It is an astonishingly various and complex book, simplified in the folk land, which has remembered in its place the dramatic version in which Mrs. Stowe had no hand and which she saw, secretly, only once.”—Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin has a dicey reputation, though it was beloved in its day. The anti-slavery blockbuster that helped promulgate Abolitionism and kick off the Civil War was praised by Abraham Lincoln and Dickens. When Stowe visited the White House, Lincoln said, “So this is the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war.” Although Dickens praised both the execution of the novel and its anti-slavery message, Stowe was too radical for him: he told her that she went too far in her veneration of the African race.
Stowe, the daughter of an abolitionist minister, the sister of six ministers, and the wife of an abolitionist professor at a seminary, helped slaves escape to Canada via the underground railroad. She wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in reaction to The Fugitive Slave Act of 1950, which allowed runaway slaves in free states to be hunted, returned to their owners, or killed.
By the time I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the late 20th century, Stowe was out of fashion. In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, Second Wave feminism, and other political movements, readers had trouble with the interpretation of radical Christianity. Stowe’s portrait of Uncle Tom, a Christian slave who preaches against violence to his fellow slaves, was considered too simple: he was too passive and sycophantic. (Readers forget that Tom radically advises the concubine slave Cassie to run away from the plantation with young Emmeline when Cassie says she will kill the sadistic plantation owner, Simon Legree.). Readers often have trouble digesting ideas from another century, and their disapproval of Uncle Tom is very like the deprecation of the humble escaped slave Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The historical context for these characterizations must be analyzed, and so this accessible novel is not accessible to some.
If you can get past the discomfort, it is worth it. On a second reading, I am enthralled by Stowe’s graceful prose, pitch-perfect dialogue, and passionate preaching of Abolitionism. The perfection and power of this novel escaped me on a first reading: was I too concerned about the image of black Americans to appreciate her style? Sometimes the book seems dated–there are many authorial asides –but if you are a fan of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Stowe is Alcott for grown-ups.
Stowe’s fast-paced novel is a vivid and unflinching look at the horrors of slavery. The plot and characterization are equally vivid. The novel begins with the sale of two slaves. Although Mr. and Mrs. Shelby are Christians, and treat their slaves like valued employees, Mr. Shelby sells Uncle Tom and the house slave Eliza’s son Harry to pay off debts without telling Mrs. Shelby. When she learns of the sale, she is appalled.
Then Eliza runs away with her son, and Mrs. Shelby makes it clear to two slaves assigned to help the tracker that she doesn’t want them to find Eliza. They take the slave trader on a wild goose chase, but eventually find her on the border of Kentucky and Ohio. There is a harrowing scene where Eliza escapes across the icy river, carrying her child, and jumping from ice cake to cake. There is much drama after that as well, but at least the abolitionists are there to help.
Tom, though a husband and father, has not considered running away. He believes it is his fate to be sold. When a trader takes him down the Mississippi on a steamboat to Louisiana, an intelligent, compassionate rich little girl, Little Eva, becomes his companion. She persuades her father, Saint-Clare, an outwardly languorous, extremely witty, but empathetic aristocrat, to buy Tom, and soon he is Saint-Clare’s trusted household manager.
But Stowe points out that slave ownership corrupts. Even kind slave owners don’t consider what will happen to the slaves after a sale or their death. And when Saint-Clare dies, Tom is sold to a third owner, Simon Legree.
The torture scenes in this part of the book are so graphic I had to put the book aside from time to time. Tom amazingly helps the slaves cope–many have never heard of the Bible–and when he has a chance to escape, he doesn’t take it, because his work is among them.
He does, however, encourage Cassie, a brilliant quadroon slave who has been Simon’s mistress, and who has sometimes secretly ministered to the slaves when they have been beaten, to run away when she wildly plots his death. She has been too afraid to run, seeing how they are tortured when they are found.
This is a great popular novel, and beyond that. Stowe wrote it in serial form, and in book form it sold 3,000 copies the first day and 300,000 copies the first year.