Uncle Tom’s Cabin


Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is the book that legendarily prompted President Abraham Lincoln to greet the author with the words, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a book about slavery, yes; but it is also about religion, humanity, suffering, love, power, family, and revenge.

I want to start out by saying that Mrs. Stowe came from a very, very, very deeply religious background. Many of her immediate family members were ministers, and she was brought up in a traditional Christian household. She continued to hold these beliefs very closely to her throughout her life. For this reason, Uncle Tom’s Cabin carries very heavy Christian overtones and undertones. This made me slightly uncomfortable throughout the reading of this book. The author and characters emphasize over and over that to be Christian is to be good, and to be non-Christian is to be bad. If you aren’t Christian, you’ll go to hell, and the goal of every single one of the characters in the book that we were supposed to empathize with was to be the best Christian they could be, with pretty much only one exception. The characters who were supposed to be “bad” either refused to believe in Christian beliefs, or obviously and crudely twisted the words of the Bible to suit their own interests.

In many books, you can sort of read around the fact that the author is subtly trying to convert you (if you’re not Christian)—but Mrs. Stowe is not being subtle in the slightest, so it made this book a little bit awkward.

However, this is not just a book about Christianity. The purpose of this book was to present the world with an accurate description of the evils of slavery—both its worst parts and its best parts. And what this book did was reach into people’s hearts and force them to see the horrible nature of what they were becoming. So for that, I don’t think I can underestimate it, whatever it is she did.

I really enjoyed Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Even though its topics, slavery and racism, are tough topics to talk about, it made me want to read, and it made me want to act (although I suppose I was a little late for this particular issue of this particular country…), but most of all, it made me think. One of the reasons I liked it is because it was written during the time slavery was taking place, so it wasn’t affected, the way modern works of historical fiction might be affected, by knowledge of what ended up happening and by our own societal views on the subject. Instead, the way it was written shows an insight into the way life really was back then, instead of how it is imagined to have been, and explains how abuses of humanity like slavery and racism could have been culturally accepted at that time.

Writing

“There are in this world blessed souls, whose sorrows all spring up into joys for others; whose earthly hopes, laid in the grave with many tears, are the seed from which spring healing flowers and balm for the desolate and the distressed.”

This book was poetry in prose format. This means that it had a lot of description, and also a lot of introspection. For some people, that doesn’t work as well. For me, it was absolutely beautiful. It is also written with a dry, somewhat subtle humor, which, along with the delicate use of language, made me enjoy this book very much. However, there are parts that are pretty disturbing—there had to be—and there were places where I wanted to skip ahead, because of violence or sadness.

“Of course, in a novel, people’s hearts break, and they die, and that is the end of it; and in a story this is very convenient. But in real life we do not die when all that makes life bright dies to us. There is a most busy and important round of eating, drinking, dressing, walking, visiting, buying, selling, talking, reading, and all that makes up what is commonly called living, yet to be gone through…” 

This book wasn’t dressed in a cute outfit. It wasn’t sugar-coated. This book is real life, taken from real people’s stories. It is grim and miserable at times. It is also occasionally pleasant—but at others it is so dark that the light times are clearly peeking out of a black curtain, as opposed to it being the darkness that is smeared across the light. (The zebra is black with white stripes.) As Mrs. Stowe said after she wrote it, “The author hopes she has done justice to that nobility, generosity, and humanity, which in many cases characterize individuals at the South. Such instances save us from utter despair of our kind. But, she asks any person, who knows the world, are such characters common, anywhere? For many years of her life, the author avoided all reading upon or allusion to the subject of slavery, considering it as too painful to be inquired into, and one which advancing light and civilization would certainly live down. But, since the legislative act of 1850, when she heard, with perfect surprise and consternation, Christian and humane people actually recommending the remanding escaped fugitives into slavery, as a duty binding on good citizens, — when she heard, on all hands, from kind, compassionate and estimable people, in the free states of the North, deliberations and discussions as to what Christian duty could be on this head, — she could only think, These men and Christians cannot know what slavery is; if they did, such a question could never be open for discussion. And from this arose a desire to exhibit it in a living dramatic reality. She has endeavored to show it fairly, in its best and its worst phases. In its best aspect, she has, perhaps, been successful; but, oh! who shall say what yet remains untold in that valley and shadow of death, that lies the other side?

My point is that, because this is real life pretending to be fiction, and not the much more common fiction pretending to be real life, the stories are not fairy tales, and happy endings won’t occur just because they’re supposed to. Just because it doesn’t sound good on paper doesn’t mean it didn’t happen—and doesn’t mean Mrs. Stowe left it out. Even very depressing works of fiction have a sense of fulfillment at the end (in most cases), because people, as a whole, don’t like bad things. But in real life, it doesn’t work that way, and this “fiction” was created to poke that real life—to say, Hello. Wake up. This is actually happening, and you need to notice it. Whatever bond you have, whatever contract you signed with the author by buying this book, is not going to read the same way you expected it to, when you’re picking up a biography as when you’re picking up a work of fantasy. This is somewhere in between, and nobody made any promises.

One thing that bugged me about this book was the way the dialogue went. Back then, it was common to write the way characters talked; today, most authors would tell you, “No, no, no, no!” It’s a little bit hard to understand, when you write “Lor’! she’s de biggest gal, now,—good she is, too, and peart, Polly is. She’s out to the house, now, watchin’ de hoe-cake. I ‘s got jist de very pattern my old man liked so much, a bakin’. Jist sich as I gin him…” When you’re faced with a page of text like this, it’s a little bit daunting.

