Uncle Tom, Topsy, Sambo, Simon Legree, little Eva: their names are American bywords, and all of them are characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe's remarkable novel of the pre-Civil War South. Uncle Tom's Cabin was revolutionary in 1852 for its passionate indictment of slavery and for its presentation of Tom, "a man of humanity," as the first black hero in American fiction. Labeled racist and condescending by some contemporary critics, it remains a shocking, controversial, and powerful work -- exposing the attitudes of white nineteenth-century society toward "the peculiar institution" and documenting, in heartrending detail, the tragic breakup of black Kentucky families "sold down the river." An immediate international sensation, Uncle Tom's Cabin sold 300,000 copies in the first year, was translated into thirty-seven languages, and has never gone out of print: its political impact was immense, its emotional influence immeasurable.
By today's standards, the book would likely be judged too sentimental. The author includes 10-page chapter called "concluding remarks" in which she expresses her own views against slavery, and how it is incompatible with Christianity. This just isn't done in modern novels.
In assessing the book against other literature of the period, though, a different perspective emerges: one of a sweeping tale, encompassing many characters with a strong story of good and evil. Like Dickens' works, it is a scathing assessment of the society in which it is written. In this way, and in the complex blending of good and evil within individual characters, it is a more satisfying than The Book of Negroes.
I am also reading a biography of William Wilberforce, and found Ms. Beecher Stowe's work an enriching complement.
Given all that I found the book a surprisingly good read. Sure, it's an old fashioned book. Published in 1852, like many Victorian authors I've read such as Dickens, Alcott and Gaskell, it can strike a reader as sentimental and steeped in religiosity. Were it published today it would be considered "Christian Fiction." Stowe hits very hard on Christian themes and how slavery makes living a Christian life difficult for slave and slaveholder alike. Sometimes it can get unbearably preachy--I found the character of "Little Eva" particularly hard to take seriously. There is also some racial stereotyping, but according to the introduction Stowe was progressive for the period and her purpose was to show the "full humanity" of blacks, and she constantly pressed the reader to put themselves in the shoes of slaves and insisted they felt everything any reader would feel upon being separated from family and home, or used unfairly and cruelly. And Uncle Tom is no Uncle Tom. He does refuse to run away, because he fears it would result in all the slaves in the estate being sold, and he is honest and conscientious in his dealings with his masters--but he's not a sycophant, and openly disobeys orders that would make him act against his conscience. And there are other characters--such as George Harris--willing to defend the liberty of himself and his escaping family by any means necessary--including at gunpoint.
At the same time, Stowe doesn't demonize slaveholders, and Stowe paints a deft portrait of their rationalizations--one could imagine that what came out of her characters' mouths is what Stowe herself must have heard from those sympathetic to slavery. There are scenes among the St Clare family particularly that provided very sharp social commentary--even satire--as Marie St Clare complains of the selfishness of her slaves or Augustine St Clare points out to Miss Ophelia, his abolitionist Northern cousin, her racism and hypocrisy.
I've read modern depictions of slavery by authors such as Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler, but Uncle Tom's Cabin reminds me most of a 19th century slave narrative by Harriet Jacobs I read for college. Both books emphasize the moral dimension of slavery--not simply how slavery is cruel or wrong, but how being owned by others means a slave is denied moral agency. And reading Uncle Tom's Cabin I can imagine why this was moral dynamite laid at the very foundations of slavery that would help lead to it being exploded little more than a decade after it was published. This is undeniably one of the most important books ever published in terms of its historical effects and on that basis alone, despite its flaws, deserves to be more widely read today.
However, the book does present some difficulties to the modern reader. For one, Stowe frequently refers to the races in stereotypical terms. To Stowe, people of African decent are all magnanimous, warm-hearted beings, which robs them of the humanity and ability to be unique individuals. I should probably give Stowe a pass for this, but it was difficult to get past as a modern reader.
With that being said, the book was very well-written for a nineteenth century house-wife who was not a writer by trade. Considering her background, I was very impressed with her ability as a writer and am even more impressed with the guts it must have taken for a woman to speak out about injustice in a society that would not allow her the right to vote and have a say in how society was run. For this reason, Stowe's work is something that should still be read and admired by modern readers.
