Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin

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.

Legal But Immoral; Moral But Illegal

stowepaintingStill reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in our book group. This morning we discussed two chapters that present diametrically contrasting situations. In the first, Haley, a slave trader taking a group of slaves down the Ohio to New Orleans, sells the infant child of a slave, takes the child when the mother is distracted, and when she finds out, basically says, “get over it.” She does. Later that night, while in fetters, she jumps into the Ohio River, and drowns. For Haley, it is the cost of doing business. Nothing he did was illegal, but as even he admits, there may be some things in the end he will need to repent of. This is the legal but immoral chapter, highlighting one of the worst aspects of slavery, breaking up families, even the bond of mother and child.

The next chapter is set in a Quaker settlement, presumably in eastern Indiana. Eliza and her child, who ran from their owner when she learns he is selling the child, have taken refuge with them.  News comes to the Quakers of another slave they will be sheltering. It turns out it is George, Eliza’s husband, an intelligent but abused slave of another owner. The chapter ends with the joyous reunion of husband and wife in a settlement vowed to protect them even though they are breaking fugitive slave laws. This is the moral but illegal chapter, where a religious community defies the law to help break the shackles of human bondage.

Both chapters open our eyes to a disturbing reality and a fateful choice. The disturbing reality is that not all that is legal is moral. Holding slaves or denying voting rights to a class of people because of gender or ethnicity was legal at one time in this country. Sometimes this leads people to fateful choices. Those who harbored and aided the flight of slaves broke fugitive slave laws.

What is hard in all of this is that the rule of law is considered indispensable to an ordered society. The just and impartial administration of law is crucial to a society that believes that all are created equal. President and poor man are subject to the same laws and should enjoy the same rights, and suffer the same punishments should they break these laws. Lawlessness, a contempt for the law where the law is wantonly broken, is rightfully denounced and punished, because unchecked, it leads to an anarchy of fear and violence.

Some in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s day would have called the acts of the Quaker settlement lawlessness. Yet I would argue that the practice of civil disobedience is never wanton or contemptuous of law. It takes law and justice seriously enough to disobey and challenge laws that violate more basic moral law, whether concerned with human rights and dignity, or concerned with refusing to the state the allegiance one should give to God alone, even when such allegiance is “lawfully” demanded. It also does not seek to evade the penalties of lawbreaking, another way of showing the seriousness with which both laws, and the decision to disobey a law is taken.

Today, we celebrate those who sheltered and aided fugitive slaves. We recognize them as worthy of honor because they refused to do the legal but immoral action. We celebrate those who lied to Nazis and risked their lives to help Jews escape to safety. We celebrate Rosa Parks simply for sitting down.

It does seem that in many cases, those who refused to obey immoral laws picked their battles. Then as now, one could find a hundred things to go to jail for. Sometimes the battles picked them. This also happens in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when a state senator in a free state (Ohio, no less), supports a fugitive slave law, and then find he can’t obey it when escaping slaves seek shelter in his kitchen.

Perhaps all the talk of sanctuary cities and so forth makes reading Uncle Tom’s much less a matter of abstract discussion. What the reading does for me is call into greater focus the contrast between legal but immoral laws and moral but illegal acts, and the uncomfortable reality that sometime, I may also have to choose between these.

There is no question that civil disobedience is a challenge to law. This should challenge any of us who care for the rule of law to be watchful against the use of law for immoral ends, and to be vigilant for the just and impartial enforcement of law. It is a gift to live in a country where the rule of law is highly valued. It is a gift to be guarded against both tyranny, where law is used to oppress, and anarchy, where law no longer rules.

More fundamentally, the possibility of civil disobedience relies upon a moral compass-the ability to recognize when law violates the good, the true and the beautiful. It challenges us as citizens that perhaps our first work is to cultivate that moral awareness in our own lives and actions. Doing such work helps us distinguish between something that is truly wrong and something that simply doesn’t serve my interest or suit my taste. There are many sources of outrage, and not all are rooted deeply in the moral sense. This reflection, this cultivation of character, and integrity of life seems to me to be essential to the disposition that both upholds the rule of law, and knows when there is a higher law that must instead be obeyed.

Literary Advocacy


Harriet Beecher Stowe

A book group that I am in, the Dead Theologians Society, has just begun reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I think this has always been a controversial book. In its own day, it galvanized opinion around the abolition of and defense of slavery. Later, it was debated on its literary merits (and perhaps still is). More recently, there has been a discussion of its racist stereotypes, even while being a key anti-slavery work. I am not qualified to opine on any of these matters and so I will leave them to others.

What intrigued me in this week’s reading was a statement by Stowe in her Preface to the work:

“The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system so necessarily cruel and unjust as to defeat and do away the good effects of all that can be attempted for them, by their best friends, under it.”

