all. It was gonna get rougher. Trying to stop a knife fight between two other bar patrons, Tom’s owner is accidentally stabbed. To death. And his widow–who’d been portrayed as little more than a vain, selfish, self-absorbed woman, has absolutely no intentions of honoring her late husband’s promise to Tom. In fact, she sells the plantation and all the slaves right quick, and for old Tom, the third time is definitely NOT the charm.

Tom’s new owner? A fellow with a name you might recognize: Simon Legree.

Yup, THAT Simon Legree. I’ll confess that, until I read through my copy of CI the other night, I didn’t quite realize that the by-now-generically familiar name had originated within the pages of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, but reading on, he certainly managed to live up to all expectations. Beatings, whippings, the “N” word tossed around casually, filthy living conditions–Tom and his fellow put-upon slaves had to endure all this and more as Legree worked them to the bone in the hopes of making as much money as possible from their dawn to dusk toiling.
This is not to say escape attempts weren’t made. Two younger female slaves in fact hatched a plan to hide in the main house’s attic, and then run off disguised as ghosts, knowing full well that Legree possessed an overwhelming fear of the supernatural.

That’s sadistic Simon there, flanked by his favored henchmen, Quimbo and Sambo. Yes, that was their names–don’t blame ME.

(And yup, even though it’s clear that those are only pretend ghosts, that’s ANOTHER panel that indelibly etched itself into poor Little Freddy’s defenseless noggin! Thanks, grandma…)

Well, old Legree isn’t TOTALLY stupid, and eventually figures out that the two women have escaped. He calls in Tom and badgers him relentlessly to give up the whereabouts of the pair, but the proud slave refuses to share any information with his cruel taskmaster.
As you might imagine, that stance didn’t go over so well with the heartless Legree, and the hapless Tom is soon fatally bludgeoned by the irate overseer.

In a rare nod to taste, the panel that precedes the one over to the side merely pictures shadows of Legree’s raised weapon over the head of his cowering victim, bathed symbolically in blood-drenched hues of red.

And then, the evil Legree stalks off, satisfied that he’d dealt out a sickening sort of justice.
Time for the story to take one last soap-like turn. As Tom lies on the ground, only moments away from death, who should show up but the son of Tom’s original owner. Seems as if his dad had passed on, but now that the family is financially flush again, he’s there to buy Tom back.

Simon Legree chuckles nastily at the notion, and then offers to let him have Tom for nothing–after all, even he doesn’t charge for DEAD slaves!…

The stunned man runs over to the fast expiring Tom, cradles him in his arms, and hears his final words.

(The artwork in this panel reminds me of the work of Guy Colwell, who wrote and drew a series of undergrounds in the late sixties called INNER CITY ROMANCE COMICS, as well as DOLL in the late eighties and early nineties–wonder if that’s just a coincidence, or if he was influenced in his depiction of African-American characters by reading this comic around the same time I did?…)
After Tom dies, the outraged son of his former owner punches Simon Legree in the jaw, and then returns home, ultimately deciding to free ALL his slaves–and then delivers an uplifting speech concerning the need to abolish slavery worldwide, just to put the icing on the metaphorical cake.

The end.

The message comes through loud and clear–slavery was bad, really, REALLY bad. Not exactly front-page news in 1960–now, a comic about the evils of the era’s Jim Crow laws, THAT would’ve been ground-breaking. Didn’t happen, of course…

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a tricky book to adapt, even more so now than back in 1943. Obviously, its author was well-meaning in her sincere condemnation of the practice of slavery, but without historical context–this really WAS a bold gesture back in 1852–a lot of the relationships between the black characters and the otherwise well-meaning folks who just happen to OWN them, well, they come off as unavoidably patronizing. And the pairing of the little blond curly-haired cutie with the large noble Negro? Hey, how was Ms. Beecher Stowe to know she was writing the template for just about every other Shirley Temple movie ever filmed?

Anyway, it was fascinating revisiting this comic after so many years (via a coverless copy picked up at a convention about ten years back–there’s no date on it, but I’m betting it’s an even later printing than my original copy, as the printing quality has gone noticeably downhill from the ones Gran bought me off the stands–my apologies for the muddiness of some of the scans.)

Go to Fred’s original article and read about Huck Finn in drag. Subsequently, this piece inspired me to write an article about how the term “Uncle Tom” has been misapplied. Thanks, Fred, for letting me purloin your article.
The Tom Caricature

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