September 11, 2002

Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

This is one of those books that everyone knows about and has heard of but no one actually reads anymore. It was so wildly popular in its day that the reputation and ripoffs of the book have become the accepted story line and the text itself is hardly known. And it's the book that supposedly started the Civil War, even though it was published in 1852, years before the actual conflict began. Which is unfortunate, because it's a good story with exciting passages, interesting characters and plot twists that you just can't believe are happening. The scene where Eliza escapes the slave hunters by jumping from ice floe to ice floe over the Ohio river, clutching her baby, is so dramatic I had to put the book down for a while. And the final scene with Uncle Tom is so sad it was unbelievable that it was actually happening. What amazes me is that I was able to get a degree in literature from a major university and was never required to read it in a single course. What a pity.

The basic story is about Uncle Tom, a deeply religious black slave who is sold away from his wife and young children when his owner falls into debt. Uncle Tom is not a shambling, "aw shucks massa" character but rather a Christ figure whose horrible fate is caused by the accepted institutions and laws of the land. He's a young, intelligent man with more conscience and grace than any of the white people in the book.

That's what I never realized about the book. Stowe is writing a book for and about white people and their own rationalizations that allowed slavery to continue and even be politically tolerated by the non-slave holding North. Uncle Tom and the other black characters in the book are a mirror that reflected back on the white readers their own prejudices. They are archetypes, not real people. Over time the image has changed and "Uncle Tom" has denigrated to an epithet. If it is keeping people from the book, that is a shame.

Posted by Deb English at September 11, 2002 08:21 PM