Friday, April 22, 2022

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Flawed but important abolitionist melodrama
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
, published in 1852, was the bestselling American novel of the 19th century. As a well-intentioned muckraking condemnation of the institution of slavery, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist blockbuster has immense historical importance, though some aspects of the book have not held up favorably over time.

Tom is a middle-aged slave on the Kentucky farm of Arthur Shelby. By Stowe’s standard, Shelby treats his slaves well, but when he falls into debt he must sell some of his property, in this case human property, even if it means breaking up families. Tom is sold to a slave dealer to be taken South, along with a young boy slave named Jim. Jim’s mother Eliza, however, can’t bear to lose her son, so she takes the boy and flees North towards freedom. The mother and son are pursued by slave hunters, while Tom is loaded on a riverboat headed for a slave market in New Orleans.

The biggest surprise of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is how small a part Tom actually plays in the narrative. The book I expected to get—Tom’s persecution at the hands of the evil slaveholder Simon Legree—doesn’t start until two thirds of the book is already done. Prior to that, Tom is mostly just waiting in the wings while Stowe spends multiple chapters concentrating on the White people’s problems of the St. Clare family. Although Stowe is clearly anti-slavery, she goes to great pains to illustrate the difference between benevolent and brutal slave owners. In hindsight the amount of time spent sympathizing with the plight of the White masters comes across as misguided and antithetical to her abolitionist message, but Stowe wrote the book for a White audience, so she had to provide White characters with whom her readers could identify.

Stowe populates the book with a wide variety of Black characters, from the intelligent to the stupid, the industrious and the lazy, the noble and the shifty. Naturally, those who embody the negative side of those opposing characteristics come across as derogatory racial stereotypes. The Christ-like portrayal of Tom, however, is equally problematic. Through her depiction of Tom’s conduct, Stowe advocates passive suffering as a model of Black behavior. It’s hard to say how much of that is just fanatical Christian proselytizing and how much is calculated to make the book nonthreatening to White readers. To Stowe’s credit, however, the character of George Harris is a much more admirably drawn Black character with realistic emotions and aspirations.

From a storytelling standpoint, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is surprisingly compelling. Stowe deals the reader a satisfying mix of social realism and sensational melodrama. Although the book is often problematic, frequently over-romanticized, occasionally ridiculous, and relentlessly pious, it is never boring. Stowe has created an admirably sizable cast of varied characters and ably employs them in skillfully interwoven plot lines. One can’t help thinking that the subject matter deserved a harsher and franker treatment, but Stowe wrote the novel for the audience of her time, and it contains about as much violence, suffering, and guilt as they could handle. The essay portions of the book—George’s letter and the “Concluding Remarks”—are quite eloquently written and persuasive. Despite some unfortunate racial stereotypes and an overoptimistic faith in martyrdom, Stowe succeeds in conveying a strident abolitionist message that undoubtedly influenced the minds of many 19th-century Americans. Though Stowe was a White writer, it is not hard to imagine that her book helped prepare an audience for African American writers like Charles W. Chesnutt and Paul Laurence Dunbar. As Americans, we should be glad we had a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin in our nation’s literary history, even if it does have its faults.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

No comments:

Post a Comment