When Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851, it outraged people in the American South and was criticized by slavery supporters. The novel was declared ‘utterly false’ by Southern novelist William Gilmore; others referred to it as criminal and slanderous. A bookseller in Mobile, Alabama was driven from town for selling the novel and Stowe received threatening letters, including a package containing a slave’s severed ear.
Any book which garners such reaction is bound to be a powerful work.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is set in the South in the 1800s and begins with the story of Tom, a slave from Kentucky, just before he is sold by his “mas’r” to settle a debt. A parallel story follows the life of Eliza, her husband George and their young son, Harry, who flee to Canada when they learn that Harry will be “sold down the river” and separated from his family. Stowe’s writing is accessible, albeit a little preachy at times. She creates characters which resonate with the reader - pulling them from the comfort of their 21st century lives back to the days when American law allowed the brutalization of other human beings.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin has faced recent bans and challenges in Illinois schools and Southern States, and has been challenged by the NAACP for its alleged racist portrayal of African Americans and the use of the “N” word. Many people find the work offensive. But, I believe those sentiments are misplaced. The novel is not offensive - what is offensive is that it is a true portrayal of one of the most shameful periods in American history; things like this actually happened. It is offensive that white individuals were allowed to buy and sell blacks as though they were livestock; that the law allowed murderers to avoid justice because the victims were black; that families were ripped apart and children as young as two years old were taken from their mother’s arms to be sold. This novel is painful and powerful. It is not racist, but exposes racism for what it is - a crime against humanity. It is a slap of reality when a character is murdered, and a slave owner say: ‘It’s commonly supposed that the property interest is a sufficient guard in these cases. If people choose to ruin their own possessions, I don’t know what’s to be done.‘ OR when a wealthy, white plantation owner’s wife justifies separating a black mother from her babies by saying: ‘Mammy couldn’t have the feelings that I should. It’s a different thing altogether, - of course, it is,-and yet St. Clare pretends not to see it. And just as if Mammy could love her little dirty babies as I love Eva!‘
Stowe notes in the final chapters that although Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a work of fiction, it is based on actual events and the characters are created from people she knew or were told about. Perhaps this is why her prose rings true and clear, and the characters spring to life on the pages. Stowe’s portrayal of the black characters is stereotypical in many ways, a sign of when this work was written. Despite this, Stowe seems ahead of her time, exposing the hypocrisy of the “good masters” and the religious people (including the Northern abolitionists).
“…You loath them as you would a snake or a toad, yet you are indignant at their wrongs. You would not have them abused; but you don’t want to have anything to do with them yourselves. You would send them to Africa, out of your sight and smell, and then send a missionary or two to do up all the self-denial of elevating them compendiously. Isn’t that it?” - From Uncle Tom’s Cabin, page 176-
If Stowe has one fault with this novel, it is that she wraps it up a little too perfectly in the end. Her optimism in happy endings is perhaps her one denial of how terrible things usually turned out for slaves.
This is not an enjoyable book, but it is an important one. As philosopher George Santayana said: “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is as relevant today as it was when it was published more than 150 years ago. When I look at our current world with genocide in Darfur; genital mutilation of women in certain parts or the world; “hate” crimes; and other atrocities…some perfectly legal or (even worse) ignored…I realize we still have a long way to go before we have equality or justice. Reading Stowe’s novel should be required.
Highly recommended; rated 4.5/5.