An Important Classic
“Any mind that is capable of a real sorrow is capable of good.”
To be honest, I avoided this book until well into adulthood.
I was encouraged to avoid it, in fact, by numerous high school teachers who held it in open contempt. It was not required reading where I grew up in Minnesota. If anything, it was discouraged reading. (Not so much a banned book as a shadow banning.) … and by the culture at large which has long designated the term “Uncle Tom” to mean obsequious, weak-willed complacency to abuses against the African-American population. And so, I went into this book with a tremendous amount of hesitation and ignorance.
I’d like to begin this review by declaring my teachers were wrong.
And I was wrong, for allowing myself to take them unquestioningly at their ill-informed word. It was laziness and hold-over submission to authority, and I apologize to the memory of Ms. Harriet Beecher Stowe.
However one might feel about Stowe’s prose, what can’t be argued is her book’s historical significance. But to understand that significance, one must first be aware of the context.
Context: (noun) from the Latin contextus, from con- ‘together’ + texere ‘to weave.’
1. the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.
synonyms: circumstances, conditions, factors, state of affairs, situation, background, scene, setting
"the wider historical context"
frame of reference, contextual relationship
Stowe came from a deeply religious family, born in 1811 to Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher. (Her brothers—Henry, Charles, and Edward—all became renowned preachers and abolitionists.) Harriet attended the Hartford Female Seminary in Connecticut, receiving a traditional academic education (which, at the time, was typically reserved only for males.) There she met professor/ biblical scholar Calvin Ellis Stowe, and the two married in 1836. Both ardent critics of slavery, they became supporters of the Underground Railroad—housing several fugitive slaves in their home. In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, prohibiting assistance to fugitives and strengthening sanctions in free states. That same year Stowe wrote to the editor of the weekly anti-slavery journal The National Era, that she planned a story about the problem of slavery.
"I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak... I hope every woman who can write will not be silent."
The first installment of Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1851 in serial form by The National Era. Stowe originally used the subtitle "The Man That Was A Thing". Segments were then published weekly from June 5, 1851 to April 1, 1852. The goal of the book was to educate northerners on the horrors of slavery, while also attempting to make people in the south more empathetic towards the people they’d forced into bondage. And by all accounts, it worked.
Stowe’s novel pointedly illustrated how slavery affected all of society, well beyond those directly involved as masters, traders, and slaves. It captured the nation’s attention, rousing abolition debate and southern opposition. Southerners retorted with numerous works which are now referred to as anti-Tom novels, featuring positive portrayals of southern society and slavery.
When Abraham Lincoln met Stowe in 1862, he allegedly greeted her with the comment: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
(Sorry for the abbreviated history lesson there, but it seems important to offer the information I lacked when I was originally dissuaded from reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin.)
Stowe’s writing style certainly waxes philosophical at times. But considering how much allegory and rhetoric was woven in, her handling was largely organic. Obviously, all these scenarios wouldn’t have existed so concurrent with each other. Yet, there’s little doubt they were each inspired by experiences and stories circulated among the runaway slaves and abolitionists of the period in question.
I was incredibly impressed at how the author admonishes would-be "Christians" throughout—all while keeping God separate from the selfishness and folly of those who would do harm in the name of religion. She used Tom's tragedy as an empathic walkthrough of so many scenarios; illuminating all the vileness caused by "kind" slave owners who thought themselves humane.
“Perhaps it is impossible for a person who does no good not to do harm.”
This book made me such a range of emotion. Love, anger, admiration, loathing, pity… And the characterization was beyond compelling. I thought about the people in this story for days and weeks after the book ended—a rarity, indeed.
-Seriously… The English language does not have adequate words to express how much I wanted to reach into this book and punch Marie St. Clare in the face. >.>
-I adored the addition of Phineas to the runaway slave side of the narrative. He really balances out the pacifist nature of the born Quakers with the more aggressively helpful perspective of a recent (i.e. by-marriage) convert. He's not afraid to shoot people or be shot at, but he also doesn't retain malice.
-And Tom… Tom reminds me so much of Gandhi. (Though this book long predates Gandhi, I do realize.) I don't entirely agree with his interpretation of scripture or his personal determination toward pacifism. But I can respect his convictions—his bravery and stalwart sense of integrity. It helps that he doesn't expect the same conscription out of anyone but himself...
“Scenes of blood and cruelty are shocking to our ear and heart. What man has nerve to do, man has not nerve to hear.”
As for the assertion I still see cropping up in some reviews about how slavery ought to only be written about by African Americans… I can’t help but liken that to the idea that the holocaust should only be written about by Jews. To disregard the perspectives and experiences of those non-Jews who resisted Nazi occupation, or those who used their relative freedom and status to hide besieged Jews in their own homes (at great risk and cost to themselves,) is to reduce the complexity and evils of the system in question.
And how are we to prevent the repetition of history’s ills of we do not examine those injustices from as many angles as possible?
“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.”
“Marie was one of those unfortunately constituted mortals, in whose eyes whatever is lost and gone assumes a value which it never had in possession.”
“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 religion, I must look for something above me, and not something beneath.”