(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
Uncle Tom's Cabin: OR, Life Among the Lowly (1852)
By Harriet Beecher Stowe
Book #39 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
First written serially over the course of 1850 and '51, Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 Uncle Tom's Cabin actually tells several related stories concerning the horrors of slavery, starting at the relatively benign Kentucky household of Arthur and Emily Shelby, who treat their slaves more as respected hired help than property. But property they indeed are; and when the Shelbys find themselves in money trouble, they're forced to sell off several of their slaves, including not only the gentle, much loved overseer of the family farm, the eternally good-natured "Uncle" Tom, but also the physically strong son of Emily's personal maid Eliza, particularly heartbreaking because of Eliza having had two miscarriages previously and now intensely devoted to her only remaining son Harry. She's so devoted, in fact, that after hearing of the upcoming sale, she escapes one night with him by wading across a frozen river with no winter protection, kicking off an epic chase between her, her reunited husband and fellow runaway George, and the cruel slave-hunter Tom Loker who's been hired to bring them back, an action-packed story that takes the family from the Mason-Dixon line all the way to Canada and beyond, and interacting with such famed groups as the Quakers and the Underground Railroad.
Meanwhile, the docile "perfect Christian" Tom has decided to humbly accept his fate; but after saving a precocious six-year-old white girl named Eva from drowning during a steamboat ride to his new destination, the girl's father Augustine St. Clare buys him out of gratitude, and brings him back to his sort-of experimentally liberal home in New Orleans, where Tom is set to live a life of relative ease, or at least relative to the backbreaking manual labor that was awaiting him at his original destination. (And in fact, Stowe uses this home, and the appearance of St. Clare's Yankee cousin Ophelia, as an excuse to have a series of expositional debates over the issue of "malignant" versus "benign" slavery, with Ophelia for example being an abolitionist yet who personally finds black people abhorrent, which St. Clare argues is just as bad as being a slaveowner to begin with.) But alas, after the emotionally moving and Christlike death of little Eva, and her father's deathbed promise to make Tom a free man, St. Clare is unfortunately stabbed to death in a bar fight before he can do so; and that's when Tom ends up getting sold to the human monster Simon Legree, and taken Heart of Darkness style into the unending nightmare of the deep rural South, an infinite horror show of torture-friendly atheism and deadly black-on-black violence, where Legree is determined to make an example of Tom for his refusal to whip other slaves because of his deeply Christian beliefs. Needless to say that things don't end well for Tom, leading to the angry indignation among readers that Stowe precisely wanted them to have, even as we also finish the book watching a very different fate await Eliza, George and Harry, who manage to escape to Europe and eventually make their way to Liberia, an actual African country in the 1800s that was created specifically for escaped American slaves. (And please note that there's actually a lot more that could be said about this book's surprisingly dense plot; I'm giving here just the barest outline of the story for the sake of brevity.)
The argument for it being a classic:
Well, for starters, it was the second most purchased book on the planet of the entire 19th century, beaten only by the freaking Bible (and including this being the very first American book to ever be translated into Chinese); plus it had such a profound impact on those who read it, no less than Abraham Lincoln is said to have remarked to Stowe upon meeting her for the first time, "So this is the little lady who started this great war." (Now, please realize that this anecdote is most likely made up; what's undisputed, though, is that just in the year of this book's publication alone, in just the city of Boston alone, over 300 newborn babies were named "Eva" in honor of the book's fallen child hero.) And that's because Stowe did something that no other author up to that point had ever done, argue her fans, which was to humanize the issue of slavery to a massively effective degree, when up to then most people were more used to debating it as an abstract economic issue; for example, Stowe hammers home over and over here the emotional toll that comes with having a baby literally ripped from a mother's arms and sold off to strangers, a detail about the slave industry that ended up profoundly upsetting tens of millions of middle-class white mothers when first made public knowledge, and that immensely helped change the view they had been fed their whole lives that black people are in actuality little more than animals, and are no more upset by the loss of a child than a dog would be by one of its litter dying.
This incidentally makes Uncle Tom's Cabin a proto-feminist tale as well, say its fans, in that Stowe believed that only the maternal love inherent in women could bring about a society of equals, with the men of this book almost exclusively being either bloodthirsty animals or whiny hypocrites with endless financial troubles; and along the way, it also serves as a nearly perfect piece of Liberal Christian propaganda, arguing for the exact kind of "religious social justice" that Glenn Beck claims is a sign of Nazism. It was literally this book, its fans claim, that convinced the majority of Northerners in the mid-1800s to change their belief in the idea of compromise with the South over slavery (as best typified in the literal "Compromise of 1850" and resulting Fugitive Slave Act, which infuriated Stowe and was the main inspiration behind her writing this in the first place), and to instead see this indignity as an important enough basic human issue as to be worth fighting a violent, nation-splitting war over, in fact what turned out to be the bloodiest war in American history still to this day.