As a historical document, Uncle Tom's Cabin, it must be acknowledge, carries a lot of weight. It was after all, the best selling novel of the 19th century, the second best selling book in the world, second only to the bible. Written as an angry response to the passage of the fugitive slave law, it certainly tapped into the cultural zeitgeist of it's day. Stowe's novel and the wide ranging dramatizations it inspired, some of which were staged before the novel serialization was finished, have entered into the American collective consciousness. (Even Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim referenced the novel; his song "Not Getting Married" includes the line "like Eliza on the ice.") The characters Uncle Tom, Topsy, Eliza, Simon Legree, Little Eva have all taken on a life of their own, often unfortunately so. Stowe's depiction of slavery, while far from comprehensive and probably far from accurate, opened the eyes of contemporary readers, and can still at least raise a few eyebrows today. People tend to forget how horrible things were with the passage of time which makes books like Uncle Tom's Cabin useful reading.
But, in the end, is it a good read? The story begins with high melodrama that does not let up until the very end. In the opening chapters, Uncle Tom, though devoted to his master, Mr Shelby, and his master's family, is sold along with young Harry, Eliza's son. Eliza has already lost her husband to a plantation owner who refuses to let her see him, so she takes her young son and runs away before he can be sold soth. Eliza carries her son across a the broken ice that floats down the Ohio River in order to be free. Uncle Tom is sent to the slave markets in New Orleans on a river boat. While on-board he rescues a young girl, Eva, who insists that her father, Mr. St. Clare, buy him so she can have his company. On the St. Clare plantation Uncle Tom and Little Eva win the hearts of just about everyone but Mrs. St. Clare who sells Tom instead of granting him freedom after the deaths of both Eva and her father. Tom then ends up in the hands of Simon Legree who runs a plantation straight out of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Tom's wife, Aunt Cloe, meanwhile, works and saves her money so she can buy Tom's freedom. In the end, Mr. Shelby, Jr. goes to Legree's plantation to buy Tom back only to find he is dying from the severe beating Legree has given him. Back in Canada Eliza, George and their children decide to emigrate to Liberia to start a new life and to bring Christianity to Africa.
You can see why so many modern reader's have problems with the novel. It's not that the black characters are realized as less than fully human, it's that they are realized as children. Tom and Little Eva are equals, both portrayed as children in a sentimental Victorian melodrama. Both are devoted to each other and to Christianity as only little childre can be. Both believe that God will save them and that everyone should turn to God and all their problems will be solved. The message of the novel is not just that slavery is wrong, but that turning away from God is wrong. We must end slavery as a means of returning to the path of righteousness that God has set out for us to follow. This path, leads the black characters back to Africa, not as a return to the lives their ancestors left, but as missionaries spreading Christianity. Why should they have to go back in the first place? Don't they have as much right to be in America as anyone? Stowe was against slavery, but she is not really arguing for racial equality.
The major problem a modern reader will have with Uncle Tom's Cabin may not be the book's racism, arguing that the 19th century American novel is racist seems moot to me anyway, but that the book is very preachy. Much of the dialogue serves to provide a platform to advance the case against slavery rather than to develop the plot or the characters. Whether two characters are sitting in a parlor or facing each other over the point of a gun, the speeches against slavery continue. Many of them are very good. Case in point, George's reply to the bounty hunters who have cornered his family on a hillside in Ohio:
"I know very well that you've got the law on your side, and the power," said George, bitterly, "You mean to take my wife to sell in New Orleans, and put my boy like a calf in a trader's pen, and send Jim's only mother to the brute that whipped and abused her before, because he couldn't abuse her son. You want to send Jim and me back to be whipped and tortured, and ground down under the heels of them that you call masters; and your laws will bear you out on it,---more shame for you and them! But you haven't got us. We don't own your laws; we don't own your country; we stand here as free, under God's sky, as you are; and, by the great God that made us, we'll fight for our liberty till we die."
