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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What Does Justice Mean in Toronto?: thirsty

downloadChalk up one more bit of work slipping into the list as I recently read Dionne Brand’s thirsty. I had meant to read her No Land to Light On, an earlier collection of poetry, but the pressure of a dissertation forced me to include this one instead. And thirsty is a great long poem. This was my second time reading it and I got way more from it than the first time around when I sped through it, looking for usefulness to my research interests. When I read it this time, I took the time to let her words soak in, to look up words I didn’t know, and to take marginal notes on what was going on throughout. In fact, those marginal notes alerted me to how carefully constructed Brand’s book is and allowed me to appreciate her craftsmanship.

thirsty is a series of 33 linked poems that follow the tragic shooting of Alan, a Jamaican, by the Toronto Police Force and the ripple effect in the lives of his mother Chloe, his wife Julie, and his unnamed daughter. Mixed throughout are poems narrated by a first-person speaker, a person at a distance from the shooting and who comments upon the events. All three women’s lives have been essentially stopped by Alan’s death as Chloe retreats into religion, Julie into a broad feeling of emptiness, and the daughter into escaping the neighbourhood on her bicycle. Yet the speaker of the poem introduces this drama in the midst of Toronto, a seething mass of strangers that is at times comforting and at times violent. In reference to the waiting passengers in the city’s subway tunnels, Brand writes:

They are the echo chambers for the voices of the gods of
cities. Glass, money, goods. They sit in a universe of halted breaths
waiting for this stop Bay and that stop Yonge and that one St. Patrick

in early morning surrender to factories in Brampton,
swirling grey into the 401 and the Queen Elizabeth Highway,
they hold their tempers, their passions, over grumbling machines
until night, dreaming their small empires, their domestic tyrannies

but of course no voyage is seamless. Nothing in a city is discrete.
A city is all interpolation … (37)

I love these lines. I love how Brand takes the city and turns it into something unfamiliar and strange, a beast that reflects our hopes and dreams, but also takes and takes from us. An earlier stanza reads:

All the hope gone hard. That is a city.
The blind house, the cramped dirt, the broken
air, the sweet ugliness, the blissful and tortured
flowers, the misguided clothing, the bricked lies
the steel lies, all the lies seeping from flesh
falling in rain and snow, the weeping buses,
the plastic throats, the perfumed garbage, the
needled sky, the smogged oxygen, the deathly clerical
gentlemen cleaning their fingernails at the stock
exchange, the dingy hearts in the newsrooms, that is
a city, the feral amnesia of us all.

Again, Brand’s ability to capture the key details of a city stand out. She portrays in broad sweeps the contour of urban life and the way that the city forces us into intimate contact with many strangers. Of course, throughout thirsty, the question of how race interpolates the urban experience looms large. And Brand provides no easy answers to this, instead giving readers the textured details of three interrupted lives. But I think what I love most about thirsty is that it is great poetry. Brand is a very talented poet, and in thirsty, she ties together themes from her whole body of work into a seamless and meaningful whole.

I highly recommend thirsty to anyone who lives in Toronto and fans of poetry.

Brand, Dionne. thirsty. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2002. Print.

Slave Revolution: The Confessions of Nat Turner

482pre_0d886e79ddd6d80So I have been up in Algonquin Park on a canoe trip for the last few days, but I managed to finish William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner. The novel was the centre of a storm of controversy when it was published in 1967 because of its content and the author’s race. The book retells, with plenty of fictional licence, the events of the 1831 slave revolt in Virginia. The problem was, for many African-American writers of the time, that Styron was himself white. Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin had both publicly expressed their support for the book and its author but that did not stop the backlash. Regardless, Styron won the Pulitzer Prize and I have to say that this is an excellent novel.

In case you didn’t know, Nat Turner, a black slave who learned how to read and was something of a preacher, led a very violent and somewhat successful slave revolt in Southhampton County. Even though the revolt was stopped within a few days, Turner hid out in the swamps for several months before he was caught. While in jail, a lawyer, Thomas Ruffin Gray, interviewed him and wrote down his entire confession which was published as The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia. Styron’s novel used this book as a source text, but fleshes out Turner’s story to make him an empathetic narrator. The novel begins in prison and ends here as well, but moves back in time through Turner’s early life right through to the events of the rebellion itself. It is a strategy that works quite well although I did find myself flipping back a few times, sorting out whether I had met certain characters before.

One of the most impressive things about Styron’s novel is that it makes Turner, a villain for most Americans up until the late 1960s, into an empathetic character. The novel shows how the institution of slavery turns men and women into absolutely defeated human beings. I am not saying that I support or endorse what Turner did, but Styron makes a very compelling case as to why Turner did what he did. Unfortunately for Turner, the long-term effects of the revolt did not cause widespread uprisings but instead saw a rash of white violence against slaves and a tightening of laws against blacks. Some of these included the banning of teaching reading to slaves and the banning of slave religious gatherings without a licensed white preacher. This is a powerful novel and well worth reading if you want to gain some historical perspective and insight into race-relations in the United States.

I would recommend this book to fans of American literature and to those who enjoyed Laurence Hill`s The Book of Negroes.

Styron, William. The Confessions of Nat Turner. New York: Random House, 1967. Print.