the contextual life

thoughts without borders

retro reads :: uncle tom’s cabin

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uncle tom's cabin / harriet beecher stowe / 1852

with the latest literary kerfuffle over an alabama-based small press, NewSouth, Inc., removing the word “n****r” from mark twain’s the adventures of huckleberry finn and the adventures of tom sawyer, my mind was brought back to an amazing book i’d read over the summer: uncle tom’s cabin. we’ve all heard of it, it was assigned to many of us in high school, but still many others have sidestepped this american classic. i was one of them.

mark twain is known for his scathing, sarcastic tone; he’d used ‘n****r’ not out of conviction for the slur but because he was an astute critic of his time. however, twain’s books were published after slavery had been abolished and while commendable, no doubt it’s important to keep alive the past in order to shed light on the present, it was harriet beecher stowe who wrote a harsh portrayal of slavery during its reign.

harriet beecher stowe was born in litchfield, connecticut in 1811 and grew up to be an activist, fueled by religious beliefs. she was the daughter of a prominent new england preacher and devoted to women’s rights but she’s best known for her contribution to the abolition of slavery. first published in 1851 as forty weekly segments in national era, an abolitionist paper, it was then published as a novel in 1852, 13 years before the 13th amendment rendered the practice of human bondage illegal in the united states. it sold 10,000 copies the first week and 300,000 within a year—an extraordinary performance for the mid-nineteenth century. the book, and its author, were, and still are, given credit for sparking the civil war; as the popular anecdote goes, when stowe met abraham lincoln he said, “So this is the little lady who made this big war,” referring to the belief that she energized the abolitionist movement. aside from writing her convictions, her and her husband supported the underground railroad by temporarily housing runaway slaves.

uncle tom’s cabin follows closely the lives of three slaves: eliza, a young woman of “passing” color, her husband (nominally since law forbade slaves to marry), george, and tom—uncle tom—the older slave given elder status within the confides of his situation. both eliza and tom are property of a man known for his comparative leniency and his wife who encouraged literacy among her slaves. tom and his family, which included a devoted wife and young children, lived in a shed out back behind the main house. eliza lived in her master’s house with her son, harry, who she was allowed to keep as such. george, the father of the boy and an intelligent man who, in this day and age, wouldve been an executive, was, unfortunately, the slave of a neighbor—a hard man with little regard for his chattel. although eliza and tom had it better than most, the last thing the life of a slave had to offer was a guaranteed arrangement. and so, as soon as eliza’s owner found himself in some fiscal trouble, he—granted, with heartbreak—sold eliza, harry, and tom to a less-than-reputable trader not known for keeping promises of mercy to concerned sellers.

eliza happened to hear of the deal from a closet a few hours before it was to happen and, at the first chance, warned tom. her husband, who, a few days earlier, decided to try his hand at freedom and buy his family when he’d raised enough money, was being hunted by his irate owner. tom, loyal to a fault, decided to stay—hence part of the reason for the negative connotations conjured up by the mention of ‘uncle tom’. eliza, on the other hand, in the middle of the night, takes her kid and runs north.

one of stowe’s reasons for writing the book was to fight the recently-passed fugitive slave act of 1850, a law that made it illegal for northerns to harbor slaves who’d run from the south. stowe, faithful to her christian notions, saw the ruling as inhumane and hoped for a speedy repeal. it’s telling that one of the heroes of the story is a group of quakers just over the border who help the fleeing cast.

one reason for reading classics is to better understand a culture—either your own or someone else’s. uncle tom’s cabin is, unarguably, an important piece of american history, both for what it says about it and for the part it played in it. i went into this book thinking i understood the horrors of slavery, that i could imagine all the awfulness of it in my head, but stowe’s unrelenting rendering of the institution hit me viscerally. i could feel the anguish of parents and children ripped apart from one another because whites didnt acknowledge their humanity. although criticized in modern times, most notably by james baldwin in his essay everybody’s protest novel, for creating and perpetuating negative stereotypes of blacks, and besides my own skepticism for the same reasons, i found stowe’s assassination attempt on slavery heartfelt, sincere, and worth reading at least once in one’s life.

[dig deeper] ::
good bad books / an essay by george orwell / tribune, november 1945

A type of book which we hardly seem to produce in these days, but which flowered with great richness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is what Chesterton called ‘the good bad book’: that is, the kind of book that has no literary pretentions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished. . . . Perhaps the supreme example of the ‘good bad’ book is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous melodramatic incidents; it is also deeply moving and essentially true; it is hard to say which quality outweighs the other.

this essay is available in all art is propaganda: critical essays by george orwell

[cultural reference] ::
simon legree: the worst slave owner in the book and the last owner—for good reason—tom has. because of uncle tom’s cabin’s religious element, simon plays the devil to the slave’s angel.

uncle tom: current day use of this term is a slur, meaning a black man who will do anything to be seen positively by whites; but the character didnt start out that way. when uncle tom’s cabin was written, uncle tom was a rebuttal to the depiction of blacks in minstrel shows. for one, he was a dedicated family man who had an intense love for his wife and children.

sold down the river: the origin of this phrase is more interesting than its common use—often simply a sense of betrayal—lets on. it comes from the mississippi region during slave times to mean the selling of a slave further down south where they were sure to meet with harsher conditions. the earliest known reference in print is from the repository, a local paper in ohio, in may 1837, which said, “One man, in Franklin County has lately realized thirty thousand dollars, in a speculation on slaves, which he bought in Virginia, and sold down the river.”

[sources] ::
uncle tom’s cabin on sparknotes


Written by Gabrielle

January 9, 2011 at 5:13 pm

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Amazing post! I love how very in-depth it is!

    love + luck + bliss,

    MissySue Hanson

    January 11, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    • thanks! I try. context is key.


      January 11, 2011 at 2:37 pm

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