Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe is the book that started the American Civil War, according to Abraham Lincoln who was only being partially facetious when he first made that comment to the author. Starting a war was not Ms. Stowe’s goal when she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but ending slavery in America certainly was. Telling a story, creating a work of art, while important, played a secondary role in her ambitions. The story serves an express purpose, exposing the horrors of slavery in order to bring about its end. So, 150 years after it’s initial publication, what does Uncle Tom’s Cabin have to offer a 21st century reader?
As a historical document, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it must be acknowledge, carries a lot of weight. It was after all, the best selling novel of the 19th century, the second best selling book in the world, second only to the bible. Written as an angry response to the passage of the fugitive slave act, it certainly tapped into the cultural zeitgeist of it’s day. Stowe’s novel and the wide ranging dramatizations it inspired, some of which were staged before the novel serialization was even finished, have entered into the American collective consciousness. (Even Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim referenced the novel; his song “Not Getting Married” includes the line “like Eliza on the ice.”) The characters Uncle Tom, Topsy, Eliza, Simon Legree, Little Eva have all taken on a life of their own, often unfortunately so. Stowe’s depiction of slavery, while far from comprehensive and probably far from accurate, opened the eyes of contemporary readers, and can still at least raise a few eyebrows today. People tend to forget how horrible things were with the passage of time which makes books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin useful reading.
But, in the end, is it a good read? The story begins with high melodrama that does not let up until the very end. In the opening chapters, Uncle Tom, though devoted to his master, Mr Shelby, and his master’s family, is sold along with young Harry, Eliza’s son. Eliza has already lost her husband to a plantation owner who refuses to let her see him, so she takes her young son and runs away before he can be sold south. Eliza carries her son across a the broken ice that floats down the Ohio River in order to be free. Uncle Tom is sent to the slave markets in New Orleans on a river boat. While on-board he rescues a young girl, Eva, who insists that her father, Mr. St. Clare, buy him so she can have his company.
On the St. Clare plantation Uncle Tom and Little Eva win the hearts of just about everyone but Mrs. St. Clare who sells Tom instead of granting him freedom after the deaths of both Eva and her father. Tom then ends up in the hands of Simon Legree who runs a plantation straight out of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Tom’s wife, Aunt Cloe, meanwhile, works and saves her money so she can buy Tom’s freedom. In the end, Mr. Shelby, Jr. goes to Legree’s plantation to buy Tom back only to find he is dying from the severe beating Legree has given him. Back in Canada Eliza, George and their children decide to emigrate to Liberia to start a new life and to bring Christianity to Africa.
You can see why so many modern reader’s have problems with the novel. It’s not that the black characters are realized as less than fully human, it’s that they are realized as children. Tom and Little Eva are equals, both portrayed as children in a sentimental Victorian melodrama. Both are devoted to each other and to Christianity as only fictional little children can be. Both believe that God will save them and that everyone should turn to God and all their problems will be solved. The message of the novel is not just that slavery is wrong, but that turning away from God is wrong. We must end slavery as a means of returning to the path of righteousness that God has set out for us to follow. This path, leads the black characters back to Africa, not as a return to the lives their ancestors left, but as missionaries spreading Christianity. Why should they have to go back in the first place? Don’t they have as much right to be in America as anyone? Stowe was against slavery, but she is not really arguing for racial equality.
The major problem a modern reader will have with Uncle Tom’s Cabin may not be the book’s racism, arguing that the 19th century American novel is racist seems moot to me anyway, but that the book is very preachy. Much of the dialogue serves to provide a platform to advance the case against slavery rather than to develop the plot or the characters. Whether two characters are sitting in a parlor or facing each other over the point of a gun, the speeches against slavery continue. Many of them are very good. Case in point, George’s reply to the bounty hunters who have cornered his family on a hillside in Ohio:
“I know very well that you’ve got the law on your side, and the power,” said George, bitterly, “You mean to take my wife to sell in New Orleans, and put my boy like a calf in a trader’s pen, and send Jim’s only mother to the brute that whipped and abused her before, because he couldn’t abuse her son. You want to send Jim and me back to be whipped and tortured, and ground down under the heels of them that you call masters; and your laws will bear you out on it,—more shame for you and them! But you haven’t got us. 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 stood out in fair sight, on the top of the rock, as he made his declaration of independence; the glow of dawn gave as flush to his swarthy cheek, and bitter indignation and despair gave fire to his dark eye; and, as if appealing from man to the justice of God, he raised his hand to heaven as he spoke.
If this works for you as a reader, you’ll find much to enjoy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I found it to be tough going for much of the novel. Towards the end of the book, once Tom arrives at Simon Legree’s plantation, I found the speeches became less frequent and the narrative pace picked up quite a bit. The book almost became hard to put down for the last 200 pages.
In the end, while interesting and important as a historical document, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly, by Harriet Beecher Stowe has little to offer the modern reader.
In the years since I wrote this review for my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2008, several teachers have suggested using Uncle Tom’s Cabin as part of their curriculum. Makes sense, they say, because we study the Civil War in 8th grade and the book is a classic. It’s an unread classic, I point out, unread for a reason. For several reasons actually. I stand by that opinion to this day. I’m glad I read it, so I know what all the fuss was about, and what the fuss continues to be about, though not as much fuss by any means. It’s something I wish someone would re-work today. I’d love it if somebody did a re-write like has happened with so many classic texts. The bare bones of a really good story are still there. Done right, the characters could still have a great deal to say about race in America. As they are in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s hand, they are pretty much an object lesson in what not to do when writing about race in America.