George stood out in fair sight, on the top of the rock, as he made his declaration of independence; the glow of dawn gave as flush to his swarthy cheek, and bitter indignation and despair gave fire to his dark eye; and, as if appealing from man to the justice of God, he raised his hand to heaven as he spoke.
If this works for you as a reader, you'll find much to enjoy in Uncle Tom's Cabin. I found it to be tough going for much of the novel. Towards the end of the book, once Tom arrives at Simon Legree's plantation, I found the speeches became less frequent and the narrative pace picked up quite a bit. The book almost became hard to put down for the last 200 pages.
In the end, while interesting and important as a historical document, Uncle Tom's Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly, by Harriet Beecher Stowe has little to offer the modern reader. I'm giving the book three out of five stars.
The story follows Tom, a slave in Kentucky who is sold after his kind masters hit some hard times and have to settle a debt. He has the opportunity to run away with 2 other slaves, but opts to be sold because it is the will of his master and Tom's mission in life is to do as his master asks. As he is preparing to leave his family and his cabin his wife cooks his favorite breakfast one last time. That entire scene left me crying my eyes out.
I think this is where the phrase, "sold up the river," comes from because he is sold and moves up the river. Good or bad, his story continues from there.
It made me consider what it was truly like to live in the south in the 1850s, when her story was written. In fact, the funnest part of reading it for me (if reading about slavery can be considered fun) was knowing that it was written before the Civil War. I learned that some say this book, which was actually not a book but a serial installment released in a magazine of the time, was like a rattling saber, "starting" the Civil War! Abraham Lincoln met her and said, "So this is the little lady who made this big war"!!! Can you imagine?!
The end of the book gets a little too religious for my taste, but I am able to forgive it considering the time period it was written in.
Harriet Beecher Stowe did a brilliant job exploring every persons' aspect of slavery through her tale, which is partially based on true stories.
I think it's unfairly criticized in the 20th century and today for (1) being overly sentimental and dramatic, and (2) for its characters who created or amplified racial stereotypes. As James Baldwin put it in "Everybody's Protest Novel", "Uncle Tom's Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women".
I can't disagree more. The book is powerful and exposes the extreme cruelty of slavery. I can't understand why critics feel a need to cast it aside in favor of "Huckleberry Finn" as if one needed to decide "either/or" which was superior.
The Norton Critial Edition is well worth it for its ocassional illustrations, articles putting the work in historical context, and for the reviews. Some of this extra material will resonate (for me, George M. Frederickson's, "Uncle Tom and the Anglo-Saxons: Romantic Racialism in the North"), and some of it will not, but most of it will stir a discussion and make you think.
On beauty in old age:
"Her hair, partially silvered by age, was parted smoothly back from a high placid forehead, on which time had written no inscription, except peace on earth, good will to men, and beneath shone a large pair of clear, honest, loving brown eyes; you only needed to look straight into them, to feel that you saw to the bottom of a heart as good and true as ever throbbed in woman's bosom. So much has been said and sung of beautiful young girls, why don't somebody wake up to the beauty of old women?"
"Is there a God to trust in?" said George, in such a tone of bitter despair as arrested the old gentleman's words. "O, I've seen things all my life that made me feel that there can't be a God. You Christians don't know how these look to us. There's a God for you, but is there any for us?"
"O with what freshness, what solemnity and beauty, is each new day born; as if to say to insensate man, "Behold! thou hast one more chance! Strive for immortal glory!"
"If we emancipate, are you willing to educate?
We are the more obvious oppressors of the negro; but the unchristian prejudice of the north is an oppressor almost equally severe."
On religion, powerful words:
"Religion! Is what you hear at church religion? Is that which can bend and turn, and descend and ascend, to fit every crooked phase of selfish, worldly society, religion? Is that religion which is less scrupulous, less generous, less just, less considerate for man, than even my own ungodly, worldly, blinded nature? No! When I look for a religion, I must look for something above me, and not something beneath."
I was a bit dismayed at the deus ex machina nature of the happily ever after (the reunions at the end), but I thoroughly enjoyed the "epilogues" and the end note.
