A student – most likely a university undergraduate but possibly a young woman in a high school literature class – glances through her semester's syllabus and the list of books to be read and discussed. One title catches her eye and she frowns. Why are we reading this one? The book, she's heard, is essentially a long anti-slavery pamphlet. She's picked up, somewhere, the idea that it features a little white girl who dies pathetically, and for comic relief a little black girl called Topsy. The title character, she knows, has lent his name as a derogatory term for an African-American man who's seen as groveling and flattering toward white people, a betrayer of his own race, which means that whatever the book was when it was published, it's very much out of step with her generation's sensibilities – indeed, with the sensibilities of her grandparents' or even her great-grandparents' generations.
It does not promise to be the kind of book she'll enjoy. When she's struggled through a page or two and found it slow going, with a narrative voice that refers to itself as "we" and speaks directly to the reader, an unfamiliar and stilted vocabulary (hitherto; bedecked; portentous), and the today-unspeakable "n-word" casually employed, she wonders again, maybe aloud: "Why are we reading this?"
It's a fair question. Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe's only real claim to fame, was an international best seller in the first years following its publication, but after its popularity faded it was known mostly from stage adaptations whose resemblance to the actual novel was distant at best. It began to appear on school reading lists, a century and more after it was written, maybe only because the makers of those lists wished to include a few authors who were not dead white men. It's old-fashioned not only in its vocabulary and authorial style but in its sentimentality and plot reliance on coincidence. Moreover, it was written frankly as propaganda intended for a specific audience: the white, literate middle-class of the northern United States, who might be recruited to the abolitionist cause or who, already in sympathy with that cause, might be inspired with a fresh passion after the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which among other things subjected U.S. citizens to imprisonment and a hefty fine if they were caught aiding an allegedly escaped slave. Because that intended audience no longer exists, one might reasonably wonder why Stowe's outdated work of propaganda is important reading today.
One answer may be that Uncle Tom's Cabin was in its time a hugely successful work of propaganda, one from which we can deduce how any propaganda works on its intended audience – a useful lesson in our own time when dramatic fictional entertainment sways audiences worldwide toward sympathy with—or acceptance of—a variety of premises. Another answer, perhaps a better one from our curious student's point of view, is that readers may discover with pleasure how Stowe's skills in plot, structure, and especially character, operating within 19th-century parameters of popular fiction but also extending those parameters in surprising ways, can speak directly to us in the 21st century.
"Poetry makes nothing happen," wrote W. H. Auden(1), and perhaps he was correct. Fiction, however, can be another story. Dickens' A Christmas Carol is said to have transformed Christmas in England from a minor holiday to the major celebration of the year. Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle, exposing horrifying conditions in Chicago's slaughterhouses, led directly to passage of meat processing laws and the U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act(2). And Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin became one of the most powerful catalysts for the American Civil War.
The war was fought over chattel slavery of Africans and African Americans, which had existed in the United States from the country's inception, had gradually been abolished in the northern states beginning around 1800, but remained basic to the economy of the cotton-producing states of the South. During the middle years of the 19th century, as the country began to expand westward, the southern states sought to expand slavery as well, by law, into the new states. Their efforts met considerable opposition from the North, but a fair amount of this was for political rather than humanitarian or religious reasons; moreover, there was a good deal of racist sentiment even among northern abolitionists.
The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, however, energized northern abolitionists of all stripes as well as others who were content with the continuation of slavery in the deep South but not with its expansion into the new territories and states, for the Act not only signaled a political victory for the expansionists but also threatened those who were staunchly anti-slavery on religious and moral grounds. Harriet Beecher Stowe, a forty-year-old white native New Englander, the wife of an Ohio clergyman, was one of the latter. In the early 1850s she began to write Uncle Tom's Cabin in installments at the request of the editor of an anti-slavery periodical. These chapters proved popular with readers, and her completed novel was published in book form in 1852, quickly becoming a best-seller in both America and England.
Part of Uncle Tom's Cabin's success was no doubt due to its timeliness, as the politics of slavery loomed large in the national conversation. But much of its appeal must have been Stowe's ability to draw on the sentimental tropes of her time – stereotypical characters both "good" and "bad," families parted and reunited, Gothic elements, incredible coincidences, rewards and punishments meted out conventionally, and, notably, the "special" child marked for early death. A novel with these ingredients well mixed, if equally well published and well-advertised, was likely to find an audience in the 1850s; Uncle Tom's Cabin sold several thousand copies on the first day of its publication and, despite one longish interruption in its popularity, related to the first publisher's business difficulties, it remained popular for many years.
Stowe wanted to influence hearts and minds, and she knew that the way to do this was to awaken emotional interest and to satisfy that interest. Uncle Tom's Cabin is not overtly didactic; if it were, it could not have succeeded as well as it did. What it accomplished was to convince readers of the human reality of its characters, the enslaved people who to many white northerners were unknown and alien, and the ones who kept them captive, to the spiritual and moral injury of both.
