Sunday, October 7, 2012

Book #54 - Uncle Tom's Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe)



I found this gem of a quote in the news yesterday:

"The institution of slavery that the black race has long believed to be an abomination upon its people may actually have been a blessing in disguise. The blacks who could endure those conditions and circumstances would someday be rewarded with citizenship in the greatest nation ever established upon the face of the Earth."

-- Arkansas state Rep. Jon Hubbard (R), quoted by the Arkansas Times

I seriously doubt that Jon Hubbard ever read "Uncle Tom's Cabin".

There have been several books I've read for this blog project so far that have dealt with slavery.  Frederick Douglass' and Booker T. Washington's autobiographies, along with "Pudd'nhead Wilson" and "Beloved" all dealt with the issue in different ways, but none were so blunt and direct and powerful as Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin"...well, OK, maybe "Beloved" but that was written years after slavery ended.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was an abolitionist and the wife of a seminary professor.  In 1850, congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which outlawed people in the north assisting runaway slaves.  In fact, if a runaway slave was caught in the north they had to be returned.  This fanned the flames of northern outrage against the institution of slavery and inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write "Uncle Tom's Cabin".  Published in serial form, the book became a HUGE bestseller, and one source I read said it was the top-selling book of the 19th century.  The book drew widespread praise in the north, and condemnation in the south.  After the Civil War broke out about ten years later, Harriett Beecher Stowe was invited to a White House dinner, where Abraham Lincoln allegedly said, upon meeting her, "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war".

The book is an interesting read to say the least.  First of all, it's almost impossible not to think about its historical significance when reading it.  Nowadays we are accustomed to thinking of slaves as real human beings who lived and suffered and died under terrible circumstances.  In particular, I can remember as a kid when "Roots" was on television, and it was a huge event.  And books by modern authors like Toni Morrisson have brought to life the experience of living under slavery.  But "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was a first...it brought slave characters to life, and depicted in great detail the inhumanity of slavery to an audience that oftentimes did not regard slaves as quite being human.  In particular, the author was a mother who had lost a young child, so she was very good at depicting the horrors of children being separated from their mothers, and of families being broken up by the slave traders.  It's hard to imagine how shocking this book must have seemed to readers in the 1850s.  IT gave them a new way to look upon their world.

To a modern reader, even to one slightly tipsy from a delicious snifter of brandy (the most prevalent form of alcohol consumed in the book...which is weird because I kind of doubt that would have been the go-to drink of southern plantation overseers.  But then I would also bet that Harriett Beecher Stowe did not often encounter alcohol up close and personal, so maybe she was just improvising here.  But I digress...), the book can seem dated.  For one thing, it's very preachy.  HBS leaves no doubt as to her feelings on slavery, and she is not afraid to hit you over the head with it every few pages.  Characters go into long speeches debating slavery, which almost turns sections of the book into sermons rather than conversations between characters in a story.  And in the final chapter, after the story formally ends, HBS just comes right out and speaks directly to the audience about the horrors of slavery, and claims that all the characters and their lives are based on true incidents that she has known or has heard about.

Also the book is VERY religious.  Uncle Tom is a devout Christian, as are several other characters, and you are hit over the head with the idea that Christ helps them make it through their terrible struggles, and that they will be happy in the afterlife because they have lived good Christian lives.  I don't think I've read this religious a book in a very long time, maybe not since I read the Old Testament.  There's no doubt that the author was a very devout Christian, and she does not let you forget it.  However, she is not preaching Christianity at the audience like she is preaching abolition...instead, you can tell that she assumes her audience is Christian and she has no need to preach about that...instead she is hammering home the idea that since you (the reader) are a Christian, then you cannot possibly be supportive of slavery, because look how awful it is and look what good Christians some slaves are.

And finally the book seems dated because it's pretty damn melodramatic.  The author really knows how to pull at the heartstrings!  Beautiful angelic children die, and teach their parents the joy of accepting Christ as they pass away!  Hardworking, scrupulously honest, devout Christian slaves are tortured and beaten to death!  Beautiful young women slaves who are devout Christians are sold to gross, sleazy men who will use them for...well, you know what they will use them for!  Slaves escape to the north, barely eluding their pursuers at every turn, saved only by devout Quakers who have their backs!  And these same Quakers, when the evil slave pursuers are injured, nurse them back to health where they will learn to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and live good lives from now on!  Oh, the humanity!  And yet, one has to admit that yes it's all melodramatic, but the author does melodrama really, really well.  The book is a page turner, and is only slowed down here and there for some serious anti-slavery preaching and diatribes.

Not only is the novel melodramatic,  but the characters often seem like stock figures and not real human beings.  The character of Uncle Tom is one example.  Uncle Tom is a good man...portrayed as being completely honest, very hard-working, intelligent, loving to all children (both black and white), and an incredibly devout Christian who sings Methodist songs, reads the Bible, and teaches his fellow slaves about Christianity and the Bible.  He pretty much has no flaws.  Through his owners financial woes and death, he ends up on the plantation of the evil sadist Simon Legree, where he is flogged for not wanting to flog his fellow slaves, and where he is finally beaten to death for refusing to divulge the whereabouts of two fellow slaves who have run away.  He's too good to be true.  Which brings up an aside which has me puzzled after reading this novel...in popular culture, at least nowadays, an "Uncle Tom" refers to a black man who is obsessively subservient to white people, or to authority figures.  Now the Uncle Tom in the novel definitely respects the authority of his owners, and is an extremely hard worker, but he refuses to beat his fellow slaves when ordered, and he refuses to rat on his fellow slaves who have run away.  I see him as a character almost like Ghandi, or Martin Luther King...a man who practices non-violent, religious-based civil disobedience when asked to do something which would compromise his religious principles.  He goes along with his owners most of the time because he's a slave and doesn't know anything else and is a hard-working man, but his greater allegiance is to his God and Christ and he will not compromise those for any man, even if the man owns him, has a whip, and is not afraid to use it.  For this reason, Simon Legree hates Uncle Tom, because he knows that he can never terrorize him like the other slaves, and will never be able to break him, because his Faith keeps him strong.  Stock character or not, you have to admire the man.  He's definitely no Uncle Tom.

Most of the other characters seem like stock figures too...in particular, the angelic little white girl Eva, who Tom meets when he saves her from drowning when she falls off a riverboat, and who then convinces her father to buy Tom.  Eva has no faults and as a six year old can see the abject horror of slavery and is beloved by everyone in the household, both owners and slaves.  Of course, she's too good for this world, and dies of tuberculosis.  But she is unconcerned about her death because she believes in Christ and knows she's going to a better place.

Anyway, despite the melodrama and the anti-slavery diatribes and the overbearing Christianity and the stock characters I think this book is well worth reading.  For one thing it's worth reading for its historical value, because if we forget the huge horrific inhuman role that slavery has played in the history of this country then we're condemned to have to listen to idiotic quotes like the one at the start of this post.  Racial injustice and prejudice are still something we deal with in this country, and reading this book helps give a historical perspective on how far we've come (hey, we have a black president!) and how far we still have to go.  It's amazing that all this happened not so very long ago really.  It's part of our history and that history still continues.  But the book is also worth reading because even if it's often a contrived melodrama with stock characters, it's a damn good story.  Oops, I shouldn't say "damn"...

1 comment:

Viktoria said...

I remember reading this book in my teens, crying the whole time. It´s not just an American classic, it belongs to the world.