Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe he said, “So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” Whatever else should be said about this book, let us say that Harriet Beecher Stowe can write. She had an impact. Uncle Tom should be read, as an important book addressing the war. But find some more historical or southern perspective to balance this northern view, after you read.
“Liberty! – electric word! What is it? Is there anything more in it than a name – a rhetorical flourish? Why, men and women of America, does your heart’s blood thrill at that word, for which your fathers bld, and your braver mothers were willing that their noblest and best should die?” (404).
“Is not the sense of liberty a higher and a finer one than any of the five? To move, speak and breathe, - go out and come in unwatched, and free from danger! Who can speak the blessings of that rest which comes down on the free man’s pillow, under laws which insure to him the rights that God has given to man?” (408)
She moves and persuades with her appeals directly to the heart and mind, using stories of how slaves in the south were oppressed and treated inhumanely.
Are her stories historically accurate? Apparently this came up soon after Uncle Tom was published, for she addresses it in her last chapter. Yes, she says, she has first- or second-hand accounts of such happenings. While she may not have fabricated her accounts, I found her depiction of southern culture generally quite jaded. No wonder southerners hate this book! The south is shown as having no moral sense. They (slaveholders, that is) are either actively cruel (Simon Legree), or passively apathetic, self-absorbed and narcissistic (St. Clare), or they free their slaves (George Shelby). For Stowe, there could be no other alternative.
Stowe argues compellingly in the last chapter: even if the instances of brutality are rare, our laws allow them, and thus should be changed.
This book is definitely on the sentimental side. By that I mean more than that it’s melodramatic and emotion-driven. Rather, feeling determines what is right and wrong for Stowe, more than an external standard does. She gets to the right conclusion by the wrong method, or at least a method not based on a sure foundation. Uncle Tom’s piety and Christianity is clear, but instead of the Word of God being the foundation for liberty in this book, our feelings are at the forefront. This is a major weakness of the book.
Some critics of Stowe make a big deal of how Transcendentalism had made far more inroads in the north in her time, than in the south. This is why abolitionism of her stripe flourished, is the assertion: the denial of the Trinity led to enforcing same-ness on the nation. I’m not convinced. As a fully Trinitarian Christian, I would love to enforce the same-ness of illegal abortion on the whole nation today, as I would have the illegality of slavery back then. Besides, in the story Tom appeals to the blood of Jesus when resisting the urge to kill his master. Stowe appeals to the cross of Christ at a few points, as an opposing value to owning slaves. Stowe’s ideal piety does not appear to be a deistic transcendentalism, but straight-up Christianity.
I’ve heard southern critics of Stowe argue that the north was also at fault for tolerating and even holding some slaves. As if this were an argument on the south’s side. It is known as the “Tu quoque” fallacy (you, too). At the end, Stowe too condemns the north along with the south, for trading in slaves some, for not really accepting blacks as equals, and for tolerating the laws that allowed for depriving blacks of their rights. One can focus on the north’s hypocrisy in being culturally racist while condemning legal racism in the south. Or you can focus on the south’s hypocrisy in knowing the black is a person, but continuing to hold them in captivity as property regardless of the man-stealing source of the market. Both were at fault in that regard. The south was willing to leave the union to keep their slaves. (Yes, I know other economic factors were involved, but it’s hard to prove slavery wasn’t a big one.) The north was willing to compel them to stay in at the point of a cannon.
When Cassy wants to kill the brutal slave-owner, Tom stops her: “good never comes of wickedness” (417). The north knew on one level that violent means to end slavery was wrong, yet pursued enforced union anyway. The south knew on one level that chattel slavery was wrong, yet held them anyway.
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