The book succeeds in accomplishing this, first, by means of two gripping plots, tied together in the first chapters, where a Kentucky farmer is forced by financial difficulties to sell two slaves to a dodgy speculator. The two are a little child, the son of his wife's maid Eliza, and Tom, his trusted and valuable farm manager. (Tom's age is never stated, but he and the farmer are close in age, perhaps in their middle forties but possibly even a decade younger; Tom and his wife are the parents of two pre-teen boys and a baby girl). Eliza, learning from the farmer's wife that her child is to be sold, sets out alone at night with him in her arms, hoping to escape across the river into the free state of Ohio. She will eventually be joined by her husband, who has himself run away from the employer who leases him from his owner. But Tom, despite his wife's pleas that he escape as well, allows himself to be taken. He knows that if he runs, their owner will sell others less able to cope with the dangerous situations they'll be subjected to farther south.
Following Eliza's and Tom's plots in alternating chapters, the novel moves in two directions: north and south, toward light and toward darkness. Other characters are introduced along the way, both sets of characters encounter crisis after crisis, and readers are left at the ends of sections with cliffhangers that make it hard to put the book down. As both plots move, small subplots and tiny embedded narratives further our acquaintance with the horrors and tragedies of slavery and deepen our insights into the major and minor characters.
Slavery's true evil – its immorality, the ruin of its participants' physical and moral humanity – is Stowe's thesis, but she eases her readers gently and disarmingly into it. The Kentucky farmer and his wife are "good" slave owners; the farmer genuinely regrets having to sell Tom and little Harry; his wife warns Eliza of the sale and facilitates her escape as well as she can. Readers can sympathize with all concerned and can even, if they wish, ignore what Stowe takes care to make available: the fact that this sale and its consequences are based on slavery's central assumption, which is that money is more important than humanity.
Stowe also presents the major characters in her "Eliza" plot in a way that invites white readers to relax their prejudice and identify with them. Eliza and her husband, George, are attractive, in love with each other and devoted to their child – a sympathetic couple threatened by cruel, contemptible slave-catchers. They are light-skinned (in fact they both at times "pass" as white or Hispanic). The reader is sentimentally attracted, drawn to identify with them, and at the same time is constantly reminded that the threat to these sympathetic characters exists solely because they are legally non-persons, slaves of African descent. Importantly, Stowe reveals that the threat is moral as well as physical. George has run away because his marriage to Eliza is not legally recognized and his owner plans to "marry" him to another of his slaves. Even more understatedly (necessarily so in 1852), Stowe reminds readers of what George and Eliza both know: their little boy's light-skinned beauty makes him most valuable as a child sex slave on the New Orleans market.
The characters in the "Eliza" plot, major and minor, are for the most part sentimental stereotypes, not drawn in depth. Their purpose is first to attract and disarm readers who might resist identifying with the dark-skinned Tom and his wife Chloe; they are never seen in their character as slaves, whereas Tom and Chloe's condition is sharply contrasted with that of their owner and his wife. The younger couple's second purpose, and the purpose of their plot, is to provide balance to – and relief from – the "Tom" plot, as well as to interrupt its movement, heightening the tension as both plots progress. Eliza and George are moving toward light and freedom, and while they encounter many dangers along the way we never really doubt they'll achieve their goal. Tom, on the other hand, is traveling into darkness, and while he is given (by God; this is an article of Stowe's Christian faith) a companion for part of the way, he must provide most of the illumination himself.
The "Tom" plot is peopled by characters of depth and complexity, with whom we can almost always empathize to a degree, and all of them in some way illustrate what Stowe saw as the moral evil of slavery. One of these complex characters is Augustine St. Clare, who buys Tom from the speculator at the urging of his beloved little daughter, Eva (Evangeline: her name means "heavenly messenger") while all are on a riverboat en route to New Orleans. St. Clare is a good-natured, cynical man, unhappy in his marriage to an unhappy and unpleasant woman. He is morally lazy; slavery has made him so, as it has made his wife what she is – a woman literally sick with self-regard(3).
St. Clare knows the system is wrong, but it's the system he inhabits and profits from, and he sees no way of changing it, nor does he look very hard. From a combination of carelessness and guilt he allows his slaves to steal from him; he encourages their moral laziness that corresponds to his, but they are without the protections from its consequences that he, as a free man, enjoys. He promises his little daughter, the only person he genuinely cares for, that he will free his slaves before he dies, but he's in no hurry to do either. He believes that, wrong as it may be, slavery will endure as long as it's economically profitable; he argues this point with his cousin Ophelia, a middle-aged spinster from Vermont.
St. Clare is not a racist. He sees slaves as people as good (and as bad) as himself, only unlucky (as he is lucky) by accident of ancestry. Ophelia, on the other hand, is both a passionate abolitionist and a racist, which she herself doesn't find incongruous, and which St. Clare finds somewhat amusing. To her, black people are alien, primitive, and not quite human as she is human. They are deserving of freedom, but she hopes that when they gain it, they will exercise it somewhere else. Being in New Orleans, around so many of them, makes her nervous. To make her face the absurdity of her position, St. Clare presents her with a little black girl.
