Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe

1852

(Two slaves struggle mightily: one for her liberty, the other for his integrity.)

Group of SlavesCrop of A Group of Slaves leaving to Work in the Field on James Hopkinson's Plantation in Edisto Island, New Hampshire, circa 1862 by Henry P. Moore. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images).

 

This novel, the best selling book in the nineteenth century besides the Bible, is a remarkably forceful argument against the world’s most blatant form of widespread institutionalized violation of human rights. It is a collage of slave lives and lifestyles assembled with a thin glue of plot, all combining to urge our sympathies with the slaves and our antipathy to the injustice of their condition. It is an effort to bring free people to the realization that slaves are real persons who have the same sorts of spirits and minds as their masters, and yet they are and will always be subject to all sorts of anguish, suffering, and torture until slavery is abolished. “It is a comfort to hope,” Harriet Beecher Stowe writes in the Preface, “as so many of the world’s sorrows and wrongs have, from age to age, been lived down, so a time shall come when sketches similar to these shall be valuable only as memorials of what has long ceased to be.” We can be thankful that the author's hope came true-- the book served phenomenally well the purpose for which Stowe designed it. Testament to this are its enormous sales, the several hasty rebuttal “slavery isn’t so bad” novels, and, perhaps more than anything else, the comment of Abraham Lincoln when he met the author, calling her the “little woman whose book started this big war”.

UncleTomsCabin_coverSomething seems amiss in calling Uncle Tom’s Cabin solely a “memorial”, though. After all, we’ve outlawed (or nearly outlawed) whaling, but nobody would think of Moby Dick—which came out the same year Uncle Tom’s Cabin was serialized—as mainly a memorial. I think the reason why we hesitate to pigeonhole Uncle Tom's Cabin in the way Stowe suggests is that we can still learn social lessons from her book. The real failings of anyone in the past or present are the potential failings of anyone in the future. Moral warnings thus never become solely memorials. Stowe was overly optimistic to think that humanity would ever stop needing reminders not to try to own and tyrannize each other; her book will always be useful. Beyond this value, though, to be honest, she was not far off in expecting that her book would become a memorial. It is no Moby Dick. Its value lies in its historical and moral importance and not much more. Her wild whirls into melodrama and her exaggerated literary flourishes can leave you groaning if you come expecting the subtlety of, say, one or two of her distinguished authoress contemporaries across the Pond. Aside from the book’s mighty theme and original purpose, it is essentially a collection of personalities, didactic dialogue, and attempts to elicit emotion. But who is so rash as to denounce a monument? It will forever remain as one of the most important literary works in American history.

This situation shouldn’t leave us uneasy about recognizing Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a classic, i.e. something worthy of being read in perpetuity, although we might want to qualify the distinction. Some virtues of literary works are in a sense intrinsic, as works of art, rising above history, worthy for what they bestow to humanity irrespective of the times. Maybe this is the only brand of literary merit that purists would recognize, and we can certainly be excused for demanding it in our books. In fact I wish we demanded it more! Other works deserve a permanent place with us for virtues that are mainly extrinsic, lying for instance in their effects—the walls they erected or breached, the strings they pulled. Surely some works, like the produce of a few of the great philosophers, much of the Bible, and Thoreau’s Walden, straddle these two categories and have some intrinsic elegance in addition to having moved mountains. But we have to admit that many other socially influential writings reside firmly in the latter, extrinsic, category. I would argue that Hammurapi’s Law Code, most major scientific treatises, the Communist Manifesto, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring are examples. These works deserve to remain in our schools, shelves, and browser bookmarks for what they have done, and consequently what they can still do for us when we read them as if in their heyday. In this “canon of influence or circumstance” as one might call it, certain writings are important for the same sorts of reasons that history is important.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin achieved its tremendous importance for good reason. We have relatively few antebellum abolitionist books (several states outlawed them), and this one certainly seems to be the best in terms of effective boosterism, agitprop, promotion, whatever one wishes to call it—for voluminous, spirited, multifaceted argumentation. In fact “argument”, despite my having used this term above, is too narrow to describe Stowe’s strategy. As a whole the book’s psychological impact is much broader than an activist tract or a sociopolitical treatise. It is aimed at the whole person, heart and mind, using every literary form and means imaginable to impress its points. Stowe at times directly preaches to us, and at others uses a dispute between two characters to demonstrate how her opinions weigh against alternatives. Some of her deliveries are sweet and pathetic, others sharply sarcastic. Her messages are embedded everywhere: in her characterizations, descriptions, events, private thoughts of the characters, even the settings. Among other values, the book is a useful compendium. This author has undoubtedly thought of slavery from myriad perspectives, and has discovered greater and lesser injustices in every nook and cranny of the institution. She has also discussed the matter at length; she must have had frequent debates with members of the opposition view, for the book is evidence that she considered every argument, plausible or fatuous, that attempts to support slavery, to excuse it, or to mitigate its injustice. Preserved in this book are the emotions, ideas, and testimonies that drifted from a thousand public houses, churches, and parlors across nineteenth century America.

