Oct 21 2009

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Eliza Crossing the Icy RiverI just finished Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s 1852 abolitionist classic “Uncle Tom’s Cabin“. I have of course known about this book for as long as I can remember, but never really intended to read it (until recently). Why? Not sure. Maybe I thought it was irrelevant? Maybe I thought it would be awkward? Old racist stereotypes often are. Maybe I was just embarrassed to read a book surrounded by such negative connotations (which it doesn’t deserve). Much of the criticism for the book actually stems from unsanctioned “Tom Shows” during the 19th century where the main character was depicted as a subservient fool who would not stand up to his white owners.

The book is filled with cookie-cutter stereotypes: demonic slave-owners, dancing and singing black children, angelic golden-haired white children (well okay… just one), large brutish black men, etc., but that’s completely understandable given the book’s purpose. This was never meant to be a great work of literature (though it was the best selling novel of the 19th century); it was composed to illustrate the plight of slaves in pre-Civil War America to a populace that had become complacent (Fugitive Slave Act of 1850). The entire book was an appeal to “Christian values” (I won’t go into that) and an attempt to expose the horrors of slavery to white readers that either had no clue what was going on or didn’t care enough to do something about it.

Was it successful? In its time, absolutely. Today’s reader may find the story a bit of a slog through a seemingly unending barrage of Bible passages, hymns, and perorations on the importance of accepting Jesus and his gospel. The main character pretty much goes down without a fight because he believes it’s the Christian thing to do. Some might argue that his faith and restraint made him the ultimate victor (i.e., “he’s gone to a better country”), but that doesn’t change the fact that his story ends in a grave (spoiler?). Again, it’s important to recognize the audience she was writing for, and how best to stoke their passions. I also found it interesting that Stowe’s idea of reparations seemed to consist of freeing the slaves, educating them, and shipping them off to Liberia.

So, is it a good read? If you have ever had troubles staying awake through a sermon, you’re going to have troubles with this book.  If you’re able to appreciate the importance of this book in its historical context, it is worth reading. It was important 150+ years ago and prelude to where we are today.

“…there can be no high civilization without enslavement of the masses, either nominal or real.”

4 out of 5