*It is (or was) a classic
*Its author is famously known as the person Abraham Lincoln jokingly credited with starting the American Civil War and, ergo, an end to slavery in the United States.
*The principles and courage of the author to put herself out there and critique a nation, not just for its legislation, but the more insidious racism of many abolitionists, must have been tremendous.
However, I found the act of ploughing through this novel to be one long exercise in patience. As someone who does not adhere to any religion, the endless passages about The Lord, quotes from the Bible, and descriptions of religious activity were increasingly tedious and I found myself skipping swathes of text just to get on with the story.
Ah, the story... therein lies another problem. Having done a little more research since completing this book, I understand that Beecher Stowe originally wrote this as a series, published weekly in a paper. Therefore, the introduction to each chapter, which reminds 'our reader' who we are catching up with next and apologises to 'our reader' for not having had time to describe Mrs Such-and-Such last night with 'all the activity going on' became equally as wearing as the Bible-bashing after a few chapters. The other consequence of this approach means that Beecher Stowe introduced a plethora of new characters with each section. I ended up losing interest in 'meeting' yet another person because I couldn't get into any of the characters enough to care about them. The titular Uncle Tom is absent for more of the book than he is present and this makes it especially difficult to root for him by the time his story reaches its climax.
The final chapters are ludicrous in their reliance on coincidence - at least Oscar Wilde made sure his tongue was firmly in his cheek during the reveal. The only aspect of the book I found interesting was the final word by the author, highlighting the plight of the slave to her Southern cousins and Northern friends. I would have been happy to read that part on its own and still come away with the same level of understanding about attitudes and issues at that time. Others have described the entire novel as reading more like an essay and I agree. Had Beecher Stowe not used such a clunky, preaching approach I am sure this would have continued to shine as an illuminating example of literature's powerful role in society. As it is, the author lacked the talent of her contemporary peers to create a wonderful narrative and the result, a century and a half later, is painfully dull.
Today the novel is often labeled condescending, but its characters still have the power to move our hearts. Stowe's Tom is actually American literature's first black hero, a man who suffers for refusing to obey his white oppressors. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a living, relevant story, passionate in its vivid depiction of the cruelest forms of injustice--and the courage it takes to fight against them.
This book explores the lives of various characters, white and black, free and enslaved, northern and southern. While it's obvious, particularly at the end, that the author Stowe has an agenda, the book reads as a masterpiece of fiction. It does not use heavy rhetoric to drive your opinion, but incorporates character, story, and religion to make you consider the circumstances and drive you toward your own opinions. Having read many other works that deal with slavery and race relations, I wasn't expecting this book to touch me quite like it did, but because the author lets the characters and story flow in a natural rhythm, and because she moves between them to naturally create suspense, a reader can't help but remain entranced in this book. It moves quickly, and though the length may look daunting, it flies by. I'd say that for a complete understanding of American history--or, as complete as could be possible, at least--this is the first novel I've read which would be absolutely required reading. It is a beautiful novel, complete, and Stowe never puts her agenda above the story she's following. I would argue that this might well be the most lasting work of American Literature written, and that this might be the quientessential American novel even beyond Huck Fin.
For anyone, I'd strongly recommend this book. It may take some time to pick it up since it is long, but you won't be tempted to leave it aside once you do.
Style: Allowing for the conventions of nineteenth-century novelists, and ignoring the painful imposition of dialectical spelling, Stowe is pitch-perfect in representing her characters, milieu, and arguments. Her satire can hardly be called gentle, but it is not strident or vicious. All varieties of good and evil, Christian or pseudo-Christian or atheist, high society and low estate are given full and fair treatment.
Beautiful and poignant, it changed history:
Upon meeting the author Abraham Lincoln said, "So you're the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war." She replied, "I did not write it. God wrote it. I merely did his dictation."
While most of the book is painful to read, it is a sprawling story full of amazing characters and horrific events. It is a true "slice-of-life" that we, as modern readers, can never truly understand. This book makes a huge gesture in that direction and it is well worth the uncomfortable reading, in order to honor those that lived it.