Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. (Historical Novel/Classic Literature, 1852).
This anti-slavery epic from shortly before the American Civil War is of great historical significance (Lincoln himself claimed that it played a major part in bringing on the war itself). It was certainly in its time an influential and controversial book. Yet as a famous piece of ‘classic literature’ it’s a novel everybody’s heard of, and few actually read today. And yes, the author’s period style (somewhat florid) must be acknowledged and accounted for by the reader.
But hey, I was in the mood for something different and the local library had a hardcover edition from 1991. So…..
One thing I did NOT expect was the amount of sly, satirical and even openly sarcastic HUMOR Beecher Stowe infuses in the multiple storylines that comprise the book. The witless self-deceptions that characters struggling to justify their places in the whole immoral and fundamentally abusive slave-holding culture are here often as outright FUNNY as they are tragic, willfully ignorant or offensive.
Of course, there are degrees of self-deception. The humor to be found, for instance in the ideas of the ruthless, money-grubbing slave trader who forces debt-ridden Shelby to sell Tom (the beloved, honest and intelligent, gentlest and loyalest of souls) literally ‘down the river’ is of an absolutely pitch-black flavor. (The man actually believes–or at least pretends to believe–that shackling Tom’s wrists but NOT his legs, cause he’s such a ‘good boy’ makes him a humanitarian!)
Beecher Stowe also savages pompous and self-serving politicians, north and south alike–and people like one sly slave whose machinations she explicitly links to such individuals.
In any case, there’s no room for even the bleakest chuckles after the death of Tom’s 2nd owner. This is when the almost cartoon-level savagery and evil personified by Simon Legree enters the picture.
I knew Beecher Stowe was a dedicated anti-slavery writer/worker and, like so many of these, she was intensely religious. The Reverend who actively supported the free-state forces during the pre-war Bleeding Kansas struggles (shipping them rifles in boxes disguised as the legendary Beecher’s Bibles) was of course her brother. It was predictable that the storytelling worldview on evidence here would be explicitly religious/Christian and that turned out to be the case.
But I was relieved to find that, for the most part, the characters here (slaves; Northern and Southern whites; pro- and anti-slavery, and many that prove to be stuck somewhat in the middle) are fairly believable PEOPLE (as opposed to mere archetypes). Not all white Southerners are pictured as total monsters (excepting the hideous–and yes, ultimately insane Simon Legree–who’s only in the last quarter of the book). Not all Northerners are noble anti-slavery crusaders, either. Plenty are indifferent. And even some of those opposed to slave-holding (the Vermont-native cousin of Tom’s 2nd owner) have to struggle to get past their own prejudices.
And the slaves aren’t all nobly suffering victims. More than a few are flaws, self-serving or as brutal as any bigoted overseer.
Women here are generally seen as better Christians (by the author’s standard) than the men, though again with important exceptions. Mrs St. Clare (the wife of Tom’s basically good-hearted and clear-headed, if somewhat feckless 2nd owner) is a self-indulgent, whining, self-pitying fool).
And Uncle Tom (the middle-aged slave) makes such a perfect humble Christian Martyr-in-the-making that modern readers (me included) tend to have trouble relating to him. At least the author allows him occasional moments of doubt and despair, showing that as faithful as he is, he is still human. And no, this Uncle Tom isn’t one of those ass-kissing ‘Uncle Toms’ of modern cliche. He may be so good and religious pacifistic (even Christ-like in his forgiving, self-sacrificing nature) that he’s a bit hard to have patience for, but he’s no coward. He will NOT obey the all-powerful Master, if that means doing evil. And if he ends up hurt (even dead) as a result, so be it. The man has principles!
On that score, readers will find George Harris, the escaped slave who’s tired of being used and willing to fight (even kill, if absolutely necessary) to win freedom for himself and his family, a far more understandable and modern hero.
Another flaw in the book reflects what at the time didn’t trouble readers nearly as much as it does today. Coincidences–multiple and huge ones–abound here, especially in the very late stages of the novel. Long-lost relatives suddenly blunder into each other in rapid-fire succession as the author brings several subplots to their conclusion in an almost silly fashion. Yet this was a pretty standard literary technique, back then. So it’s just a matter of dealing with the conventions of the time–including occasional bouts of the now-dreaded ‘author intrusion’ into the narrative.
I should also note that Beecher Stowe (in common with many of her times’ abolitionists) seriously misjudges the aspirations of most American slaves (beyond their obvious yearning for freedom). While she pictures those who get free (good Christians that they all are, of course) eagerly ‘going home’ to Africa as missionaries, in fact very few of them had any interest in the distant continent where their grandparents or great-grandparents came from!
Sure, more than a few willingly resettled in Liberia. And in the process, for decades dominated the local-born people.
But for the most part, 19th century American slaves were, when one gets down to it, Americans. They stayed and tried to make lives for themselves as free men and women in the land they knew. Or they went west to help ‘tame the frontier’ (remember that in their the post-Civil War hey-day, a good third of working cowboys were African-American).
Anyway, I’m glad I read this book and recommend it to others. Flaws and all, it’s powerful and fascinating.