12.04.2009

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

"From his deepest soul, he that hour loosed and parted from every hope in the life that now is, and offered his own will an unquestioning sacrifice to the Infinite. Tom looked up to the silent, ever-living stars,--types of the angelic hosts who ever look down on man; and the solitude of the night rung with the triumphant words of a hymn, which he had sung often in happier days, but never with such feeling as now."

Let me tell you what's wrong with Uncle Tom's Cabin, because it's one of those books people feel the need to hate. Uncle Tom's Cabin is not gorgeously written. It sermonizes frequently. The book reinforces some terrible black stereotypes: the 'happy darky', the 'picanniny', the tragically beautiful mulatto, the Mammy nurse. Uncle Tom's Cabin draws on flat, melodramatic characters at the expense of human emotion. Uncle Tom's Cabin is terrifically unbalanced, terribly bigoted, and unredeemably out of date. It is less a classic than an artifact.

Now, let me tell you, please, why I loved reading it anyway.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was not an angel. She was simply a woman who saw that a thing was wrong in the world, and wanted to change it. She wasn't a great stateswoman or a practical reformer, and knew nothing really about how to, nuts and bolts wise, fix the problem of slavery. What she did know was the feeling of slavery. And for all that we now dismiss the book as sentimental, melodramatic and campy, it touched people when it was written - in fact, it was the second highest selling book after the Bible, and earned Stowe's reputation as one of the great abolitionists around the world. The book wounded people - people who did not know what to think were convinced by it, people who disagreed with Stowe were enraged by it. This book, in a way that few simple novels have been, is a mover of history.

And, the thing is, if you accept the sentimentality for what it is, and accept the book's shortcomings, this is still a really moving book. Tom is one of the most unabashedly Christ-like characters in the history of literature. Eva is a poignant, beautiful allegory of Christian thought. Legree channels the soul of evil in a way that is deeply disturbing. The trick is to think of this less as a novel about real people, and more like an allegory, a sort of Puritan version of the religious vision. The characters are types, sure - but that's because they represent ideas, not personalities. And you can feel the fervent hope of a woman who desperately wanted to do her part behind those ideas. It was an imperfect part, sure, and even bad in it's way, but it was noble and full of love. In some sense, the measure of a successful social movement is when we can look at it's founders and think they were backwards.

14 comments:

Chris said...

This is one I've been wanting to read for years just for the reasons that you've mentioned. It get so much criticism, but I think people forget when it was written and WHO wrote it. Great review Jason :)

Jason Gignac said...

Mr. Chris - It's a remarkably easy read, and actually the Librivox recording of it isn't half bad, I was surprised it always seemed like it would be tedious but it really isn't, I hope you get to read it :).

Amanda said...

See, I've always heard it's DIFFICULT to read, which is why I've shied away from it despite knowing I eventually want to get to it.

Jason Gignac said...

Amanda - Oh no, not at all! I mean, it was basically written in the style of a pulp novel. I don't know if you'll enjoy it as much, as she does spend time sermonizing, but, you kind of have to accept it from the understanding of the author, you know?

Jeanne said...

This book wasn't available in my public libraries when I was growing up in southern Missouri and Arkansas--that's how divisive it still is. I read it as an adult and loved it. The rhetoric of it is just fascinating--how it makes its points.

Another book like this that changed people's emotions about a topic is The Water Babies, about child chimney-sweeps.

Rebecca Reid said...

I started reading this via the email a day method this summer and I only made it about a third of the way through. I do want to read it (and I now have the book itself) but I have to agree that it is not very well written!

Thanks for these thoughts. I'm looking forward to picking it up again.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Jeanne - Had not heard of that Water Babies - I know the children's book by Charles Kingsley. And, the Miles Davis album... :D. I have read a few Upton Sinclair books on the same theme over the last year, in the same vein, and Nellie Bly's '10 days in a madhouse'. And I have 'How the Other HAlf Lives' on my short term reading list (I promised it to Ms Debi, so I need to read it soon!) Muckrackers forever!

Ms Reid - Yeah, reading Uncle Tom's Cabin is... well, it's not that it's badly written, it's just that the quality of it's writing isn't the kind of 'good' that I like. It actually kind of reminds me of LA Alcott, if she wrote something tragic...

Amy said...

What a lovely review. I've thought of reading this book but then heard it wasn't good, which put me off fast. But I like what you've explained and I think there would be value in reading it, anyway.

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Aarti said...

I've had this book on my shelf for a while but never brought it down, mainly for the reasons you cite for its negatives. I understand that it's an IMPORTANT book to read, but that it's not easy. I like the King & I version of it myself :-)

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Amy - Glad I could turn you toward it a little bit :).

Ms Aarti - It really isn't hard to read - I could understand it being hard to WANT to read it, if you don't like the 19th century Puritan american mindset, but it's really a pretty easy read, compared to most stuff from the time period - she wrote it to be simple, to be something anyone (in her time period) could understand, you know? :) So yes, try it! It's easier than you'd think!

Katrina said...

I read it a long time ago and I remember that I really enjoyed it. It wasn't difficult to read. Wasn't HB Stowe blamed for starting the civil war with this book? Obviously it was very important historically.

Debi said...

Jason, I can't tell you how much I love this review! Thanks for these words especially: "She was simply a woman who saw that a thing was wrong in the world, and wanted to change it. She wasn't a great stateswoman or a practical reformer, and knew nothing really about how to, nuts and bolts wise, fix the problem of slavery."
I hate when I hear this book judged as "poor writing." I haven't read it (it's the length that has stopped me so far--bad me!) so I can't judge the writing quality. But honestly, I don't care. How many people have tried to make a difference in such a way. And she succeeded! No, she didn't single-handedly end slavery or anything...but she opened so many eyes and so many hearts. Annie and I studied a bit "about" this book last year for history, and Annie read it for our "history through literature" unit (I was supposed to)...she absolutely loved this book.
Thanks for this review, Jason...I think I'm going to go get Annie's copy and set it on my nightstand. Seems as if I really ought to read a book I already care so much about.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Katrina - There is an apocryphal quote from Lincoln, where he supposedly said upon meeting her something to the effect of: "So, you're the little lady who started the war", but the verity of the quote is somewhat questionable, I believe. Her effect on the mindset of the time, however, is unquestionable, and certainly did contribute to defining the issue and polarizing the sides.

Ms Debi - I'm glad to hear you come to her defense :). Honestly, not to open a whole other can of worms, but if the book had been written by Garrison, say, I don't think you'd hear all the emphasis on how she wasn't a good enough writer. Even during her life, people seem to have kind of treated her as dear, naive little woman who tried to write a novel. Apparently the book WAS good enough, after all: it certainly had it's effect! I think the book is dismissed today partly due to a century's worth of accumulated sexism, and partly because it was written to appeal to people, rather than to be artistic - literature has a difficult time handling that. Part of it is, certainly, her writing is imperfect. But not as big a part as we make it out to be.