Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (with an introduction by James M. McPherson). New York: Vintage Books/Library of America: 1991 (originally published 1852).
Summary: Stowe’s classic novel depicting the evils of slavery, the complicity of North and South, and the aspirations and faith of slaves themselves.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century, and it’s author the one who Abraham Lincoln reputedly greeted as “the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” While much has been written of and imputed to this book, one thing that I think Stowe herself would denounce is the idea that she wrote this book to embroil the nation in war.
What then did she do? First of all, she wrote a novel with memorable characters, evocative scenes and a plot line with the right mix of pathos and triumph. Of course there is the title character. More recently, “Uncle Tom” has become an epithet for blacks who sell out to the white system, but this seems an unjust reading of Tom whose faith leads him to serve, to evangelize, and when ultimately necessary, resist his white overlords. There is Eliza, whose memorable flight to freedom across the ice flows of the Ohio River keep the reader’s rapt attention. We have the evil Legree, who epitomizes the worst of slaveholding, as well as the consequences of a heart hardened and given over to evil. The death of Eva pulls at the heartstrings, drawn out over a couple chapters. The plot line of Tom’s sale for the debts of the Selby’s, his descent to New Orleans and the temporary rest of St. Clare’s liberal household, the nadir of conditions under Legree, followed by redemption and the closing of several circles leads the reader through an expose of the different dimensions of slavery while drawing to a climax and satisfactory conclusion.
She writes artfully, if not with subtlety. She interposes humorous chapters with grievous ones, and moments of rest, such as the reunification of George and Eliza among the Quakers with stories of mothers and children being parted by slave traders. She challenges Northern sensibilities as well as southern ones. St. Clare’s dialogues with prim and abolitionist-proper Ophelia reveal the hypocrisies of northerners who would end slavery but want little to do with Blacks as co-equals. Her struggles with Topsy expose to her her lovelessness. On a structural level we see the complicity of Northern politicians in passing fugitive slave laws and bankers whose practices of lending helped perpetuate the economics of slavery.
This is what makes the simplistic comment that this book made, or helped make the Civil War, while probably meant as a jest, an unfair charge. Yes, Southerners vigorously defended themselves against the claims of the book, claims which Stowe subsequently documented, demonstrating that, if anything, her portrayal was restrained. I think Stowe’s aim was not to condemn, except for those like Legree, but to encourage slaveholders who had their own doubts of the justice of slavery. Her portrayals of both the Selbys and St. Claire reflect the ambivalence of slaveholders who saw the evil of the system of which they were a part. What is more striking to me, perhaps because I live in the North, is that Northerners ignored her critique of their own hypocrisies and complicity in regard to slavery, and gave heed to the voices that inflated their sense of self-righteousness.
The book is not without its problems. It indulges in racial stereotypes that are offensive to the modern reader. And it seems to participate in the hypocrisy of celebrating the spirituality and humanity of blacks and yet suggests that perhaps it indeed is best to free them, educate them, and send them back to Africa, when in fact blacks were here before the Mayflower and had as much a claim to this country as do whites.
At the same time, Stowe does a radical thing in this book. She portrays Tom as a black “Christ figure” to a racist nation. She does something similar to what Jesus himself does with Jewish religious leaders in using a despised Samaritan as the model of a good neighbor. She exposes her readers to the reality not only of the humanness of blacks but of their spiritual brotherhood with others who would identify as “Christian,” which would have been much of America, North and South. We are forced to deeply identify with the offense of treating as a piece of property to be disposed of as one would wish, one who we would call “brother.”
This is a book that, with all its flaws, is part of the cultural history of a nation, and, I think, should be on the reading list of every literate American. It continues to raise questions for us of how we will act when what is legal may not be just. It helps us understand the power of systems of injustice, and yet the personal choices both those with power and those without may make to resist injustice. It is a book to make us search our own souls.