St. Clare's daughter Eva is a stock figure, familiar in 19th-century sentimental fiction – the "special" child, full of God's grace and fated to die, popular with readers in a time when children had begun to be valued as individuals, not merely heirs or built-in labor, but when childhood diseases were likely to be fatal and many if not most families lost at least one infant or pre-adolescent child. But Topsy is as real a character as Stowe, the mother of many children, could make her. She's clever, quick, sensitive, intelligent, and totally without any knowledge that she hasn't picked up on her own. She has no idea where she came from or how old she is (she's probably about eight). She was likely the product of deliberate breeding on a literal child farm. She has never had a toy, never had an article of clothing that wasn't a rag. Until St. Clare bought her – from tavern-keepers who whipped her brutally and regularly – she was destined to work hard until she was old enough to reproduce, and then to be kept pregnant and working hard until she died. She is not pretty enough – or light-skinned enough, which meant roughly the same thing – to have been spared into the slightly less physically damaging labor of prostitution. Her moral training has amounted to this: take what you can get when you can get it; do whatever it takes to stay alive.
Topsy is definitely not a comic character. By accident, she's been saved from a fate that will be suffered by perhaps thousands of children no different from her, and the tragedy of that is overwhelming. With her introduction into the novel, Stowe takes off the gloves she wore when gently introducing her readers to the indefensible and crushingly common moral evil of slavery. After this point, the gloves remain off. The major and minor characters who figure now in the book will be pulled, some past endurance, between good and evil, evil being the merciless system of slavery and good being whatever ability is left them to respond to God's voice within themselves. Eva dies, prayerfully. St. Clare dies, quickly and unexpectedly, and his wife sells his slaves wholesale, after sending her own chambermaid to a "whipping establishment" (yes, this was a real business) to be beaten and raped.
Tom is sold farther south, into darkness visible and invisible, to a Gothic horror of a cotton plantation "overseen" by two slaves who are owned, body and soul, by the book's vampire(4), Simon Legree, a man who has passed through and beyond the love of money into the worship of power, and whose sustenance is the power of life and death over the human beings surrounding him.
If any character in the book is an "Uncle Tom" in the sense this phrase has come to be used since at least the middle of the last century, it is either of Legree's two slave overseers, who drink with their master, flatter him, and enjoy the power he assigns them to torture, injure, and even kill their fellow slaves. They are not as lost to evil as he is, but the difference is only a matter of degree. Any reader who, having read the book, believes that label describes the character of Tom knows nothing about Christianity or the Christian concept of love.
Tom is a Christian – in fact he is a Christ figure. He loves his wife and children in the ordinary, human sense of that word, as he loves his friends, his fellow slaves, to a greater or lesser degree; this is why he refuses to run away when his wife urges him to, for he knows several more will be sold to take his place. He loves little Eva for her innocence, her purity, her childish ability to channel God's love without apparent difficulty, for to love one's enemies is difficult – indeed almost impossible – when one sees them clearly for what they are, and Tom sees his enemies for what they are. He is sorely tempted to hate them. In one instance he's tempted to support the slave Cassy's plan to kill Legree, a plan whose likely success would save his own life, but instead he talks her into escaping; he knows her, and knows that this act of bitterness and hate would destroy her last chance to be happy and at peace with herself. Tom sacrifices himself for Cassy, not for Legree, who he knows would have an easier death at Cassy's hand than he certainly will if she spares him.
The novel ends, with the help of many happy coincidences, triumphantly. Tom's personal triumph is spiritual, not physical, but to Harriet Beecher Stowe and her 19th century readers, a spiritual victory is of greater worth. Uncle Tom's Cabin is remembered now as an example of fiction that helped bring about important change in the real world. It should also be read and remembered as a novel that shines with its author's skill and passionate feeling, her unshakable beliefs, her dryly ironic and often angry wit, and her deep insight into aspects of human character that remain, over centuries, entirely unchanging.
About the author of this work
Mary Patterson Thornburg holds a Ph.D. in British and American Literature from Ball State University, Indiana, where she taught for 20+ years. She lives in Montana with her husband, Thomas Thornburg, writes novels and short fiction, and shamefully neglects her blog and website at www.marypattersonthornburg.com.
Copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe can be downloaded for free in most e-book formats from Project Gutenberg
(1) In his poem "In Memory of W. B. Yeats."
(2) Sinclair's remark on this: "I aimed for the public's heart and by accident hit it in the stomach."
(3) Marie St. Clare is plainly a narcissist, a clinically disturbed personality. Stowe's psychological insight in her portrayal of characters throughout Uncle Tom's Cabin is stunningly accurate. It's easy to forget she was writing the book four years before Sigmund Freud was born.
(4) So described by Cassy, the slave woman Legree keeps as his mistress.
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