Along with its intense message, this book is also a herald of the abolition to come—a proclamation of what might be the first time in history when a dominant culture has voluntarily (with blood, yes, but not by slave revolt or external coercion) ceased to hold slaves. There were reasons besides the moral that made this feasible, but it is a remarkable and morally praiseworthy event nonetheless, begun across the Atlantic and spreading eventually to the New World. One doesn’t pat a villain on the back for ceasing his villainy! Still, one can be quietly grateful and relieved. Even as we recognize the despicable acts and beliefs of so many people for so many thousands of years, and for hundreds of years in our own country, it is no less healthy to recognize the uncommon instances of great and good moves in our social history.

Getting finally to particulars, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is about the lives of the slaves of the kindly Shelby family after the master is forced to sell them. I see the book as portraying two kinds of characters in the face of slavery: both understandable, both justified, both courageous. One is epitomized by Eliza the fighter for survival, and the other by Tom the man of faith. The light-skinned Eliza escapes with her son across ice floes on the Ohio River, in pursuit of her skilled and intelligent husband. They are harbored by several people despite a recent law forbidding the practice, and eventually reach Canada. Tom, once Shelby’s right hand man, is pious and humble, and elects to submit to the sale and commit himself to God’s care. His friend the boy George Shelby promises to buy him back, but in fact fails to do so, finding Tom only on his death bed. Much of the narrative follows Tom’s travels. He saves an innocent young girl Eva from drowning, and in return is bought by her father and lives a comfortable life as a house slave for a time. Both the fragile Eva and her father St. Clare die after two years, and Tom is thrown into the slave trade again. This time he is not so fortunate, but is bought by the depraved and egomaniacal planter Simon Legree. Legree is fascinated but also threatened by Tom’s impervious character and his certainty of supernatural redemption. Tom’s moral superiority to Legree stands in sharp relief one day, when the master can by no means induce the slave to reveal the hiding place of two female slaves, Cassie and Emmeline. Legree has Tom beaten to death for his refusal to submit. Although we readers are horrified, Tom is placid and philosophical. His hope of eternity has always allowed him to dissociate from the misfortunes of his earthly life, and this strength of will sees him through torture and even death: “There an't no more ye can do! I forgive ye, with all my soul!” (ch.40).

I cannot end a reflection on this book without saying a word in defense of Uncle Tom himself. Influential literary works leave as part of their legacy colorful additions to language. Undeniably the one most heard from this book is the name of the protagonist. In an unpardonable turn of events, this name has become vilified, especially by many of the very people whose ancestors his character was invented to champion! I understand that this has grown out of a justifiable outrage towards slavery and the subsequent widespread violations of the rights of the slaves’ descendents in America, violations which—although certainly much abated—extend even to the present day. In the face of such treatment, meekness and faithfulness seem weak to some. In life, as in Stowe’s work, there will always be tension among differing views of what it means to be strong in the face of oppression. Some argue for revolt: “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you're a man, you take it.” (Malcolm X Speaks, 1965). Others view things differently: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” (The Wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr, 1993). Some advocate the use of force: “I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man's problem just to avoid violence.” (Malcolm X, March 1964). Others see this strategy as counterproductive: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, 
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it….Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (Martin Luther King, Strength to Love, 1963). A root of the disagreement here is whether whether the “other side” should be viewed as an enemy to be defeated, or a fellow part of society with which to be reconciled. Once we make this fundamental decision, the sorts of actions that are permissible, and the appropriate range of strategies, become clear.

