This essay takes the critical reception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Frederick Douglass’ Paper as an occasion to rethink modern constructions of critical authority while arguing for a print culture approach to literary criticism. Although scholars of antebellum culture typically focus on critical responses that are most readable by twenty-first-century standards (lengthy, signed reviews by readily identifiable critics in prestigious journals), paradoxically the less authoritative liminal critical forms (unsigned, unoriginal criticism circulated as reprinted reviews) displayed the centrality of criticism to nineteenth-century social and political life in the United States. Drawing on an expanded archive of eclectic critical forms, this essay denaturalizes and expands our sense of antebellum critical culture, examining the ways Frederick Douglass exploited the material diversity of contemporary print culture as part of his antislavery strategy, reprinting responses to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel in an array of nontraditional critical forms to achieve pragmatic political goals. In so doing, Douglass transformed literary criticism from evaluation and entertainment into a powerful weapon in the war against slavery and the promotion of the interests of African Americans, applications that reaffirm the essay’s claim for the importance of a material approach to critical culture.

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