Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rant or Rave: Uncle Tom's Cabin

As part of my "Catching up on all the books I probably should've read when I was younger but somehow never got around to," tour of literature, I recently read Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Classic title, about which I knew next to nothing except that it was vehemently anti-slavery and had a major impact on the abolition movement in the mid-1800s, culminating ultimately in the Civil War. That's about it. Things I did not know about Uncle Tom's Cabin:
  • It was the best-selling novel of the 19th Century, selling over 300,000 copies in its first year of publication, and the second-best selling book to the Bible.
  • It was made into a multitude of different plays and dramatic performances during the second half of the 19th Century, none of them authorized by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
  • That there was a controversy regarding Stowe's descriptions of southern slave life since she never actually visited any southern plantations, relying instead on written narratives and interviews with escaped slaves.
  • My understanding that the Uncle Tom character of the book was a race traitor, a figure to be scorned, even a villain, came from the unauthorized plays and 20th Century literary criticism, not from the book itself.
The writing in Uncle Tom's Cabin is good. Not great, but good. Actually, at its best it is great, but the book is quite uneven-- some sections are extremely engaging and well-written, while others suffer from either heavy-handed "preaching" from the author or over the top melodramatic prose.

But while Stowe's actual writing is inconsistent, the story and the subject of the book are not-- her vivid depiction of the evils of slavery, the negative, nearly inconceivable harm it did to so many people-- comes through brilliantly. To get a true sense of what slavery was like as little as 150 years ago, read this book.

So, a nearly unqualified rave for Uncle Tom's Cabin. It is a powerful, generally well-written and engaging story that will give you a new appreciation for just how awful an institution slavery was, and is, in our world. The only qualification is to be aware that at times the author does interject herself too much into the narrative-- telling, rather than showing-- and this can be distracting and annoying on occasion.

Final note-- if anyone ever calls you an Uncle Tom, simply smile at them and say "thank you." It will likely confuse them, and then you can tell them that Uncle Tom was a compassionate, kind and spiritual man, who always helped others and sacrificed himself to protect others from harm and injustice. Stowe's book is a Christian book, strongly grounded in 19th Century Protestant Theology, and Uncle Tom is in many ways a Christ-like figure. Never violent, willing to bear physical and emotional wrongs stoically to help others with the support of his faith, Uncle Tom is not a race traitor or a subservient whipping boy. He is a strong, principled man who doesn't compromise his beliefs even when it costs him severe beatings.

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