Today one who denigrates another as an “Uncle Tom” is disparaging someone who fails to resist, even as an obsequious betrayer of the cause. But anyone who thinks this way about Tom misunderstands him as much as those misunderstood his ancient hero when they yelled for him to come down from the cross and save himself. Just because the approach of the crusader and the freedom-fighter is laudable, and I think it can be, does not mean that a peaceful approach is feeble, much less traitorous! Both Eliza and Uncle Tom triumphed over their captors: Eliza by resourcefulness and evasion, Tom by hope and faith made of iron. Tom is the man strong enough to place his honor code before his own freedom, a feat of moral fiber almost unfathomable to me. He is also the one fiery soul who could stand unyielding in the face of Simon Legree, that cruel bullwhip and the law of the land in his hands. At that point, Tom’s spiritual powers trounced the social order, suddenly casting Legree into slavery and raising up Tom as the master. From Legree’s response, we see that he knew this as well. I’d gladly fight under Uncle Tom’s command—let us not mistake his restraint for weakness, or his faith for timidity.

Back to Top

GLEANINGS

  • Even the best of people can find themselves involved with slavery, as vile as it is (Preface).
  • Stowe hopes for a free and Christian Africa; in the end it is Jesus she looks to for our destiny (Preface).
  • Several studies of the tension between Christian faith and the existence of slavery:
    • God allowing cruelty and slavery is an obstacle to George’s faith (ch.2).
    • A Christian struggles with slavery (ch.5).
    • Biblical ambivalence about slavery (ch.11).
    • More on the Bible and slavery (ch.16).
    • God comes between Tom and Legree (ch.39).
  • Hard-nosed laissez faire types can soften up at the sight of real distress (ch.9).
  • The author presents several opinions on black personality and character:
    • Characterization of distinctive features of “the Negro personality” (ch.10).
    • Idealistic wonderings about possible African future contributions to culture (ch.16).
    • Explanation for slaves’ dishonesty: “cunning and deception become necessary, inevitable habits” (ch.18).
  • Description of a Kentucky tavern (ch.11).
  • Some pointed arguments against slavery
    • George’s speech: slavery allows all sorts of inhuman treatment, and frustrates liberty to which all have a right (ch.11).
    • An example of her good, biting sarcasm, when a terrible instance of slave auctioning is followed by the mention that this practice, and slavery in general, is said by “an American divine” to have “no evils but such as are inseparable from any other relations in social and domestic life”. Gets your injustice-meter into the red! (ch.12).
    • Augustine St. Clare denounces slavery as the epitome of degradation; including a few poignant notes such as the fact that geography can underlie perceived differences in virtue simply by presenting different contexts and opportunities; also a comparison of harsh capitalism to slavery (ch.19).
  • An incisive look at the stereotypical northern attitude towards blacks (ch.16).
  • The notion of Liberia (ch.43).
  • [To pacify those who might object to my bashing of the book’s literary merits] here are two examples of Stowe’s good use of adjectives for personality: “Indolent and childish, unsystematic and improvident” of Marie St. Clare; and “like geniuses in general, positive, opinionated and erratic, to the last degree”, of Old Dinah, the head cook (ch.18).

Back to Section Head

TIDBITS OF SIGNIFICANCE

 

Africa, who began the race of civilization and human progress in the dim, gray dawn of early time, but who, for centuries, has lain bound and bleeding at the foot of civilized and Christianized humanity, imploring compassion in vain.

But the heart of the dominant race, who have been her conquerors, her hard masters, has at length been turned towards her in mercy...

-Preface

 

For, while politicians contend, and men are swerved this way and that by conflicting tides of interest and passion, the great cause of human liberty is in the hands of one, of whom it is said:

“He shall not fail nor be discouraged

Till He have set judgment in the earth.”

-Preface

 

“I think I treat niggers just about as well as it’s ever worth while to treat ‘em.”

-Haley, the slave trader, ch.1. 

 

Whoever visits some estates there, and witnesses the good-humored indulgence of some masters and mistresses, and the affectionate loyalty of some slaves, might be tempted to dream the oft-fabled poetic legend of a patriarchal institution, and all that; but over and above the scene there broods a portentous shadow—the shadow of law. So long as the law considers all these human beings, with beating hearts and living affections, only as so many things belonging to a master,--so long as the failure, or misfortune, or imprudence, or death of the kindest owner, may cause them any day to exchange a life of kind protection and indulgence for one of hopeless misery and toil,--so long it is impossible to make anything beautiful or desirable in the best regulated administration of slavery.

-ch.1.

