A Book Made Ambiguous by Time: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

uncletomscabinI finally made it through Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It took me a couple of weeks to finish because, being published serially in 1851, it is very long. Stowe always gives the back story and full character detail for almost every person that we come across. After about the fourth time this happens, I started getting bored. 21st century literary tastes have changed so much that this kind of filling in of detail simply is not done anymore. However, in the 19th century, a reader would have appreciated full details for each character if they were reading it in serial form. This kind of thoroughness would allow them to re-establish a connection to the story each week when a new chapter appeared in print. This form of print publication changes not just how you tell a story but what kind of story you tell as Stowe moves between a rotating cast of characters: Uncle Tom of the title, is the noble Christian slave whose life proceeds on a downward trajectory to a swampy, forsaken cotton plantation; George and Eliza escape northwards to freedom in Canada; Mas’r George is the son of Uncle Tom’s first owner and he becomes important in the later plot; Saint Clare purchases Tom and is a key figure in Tom’s own development; while Eva becomes an angelic figure at the core of the narrative. Plenty of people to keep track of and no narrative is ever really complete as Stowe keeps them going simultaneously (a narrative technique that has come back into favor in the postmodern era).

When I say that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a book made ambiguous by time, I am referring to its anti-slavery perspective. Stowe’s book became a best-seller and runaway success when it was published, launching Stowe into the literary limelight. She wrote a host of other books, none of which had the same success as her first. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is often credited with energizing the anti-slavery movement in the US during the 19th century, and it is very easy to see why. Stowe relentlessly criticizes the negative effects that the system has on enslaved and freed blacks. The whole plot is driven by the fact that Tom is sold as property (despite having a family and an assurance from his master that he will receive his freedom soon) because his master has accrued too many debts through poor business. Stowe is also clear that the Northern states (which did not have slavery) were just as complicit in keeping slavery alive and well in the South. This is all well and good and has enshrined Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the American literary canon. Where it gets more dicey is in the way that she represents her black characters. While she clearly seeks their freedom, her descriptions run into caricatures at many points with Uncle Tom becoming the saintly martyr, Aunt Chloe the black mammy, and a host of other slaves becoming lazy and idiotic buffoons. She explains these things as a result of their conditioning and lack of education, but I could not help cringing at various points. Moreover, even though she criticizes slavery, I could not help but feel that the overall depiction of slavery is that, in its more benign forms, it is not so bad. I am certain this was not her intention, but it begins to seem like it at certain points in the narrative (especially in Tom’s nostalgia for the Shelby farm and, later, for the Saint Clare estate). Finally, the fact that a number of the characters return to Africa is hugely problematic. It seems to suggest that blacks have no real place in the US, and that, in an ideal world, they could be returned to their homeland (conveniently ignoring the problem of those who stay in the US or the fact that for many families they have no real connection to Africa). Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been criticized for all of these things by black scholars, particularly during the Black Power movement by writers like James Baldwin. With time, views have tended to become more moderate with Henry Louis Gates Jr. taking a more nuanced position on the novel in his essay “Cabin Fever” (available here) and his 2006 annotated edition of the novel.

Overall, I’m not really sure how I feel about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The anger and violence in Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a good counterpoint to the resigned acceptance of fate by Tom. However, as a white Canadian (a definitive outsider), I don’t think I have any real say on this issue. The question of whether the novel is a good literary work depends on how you define literary value. Culturally, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is hugely important, but artistically I’m not sure that it is all there.

I would recommend this novel to students of American literature, but not to anyone else as it is a long, long read.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly. 1851. New York: The Heritage Press, 1938. Print.

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