Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly
© 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe        
 500 pages

Written as an indignant response to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, Uncle Tom's Cabin shook the American landscape in the mid-19th century as few other novels could. A sounding condemnation of slavery, popular conception holds it responsible for fomenting a more strident attitude against slavery in the north and giving the Republican Party its great foothold in American history.  Still controversial today for not living up to 21st century mores, Uncle Tom's Cabin remains a beautiful morality play.

I entered Uncle Tom's Cabin with reservation, thinking it a propaganda piece considering that the author never journeyed into the south herself. Admittedly, it was propaganda the south had coming, but I'm not much for polemics whether they come in nonfiction or fiction. Uncle Tom's Cabin, however, is far more nuanced than I expected.  The story begins when two slaves, Harry and Tom, who are sold by their reluctant owner when his gambling debts erase all his other alternatives. Harry's mother is horrified to learn that her handsome young son will be separated from her, and flees with him north, across icy rivers hoping to find sanctuary in Canada.  The other, Tom, realizes that if he runs, more slaves will be sold and separated from their families to make up for the loss.  In what will become a recurring pattern, Tom sacrifices his own wellbeing for the sake of others, and is sold 'down the river'. Removed from Kentucky's comparatively lenient slavering practices, Tom soon finds himself in the deep south, subject to the worst of human nature. Though it is tempered by meeting people of goodness and mercy, what truly sustains Tom is his Christian faith.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin is at the same time an abolitionist argument and a work of Christian evangelism. The two for Stowe are one and the same. Just as Tom urges one fellow slave or master after another to admit to their sin's slavery  and subject themselves to Christ, Stowe urges her countrymen to admit to slavery's sin and embrace emancipation and colonization.

Stowe’s attack on slavery plays on both reason and the emotions. Throughout the novel, characters are cold-bloodedly separated from their loved ones, including mothers and small children, if the profit motive dictates, and the slave traders are as calculating as can be,  thinking about their slaves as nothing but cattle. Various characters against slavery, and others defend it.  Stowe is fairer to the south than expected; her novel’s most loathsome character is a northerner with a plantation, and  the two other white slaveholders who receive the most attention are utterly decent. Northerners are hypocritical idealists who don’t realize the sin of slavery is on their hands as well.  This harshness is presumably less to soften the blow against the South than it is to prick the northern conscience and call it to action.

 Although its now-dated language and attitudes toward slaves no doubt annoy the modern mind, Uncle Tom’s Cabin rises beyond such petty complaints. This is a story of redemption, of how a man can be bound in body, but not in spirit; degraded by law, but not in person. Just as Harry's mom Eliza  Eliza finds defense for her body in flight and arms, Tom finds defense for his spirit in acts of love;  ultimately he becomes a Christ figure – certainly for characters within the text, and perhaps Stowe hoped, for the American people as well. It's an outstandingly beautiful novel.

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