 

Mrs. Shelby was a woman of a high class, both intellectually and morally. To that natural magnanimity and generosity of mind which one often marks as characteristic of the women of Kentucky, she added high moral and religious sensibility and principle, carried out with great energy and ability into practical results.

-ch.1.

 

“I hate reasoning, John,--especially reasoning on such subjects. There’s a way you political folks have of coming round and round a plain right thing; and you don’t believe in it yourselves, when it comes to practice.”

-Mary Bird to Senator John Bird, during an argument about the rightness of harboring escaped slaves, ch.9.

 

“Let—not—your—heart—be—troubled. In—my—Father’s—house—are—many—mansions. I—go—to—prepare—a—place—for—you.”

Cicero, when he buried his darling and only daughter, had a heart as full of honest grief as poor Tom’s,--perhaps no fuller, for both were only men;--but Cicero could pause over no such sublime words of hope, and look to no such future reunion; and if he had seen them, ten to one he would not have believed,--he must fill his head frst with a thousand questions of authenticity of manuscript, and correctness of translation. But, to poor Tom, there it lay, just what he needed, so evidently true and divine that the possibility of a question never entered his simple head. It must be true; for, if not true, how could he live?

-Uncle Tom, ch.14.

 

Her form was the perfection of childish beauty, without its usual chubbiness and squareness of outline. There was about it an undulating and aerial grace, such as one might dream of for some mythic and allegorical being. Her face was remarkable less for its perfect beauty of feature than for a singular and dreamy earnestness of expression, which made the ideal start when they looked at her, and by which the dullest and most literal were impressed, without exactly knowing why.

-of Eva, ch.14.

 

And thus ended the whole romance and ideal of life for Augustine St. Clare. But the real remained,--the real, like the flat, bare, oozy tide-mud, when the blue sparkling wave, with all its company of gliding boats and white-winged ships, its music of oars and chiming waters, has gone down, and there it lies, flat, slimy, bare,--exceedingly real.

-of Augustine’s mindset after realizing he was tricked into leaving the love of his life to marry another, ch. 15. [This illustrates the author’s conception of the fragile but beautiful ideal in contrast to the murky real.]

 

As to mental cultivation,--she had a clear, strong, active mind, was well and thoroughly read in history and the older English classics, and thought with great strength within certain narrow limits. Her theological tenets were all made up, labelled in most positive and distinct forms, and put by, like the bundles in her patch trunk; there were just so many of them, and there were never to be any more.

-of Miss Ophelia, ch.15. 

 

...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.

-ch.16.

 

“Religion!” said St. Clare, in a tone that made both ladies look at him. “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 a religion, I must look for something above me, and not something beneath.”

-ch.16.

 

“The whole frame-work of society, both in Europe and America, is made up of various things which will not stand the scrutiny of any very ideal standard of morality. It’s pretty generally understood that men don’t aspire after the absolute right, but only to do about as well as the rest of the world.”

-Augustine St. Clare, ch.16.

 

“Well,” said St. Clare, “suppose that something should bring down the price of cotton once and forever, and make the whole slave property a drug in the market, don’t you think we should soon have another version of the Scripture doctrine? What a flood of light would pour into the church, all at once, and how immediately it would be discovered that everything in the Bible and reason went the other way!”

-ch.16. [Very poignant look at how our interests tend to rule over our reason. And what a smart prediction! This very thing did happen after the widespread use of the cotton gin.]

 

“We don't own your laws; we don't own your country; we stand here as free, under God's sky, as you are; and, by the great God that made us, we'll fight for our liberty till we die.”

-George Harris’ “declaration of independence”, delivered to a “short, puffy man”, ch.17.

 

South as well as north, there are women who have an extraordinary talent for command, and tact in educating. Such are enabled, with apparent ease, and without severity, to subject to their will, and bring into harmonious and systematic order, the various members of their small estate,--to regulate their peculiarities, and so balance and compensate the deficiencies of one by the excess of another, as to produce a harmonious and orderly system.

-ch.18.

 

“Here is a whole class,--debased, uneducated, indolent, provoking,--put, without any sort of terms of conditions, entirely into the hands of such people as the majority in our world are; people who have neither consideration nor self-control, who haven’t even an enlightened regard to their own interest”.

-Miss Ophelia, of Negroes in America, ch.19.