The argument against:
While few of this book's critics deny any of the things just mentioned, they also add something that its fans don't -- that in her noble but misguided attempt to "humanize" black people in the eyes of terrified whites, Stowe inadvertently created a whole series of new negative stereotypes that were to haunt African-Americans for the next century, chief among them the "Uncle Tom" of the book's title, by now a slangy insult used whenever accusing a black person of being a grinning, cuckolded, semi-retarded apologist for white cruelty, and to this day a profoundly offensive term here in the US. (For example, look at how support for presidential candidate Ralph Nader plummeted during the 2008 election, after he glibly accused Barack Obama during a stump speech of being a "Big Business Uncle Tom.") And that's not the only unwanted legacy Stowe left either; this book also established the racist archetype of the obese, jolly, dark-skinned "mammy" household servant; the lazy, singing, shucking-and-jiving "happy darky;" the comical-looking "pickaninny" black child (think Buckwheat from "The Little Rascals"); and more. (Of course, in her defense, even Stowe's critics agree that these stereotypes were mostly cemented in the public mind through the hundreds of stage and film adaptations* that were done of this book between the 1850s and 1950s, and not necessarily by the original book itself.)
Of course, even ignoring all that, critics argue that there's a much more basic problem with the idea of Uncle Tom's Cabin being a literary classic, which is simply that it's not very good; already an overwritten, purplish victim of its mid-Victorian time period, it was also deliberately written in the "sentimental" style that has so profoundly fallen out of favor in the ensuing decades, with the additional problem of Stowe simply being a subpar writer to begin with, making this a perfect example of what was called at the time "Sunday School stories" and that by the 20th century had become known as "Genteel literature." Combine this with the unbelievable amount of accidental damage it caused to post-Civil-War race relations, its critics say, and you end up with a book not to be honored but rather held up as a shameful reminder of this country's dark past, as well as the shockingly low standards by which we used to determine what exactly "good" literature is.
Today's book nicely illustrates a complicated question that lies at the very heart of this entire essay series, which is whether we should ultimately judge a book's worth based on how it was originally received, or on what kind of lasting impact it eventually has on history and the world at large. Because the simple fact is that both the fans and critics of Uncle Tom's Cabin are right: it really did almost single-handedly provide the catalyst for the tidal wave that eventually led to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery; but it also did inadvertently establish many of the most offensive stereotypes about blacks to rise in the Reconstructionist period and beyond, taken advantage of by entertainers and production companies to wring money from a suddenly very nervous white population, who largely wished to be assured that despite their newfound free and equal legal status, sociologically-speaking black people were still barely civilized, semi-intelligent animals, good only for singing, dancing and physical labor, an attitude that still sadly exists among huge swaths of the American South to this day, especially when you replace "dancing and physical labor" with "gangster rap and basketball."
I don't know the answer to that question any better than anyone else, making the debate itself simple proof of how relevant Uncle Tom's Cabin still continues to be; but I gotta say, the real surprise of this book is in how legitimately great it actually is, a shockingly brutal and unexpectedly nuanced story that belies its flowery prose style and less-than-stellar reputation. Because, yes, even though it suffers from the same stylistic problems as most other novels of the mid-Victorian era, and its heavy-handed "Little Eva As Jesus No Wait I Mean Uncle Tom As Jesus" symbolism gets awfully tired awfully fast, it also contains a kind of simple, moving power that I've rarely seen in books from this period, and sometimes tackles the various sub-issues of slavery with a subtlety that will surprise most; see for example how it's not just slave-owning farmers who Stowe condemns but also secretly racist abolitionist Northerners, who agree in theory that slavery should be abolished but want nothing to do with the more troubling question of what to do with these millions of uneducated, penniless laborers after abolition, the very issue that led to segregation, the Jim Crow laws, and all the other postbellum ugliness of the 20th century. It's a slog at many points, don't get me wrong, and absolutely must be read with open eyes and an open mind, but I found Uncle Tom's Cabin to be imminently worth my time, a book that remains as affecting and powerful as when it first came out 160 years ago. There is no doubt in my mind that it remains a classic and will for some time, even with all the complicated post-publication problems it's accidentally caused. It comes highly recommended, no matter what your race, class or nationality.
Is it a classic? Yes
The next four books scheduled to be read:
The Plague, by Albert Camus
Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)
*And a delicious piece of trivia that I could find no good place for in the main essay: turns out that Mickey Mouse first acquired his now trademarked white gloves during the 1933 cartoon Mickey's Mellerdrammer, in which Mickey and his pals decide to put on a stage production of Uncle Tom's Cabin themselves, and which featured the already dark-colored Mickey in full blackface makeup, a film that for obvious reasons the Disney Corporation now tries to pretend never existed.