If awakening “sympathy and feeling” was her object, Stowe wildly succeeded. In the first year of publication (1851), the book sold over 300,000 copies in the U.S. and over one million in Great Britain. It was the best selling novel of the nineteenth century, and second only to the Bible in overall sales. It is legend, not fact that when Lincoln met Stowe in 1862 he said of her, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” Slave-holders in the South roundly criticized the book, even while it helped fuel the growing abolitionist sentiment in the North. Part of the impact of the book was the exposure of the systemic evil of slavery enshrined in law, that permitted cruel slave owners to do their worst and diminished even those kindly disposed.

The question I am curious about is whether literature, and particularly the novel form, could still have such impact? Or has visual media (or something else) displaced the written form? I’d love to hear from others on this, particularly on the visual media question, because I would confess I am pretty ignorant of what is happening in that world. I really am a book guy. I am aware that there is both a genre of apocalyptic writing (much of it popular among young adults) and series like Game of Thrones that explore dystopian worlds. What I am curious about is how this translates into discourse about our own society.

It strikes me that there are certainly contemporary published works that have led to significant public conversations. On the question of race, I think of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me as well as his other books and Atlantic articles. Both have evoked significant national conversations (and controversy) around race, incarceration, and other issues. But are there works of fiction that have provoked similar, and widespread conversation?

Someone in our group noted that sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have spiked after weekend controversies over “alternative facts”. The Associated Press reports that Signet Classics has ordered an additional 75,000 copy press run of the book, which portrays a totalitarian society controlled by “newspeak.” What is intriguing to me is that this is not a current work creating a conversation, but an older work, in which people are recognizing resonances with our current situation.

It strikes me that part of the challenge is the divide between popular fiction and serious literature. To this day, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is criticized in part because it is a popular work. In addition to the invidious stereotypes, others criticize its sentimentality at points. But readers loved it. I wonder if there is a bar against exploration of serious issues in popular literature, one that Stowe transcended?

Finally, while I don’t think you can blame the Civil War on Stowe’s book, it is striking that it contributed to inflamed feeling all around, and to a breakdown of political discourse leading to southern states withdrawing from the Union and the outbreak of hostilities. One wonders what the consequences of a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or a popular video equivalent, would be given the fragile state of our public and political discourse?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I sense we are in a time of great ferment. Can fiction, as well as other forms of writing “awaken sympathy and feeling?” And to what ends. What are your thoughts?




Review: Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life

Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life
Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life by Nancy Koester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Harriet Beecher Stowe is forever known in American cultural history in the words Lincoln reportedly spoke to her when she met him in 1862: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” What Nancy Koester’s “spiritual life” of Stowe gives us is a narrative of the spiritual journey of Stowe throughout her life. We see her spiritual development from the stern New School New England Calvinism of her father, Lyman Beecher, to a much broader Anglo-Catholic Christianity centered around the life and love of Christ.


Author: Francis Holl (1815–1884) after George Richmond (28 March 1809 – 19 March 1896)

Koester’s chronicle begins with her youthful struggles to meet the conversion criteria of New England Calvinists even as she awakens to a love for Christ. We follow her family west to Cincinnati and the struggles of her father as President of Lane Theological Seminary–a microcosm of the struggles within the Presbyterian church over versions of Calvinism, Old and New, her partnership with Catherine in a female academy, and her first exposures to slavery, and growing involvement with abolition and the Underground Railroad. This exposure provided the basis for the writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had such a profound impact both upon the nation, and her own life.

While in Cincinnati, she married Calvin Stowe and moved back to New England so that he can pursue his academic career and Andover Seminary. During this decisive period, Koester chronicles her struggles with parenting including a six month hiatus at a water-cure spa, resulting from exhaustion and her struggle to write the book and the critical encouragement she received from brother Henry, her husband, and her publisher. Its publication, first in serial form and then as a book thrusts her into the competing factions of the abolitionist movement and attacks upon both the literary and factual character of the book. Koester explores these criticisms, which continue to the present, including the portrayal of Tom, the mawkish character of some passages, and the literary power of the book. She shows the grittiness of Harriet, who charts her own course and defends her work with a follow up work, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin that documented the work and showed that the reality of slavery was actually worse than she portrayed.

Perhaps lesser known and of great interest is her later life and her journey away from Calvinism. It seems that the decisive event was the death of her son Henry in 1857, due to a drowning accident. It was not clear that he was “converted” at the time and Stowe struggled with the question of the eternal fate of her son. She dabbled in spiritualism and moved to a position closer to universalism in envisioning a “wideness to God’s mercy.” She embraced a form of Anglo-Catholicism centered around liturgy, the sacraments, the church year that emphasized a growth into belief rather predestination and the struggle of her youth to experience conversion.

Koester chronicles her later literary career–she contributed the bulk of the family’s income. We see her contact with and differences with the women’s movement. We conclude with her and Calvin’s ministry in Florida, where they establish a church and promote Florida’s citrus agriculture. Koester helps us see the continuing center of Stowe’s faith in the person and work of Christ, however one may assess her later spiritual journey.

We have here a whole-life, multi-faceted portrait of Stowe against which we see the spiritual and national struggles of her age and her own role in those struggles. I would highly recommend it to understand the life of the woman who wrote the most published 19th century work after the Bible.

View all my reviews