 

“...I never want to talk seriously in hot weather. What with mosquitos and all, a fellow can’t get himself up to any very sublime moral flights; and I believe,” said St. Clare, suddenly rousing himself up, “there’s a theory, now! I understand now why northern nations are always more virtuous than southern ones,--I see into that whole subject.”

-Augustine St. Clare, ch.19. [Interesting hypothesis on a north-south cultural gradient].

 

“...on this abstract question of slavery there can, as I think, be but one opinion. Planters, who have money to make by it,-- clergymen, who have planters to please,-- politicians, who want to rule by it,-- may warp and bend language and ethics to a degree that shall astonish the world at their ingenuity; they can press nature and the Bible, and nobody knows what else, into the service; but, after all, neither they nor the world believe in it one particle the more. It comes from the devil, that’s the short of it;-- and, to my mind, it’s a pretty respectable specimen of what he can do in his own line.”

-Augustine St. Clare, ch.19.

 

“When I have been travelling up and down on our boats, or about on my collecting tours, and reflected that every brutal, disgusting, mean, low-lived fellow I met, was allowed by our laws to become absolute despot of as many men, women and children, as he could cheat, steal, or gamble money enough to buy,--when I have seen such men in actual ownership of helpless children, of young girls and women,--I have been ready to curse my country, to curse the human race!”

-Augustine St. Clare, ch.19.

 

The number of those men who know how to use wholly irresponsible power humanely and generously is small. Everybody knows this, and the slave knows it best of all; so that he feels that there are ten chances of his finding an abusive and tyrannical master, to one of his finding a considerate and kind one. Therefore is it that the wail over a kind master is loud and long, as well it may be.

-following the death of St. Clare, ch.29.

 

The slave is always a tyrant, if he can get a chance to be one.

-ch.32.

 

...the right of a man to be a man, and not a brute; the right to call the wife of his bosom his wife, and to protect her from lawless violence; the right to protect and educate his child; the right to have a home of his own, a religion of his own, a character of his own, unsubject to the will of another.

-George Harris’s concept of freedom, ch.37.

 

“Who,--who,--who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”

-Tom’s last words, ch.41 [from Romans 8:35].

 

"But, you will tell me, our race have equal rights to mingle in the American republic as the Irishmen, the German, the Swede. Granted, they have. We ought to be free to meet and mingle,-- to rise by our individual worth, without any consideration of caste or color; and they who deny us this right are false to their own professed principles of human equality. We ought, in particular, to be allowed here. We have more than the rights of common men;--we have the claim of an injured race for reparation. But, then, I do not want it; I want a country, a nation, of my own. I think that the African race has peculiarities, yet to be unfolded in the light of civilization and Christianity, which, if not the same with those of the Anglo-Saxon, may prove to be, morally, of even a higher type."

-George Harris, in an argument for Liberia, ch.43.

 

“Think of your freedom, every time you see Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and let it be a memorial to put you all in mind to follow in his steps, and be as honest and faithful and Christian as he was.”

-from George Shelby’s eulogy for Tom, ch.44.

 

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?

-ch.45.

 

A day of grace is yet held out to us. Both North and South have been guilty before God; and the Christian church has a heavy account to answer. Not by combining together, to protect injustice and cruelty, and making a common capital of sin, is this Union to be saved,--but by repentance, justice and mercy; for, not surer is the eternal law by which the millstone sinks in the ocean, than that stronger law, by which injustice and cruelty shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God!

-final paragraph, ch.45.

 

Back to Section Head 

READ THIS WHEN...

...you want a dramatic rendering of diverse perspectives and arguments that reveal the horror of slavery

or,

...you are curious to experience firsthand a book that helped foment a Civil War. 

 

IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU'D ALSO LIKE:

(for the observer of American slavery:)

  • Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845)
  • William Wells Brown, Clotel (1853)
  • Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
  • Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987) 

(for the champions of American novels for social action:)

  • Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906)
  • John Dos Passos, U.S.A. (1938)
  • Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
  • James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)

FIND THIS BOOK:

Hardcover

 The Everyman edition, as with any classic they have seen fit to retain in their list, is peerless.

 

For those interested specifically in the social justice relevance of the novel, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. provides notes and opinions in this edition.  As much as I respect James Baldwin, who hated the book, I think Gates was able to view the book more clearly.

 

Paperback

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


The URI to TrackBack this entry is: http://greatlit.net/uncle-toms-cabin/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Comment

Spam prevention powered by Akismet

Skip to toolbar