And the last thing that I’m going to bring up is the racism. I’ll just say it. This book felt very racist to me. Harriet Beecher Stowe did not believe in slavery (obviously); but she lived in a time when it was practically impossible to believe that whites were not superior to blacks. Maybe she didn’t think that, but perhaps she did think that there were differences. Again, at this point in history, there were. Slaves had a slave mentality, and their owners didn’t. Many colored people of this time were illiterate, whereas most white people could read. However, she kept subtly talking about the things Uncle Tom did “in ways intrinsic to his race.” Even ignoring the incredibly racist remarks made by the characters (which could be just a portrayal of different people’s opinions), there are many examples left over. The difference is that what a character said doesn’t have to be write; but what the narrator says in a book is fact, at least for the book. Tom “had the soft, impressible nature of his kindly race, ever yearning toward the simple and childlike”; it is also said that, “The negro, it must be remembered, is an exotic of the most gorgeous and superb countries of the world, and he has, deep in his heart, a passion for all that is splendid, rich, and fanciful; a passion which, rudely indulged by an untrained taste, draws on them the ridicule of the colder and more correct white race.” These comments are utterly unnecessary. I don’t know if Mrs. Stowe thought that colored people were lesser than white people; if she did, that was the time period, and I’m not sure I would blame her; it was embedded in the culture. It was wrong, but it was harder to see that back then. I don’t think she was, but the only other reason I can think of would be that she was trying to connect to the reader in some way; and surely there were better ways to do that?

If ever Africa shall show an elevated and cultivated race,—and come it must, some time, her turn to figure in the great drama of human improvement,—life will awake there with a gorgeousness and splendor of which our cold western tribes faintly have conceived. … Certainly they [Africans] will, in their gentleness, their lowly docility of heart, their aptitude to repose on a superior mind and rest on a higher power, their childlike simplicity of affection, and facility of forgiveness. In all these they will exhibit the highest form of the peculiarly Christian life, and, perhaps, as God chasteneth whom he loveth, he hath chosen poor Africa in the furnace of affliction, to make her the highest and noblest in that kingdom which he will set up, when every other kingdom has been tried, and failed; for the first shall be last, and the last first.” 

Really.

People, it seems to me, often think that the Northern states were more or less blameless in this whole issue of slavery; Mrs. Stowe does a remarkable job of bashing this misconception as well. “You would think no harm in a child’s caressing a large dog, even if he was black; but a creature that can think, and reason, and feel, and is immortal, you shudder at; confess it, cousin. I know the feeling among some of you northerners well enough. Not that there is a particle of virtue in our not having it; but custom with us does what Christianity ought to do,—obliterates the feeling of personal prejudice. I have often noticed, in my travels north, how much stronger this was with you than with us. You loathe them as you would a snake or a toad, yet you are indignant at their wrongs. You would not have them abused; but you don’t want to have anything to do with them yourselves. You would send them to Africa, out of your sight and smell, and then send a missionary or two to do up all the self denial of elevating them compendiously.”

I will give a 4/5 here, because the writing itself was exquisite, but the overwhelming meanings did not always leave me comfortable, for reasons other than what was intended.

Plot

Perhaps you’ve noticed a vaguely perplexing and novel (no pun intended) arrangement of these sections. Don’t mention it.

So, the plot. I don’t really think I’m allowed to rate the plot here. As I’ve said, this wasn’t just a story; it was also people’s lives. Can I give a number to the turns someone’s existence took? I will give a number, instead, to the way Mrs. Stowe tied these threads together; to the way she showed her message with real events, and not with just telling. So, 5/5.

Character Depth/Development

In terms of the history of writing, at this time, it was not necessarily as important to make your characters real people, when there was a point you were trying to convey. These characters, for the most part, had hopes, motives, dreams, fears, and depth. However, the only development was moving towards Christianity. Overwhelmingly. I saw very little other change in the character development. If the character changed, it was at least explained through their renewed acceptance of Jesus, etc. I felt for the characters—how couldn’t I?—but at the same time, I felt that real people wouldn’t react the way they would.

However, during times of slavery, war, or other terrible events, people act in ways they wouldn’t otherwise, and are tested so that they learn more about themselves than they would have. As Mama says in A Raisin in the Sun, “There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing. … Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.” There is always something you don’t know about yourself, and you can’t judge anybody—even yourself—without looking at the worst parts of their lives.

I personally have never been through something as terrible as slavery, or anything like what some of the people in this book went through. And anyway, many of these characters were modified based on real people. How can I know what was “realistic”? They had depth, yes, even if it was a bit religious. So, 4/5.

Je Ne C’est Quois

This is another one of those difficult but-I-really-don’t-want-to-live-there sorts of books. Did I cry at the end? (Well, I never cry, laugh, or smile at anything printed or on a screen. I don’t think I can. But did I cry in my head?) Yes. Was it because the book was over? …No. I’ll admit it: I was a little bit relieved to have escaped this world. However, this was a beautiful book. Sad, yes. Terrible, yes. But it stirred up a nation. It made people think. And I suppose that’s the best accomplishment you can hope for. 5/5.

~~~

Should you read this book? Yes. Why? Because it is a single book, yet it was an essential part of America’s history. (Sorry if I’ve been saying “this country” or “our country.” I’ve been assuming you’re all American. But some of you aren’t!! That’s the exciting part!!) And America’s history is not just relevant to historians; it’s not just relevant to Americans. History is important because it gives you answers to questions about humanity. And there are very few questions as large as Who would you be on either side of a group that has absolute power?

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