Stowe - Uncle Tom's Cabin

December 01, 2004

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly
E-Text via University of Virginia Text Center
Multiple editions over the years, orig pub 1852

Uncle Tom's Cabin is the great nineteenth-century American novel. It might be the Great American Novel, but I would rank Faulkner As I Lay Dying and Fitzgerald Great Gatsby over UTC. It clearly beats out Twain's Huckleberry Fin.

And yet, almost no one reads it anymore, which is why I assign it to the U.S. History surveys. (Survey part two gets The Autobiography of Malcolm X) They used to read it - it was the most read and most translated work of fiction of its day, it was read, or seen as a play, or seen as a re-written play, or in a re-re-written minstril show throughout the late nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. Remember that the harem in "The King and I" puts on a play of "the small house of Uncle Thomas" and that Berlin has its OncleTomStrasse (spelling?). Instead, while the names of some of the characters are still widely identifiable today - Uncle Tom, Simon Legree - the book itself has fallen out of circulation.

I can see several reasons for its decline: the drop in melodrama, the racism inherent in Stowe's plot and characters, her moral lecturing, and her insistence that Christianity must serve as a force for moral and civil reform all make the book both preachy and obnoxious. However, I think the biggest reasons are the turn to institutionalized racism in the early 20th century and the response of civil rights and especially black nationalists to the book in the middle of the twentieth century.

During the early twentieth century, say from 1890 the 1920s, the United States created a national re-union across the divisions made by the Civil War, with the nation accepting Northern notions of union and Southern notions of race relations. This was the era of mass disfranchisement, this was the era when both the Federal Government and Major League Baseball were segregated, this was the heyday of the second Ku Klux Klan - with family picnics and social events all over the South and Midwest.

During the Civil Rights movement, which might have re-habilitated the book, black nationalists condemned Tom. Tom willingly sacrifices himself to save others; he chooses to stay with and reform white masters rather than trying to run away; he is moved about the countryside by others; and in the various plays and re-writings of the book he changes from a moral conscience and Christ figure to a goofy, grinning, lackey. No one wants to be associated with that, especially because Tom himself was morally and plot-wise a woman and black nationalism was driven in large part by an attempt to re-define black manhood.

So, we don't read the book. And I think we should.

I like the book for a couple of reasons. The first is that, despite the implausible plot and final reconciliation, despite the digressions into long debates about slavery or the direct exhortations to the reader, the book grabs the reader and drags her along. Stowe manages to create sympathy for her heros, anger at her villains, and in Haley, Legree, and Marie she has three of the better villains in all of literature. They more than make up for the penny-tract nature of Tom and Eva, her two religious prodigies and Christ-figures.

The second, and the reason why I assign it to my students, is that the book hits just about every major concern of the nineteenth century: Slavery? yep; Gender roles? yep; Class identity? yep; The dangers of the commercial market? yep; The duty to be moral in an immoral world? yep; Sentiment? yep; Meditations on the duties that come with power? yep; Debates about free will? yep. It is all there, and that is why I call it the great nineteenth century novel.

In addition it has some of the less attractive parts of the era: racism? yep (compare the black and mulatto characters); classism? yep (her male villains are all lower class, her gentlemen are all kind, or at least not cruel); Triumphalism and bigotry? of course; separate spheres restrictions on women? yep - part of gender roles. Again, it is all there.

I re-read the novel every time I teach it, both to be fair to the kids who are also reading it and because I need to refresh my memory before I talk about the details with them.

The new thing I spotted this time was that there are two characters who are sort of the middle-class wish fulfillment fantasy. Rachel Halliday and Bill the drover both exert authority without appearing to make effort. Rachel Halliday is the more obvious - she is the Quaker woman who shelters Eliza as she runs and brings Eliza back in touch with her husband George Harris, who has also run away. Rachel Halliday is depicted as this tiny, soft-spoken woman who sits in her chair and rocks. She speaks a soft word, and children and husband scurry to obey. Separate Spheres advocates argued that a woman could dominate all around her by being gentle, and good, and kind - and Halliday expresses that ideal. Her male counterpart, the drover, has freed all his slaves but they choose to stay and work for wages; he sends them out on errands and they come back; he is uncouth - we meet him spitting tobacco juice with great abandon - but he is one of Stowe's moral voices and he again personifies effortless authority.

And so to teach.

Posted by Red Ted at December 1, 2004 02:40 PM | TrackBack
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