“Slavery Is Not an Issue of Concern in the Press”: An Early Brazilian Adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Literary Turn in the Slavery Debates

Friday, January 5, 2018: 11:10 AM
Thurgood Marshall South (Marriott Wardman Park)
Celso Castilho, Vanderbilt University
In March 1855, a literary newspaper in Rio de Janeiro printed the opening installment of Nísia Floresta’s “Páginas de uma vida obscura,” a serialized short story that adapted important aspects of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “Páginas,” indeed, represented the first Brazilianized version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s internationally famous novel. It emerged from Floresta’s encounter with the craze of Uncle Tom while in Paris in 1852, and incorporated themes from the Brazilian schoolteacher’s earlier writings on women’s education, religiosity, and antislavery. The plotline centered on the Congo-born Domingos, who, as the Brazilian Tom, exemplified the familiar attributes of Christian virtuosity and resignation that pervaded Stowe’s text. Set in the nineteenth century, “Páginas” begins with Domingos’s enslavement on the African coast and follows his grim experiences as a servant in Minas Gerais, Porto Alegre, and Rio de Janeiro. His death in 1854 ends a narrative that, altogether, was comprised of eight installments, or chapters, and appeared bi-weekly. The stakes for “Páginas” were doubtlessly high, and the connections to Uncle Tom’s Cabin were crucial to how Floresta questioned a status quo where, as she put it, “slavery is not an issue of concern in the press.”

This paper proceeds with three specific questions in mind, and an overarching goal of analyzing how representations of the Uncle Tom story bore upon larger issues related to power, access, and representation in public life. First, how did early Brazilian reactions to Tom mania foster new spaces (the press) and languages (serialized fiction) for debating slavery? Second, how did Floresta’s narrative feed and reflect upon contemporary discussions of slavery in the press? Third, how does this Brazilian perspective on the Uncle Tom phenomenon draw from, and potentially reorient, existing discussions—that are mostly focused on Europe—about the story’s global importance?

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