About Uncle Tom's Cabin


In 1851, after the enactment by the United States Congress of a Fugitive Slave Act (the effect of which was to return Africans and African Americans who had escaped from slavery in the Southern states and were living in the North, back into captivity), the editor of an antislavery periodical asked Harriet Beecher Stowe if she could supply him with a timely story or article. Stowe agreed to write a fictional piece about the lives of several slaves on a Kentucky plantation. It was a subject she knew a little about, having visited such a plantation briefly and having talked and corresponded with people who had a more detailed knowledge; moreover, it was a subject that moved her deeply. She expected that her story, printed in serial form, would run for three or four installments. In fact, it would turn out to be much longer and would require some hurried research, as Stowe's characters took her into places and situations of which she had little or no knowledge.

The story, as it ran, was immensely popular, and when it was published in book form in 1852, it immediately became a runaway bestseller in both the U.S. and Great Britain. The effect of this emotionally powerful book was to galvanize public opinion against slavery in a way that no strictly moral or intellectual argument had as yet been able to accomplish. President Lincoln supposedly said, upon meeting Stowe in 1862, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that caused this great war." In a very real sense, he was right.

Uncle Tom's Cabin was first of all a popular book, effective because people identified with its sympathetic characters and thrilled to its incidents. Readers of all ages and levels of education, male and female, American and British, black and white (although the book was certainly intended chiefly for a white audience), made Uncle Tom's Cabin one of the most successful bestsellers to be published in the United States. And whether or not the average nineteenth-century reader agreed with the book, he or she had no trouble recognizing and understanding its language, assumptions, and fictional conventions. However, that is not the case with the average reader today. Stowe's novel presents modern readers with several problems that bear examination.

The first problem, ironically, is the book's reputation brought about by its early popularity. Dramatic versions over which Stowe had little or no control (and for which she received few or no royalties) appeared within months of its publication, and it is probably no exaggeration to say that Uncle Tom's Cabin, in one stage version or another, was one of the most frequently produced plays of the next half-century. Thus it was eventually better "known" from its dramatizations, which often departed wildly from the actual novel, than from the book itself. The stereotypical "Uncle Tom," a gentle, white-haired old man; the comic Topsy, all pigtails and rolling eyes; syrupy-sweet and saintly Eva — these are the characters we remember, if we remember the story at all, and we may dread having to encounter them in the pages of the novel. Luckily, they are not Stowe's characters, as readers may be surprised to learn. The problem of the "Uncle Tom" stereotypes is soon overcome when we actually read the book.

A second problem, one with a real basis in the book, might be called one of "political correctness." There are probably very few white Americans, if the truth were known, who do not harbor some prejudiced (or, put less kindly, racist) ideas about black people, and especially about African Americans. This was no doubt equally true in the 1850s, although the ideas may have been different. We all tend to be so conscious today of this prejudiced condition (if not always of the nature of the prejudices) that most white writers would think it foolhardy to attempt a novel whose central characters are African Americans and would certainly not undertake to explain to readers the nature of the "African race."

Such considerations did not occur to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Not only does she use language (for example, negro — and sometimes negress — with a small n) that was polite in her time but is not in ours, and not only do her characters, even some of the sympathetic ones, say nigger all too frequently, but Stowe in her role as narrator often takes time out to tell her readers what black people are like: They are home-loving rather than adventurous, for example; they have admirable but highly exotic taste in clothing and décor; and, of course, they generally have simple, childish hearts. The fact that Stowe does not repeat, and obviously does not believe, the more repellent stereotypes, and the fact that her African and African-American characters often behave in ways quite counter to her explanations, will not save her from being sneered at by modern readers. Nor will the fact that she meant well; but we must offer that as one defense of her political incorrectness, another being that she lived in a less enlightened time, a third being that an examination of the errors she fell into might help lead us to recognize and correct our own.

Fashions in racial thinking and speaking are not the only ones that have changed since 1852. A third problem with Uncle Tom's Cabin for the modern reader is its sentimentality, which we may use as a sort of blanket term for the novel's literary style. In several ways, Stowe's book follows the models of Charles Dickens, with its two main plots, its several imbedded narratives, its grotesque and comic characters, its pairs of happy and unhappy lovers. Perhaps because Stowe (again like Dickens, often) not only published but also wrote the book in installments, the plots tend to wander and to be tied up eventually by a set of scarcely believable coincidences. The descriptions tend to be long: readers had more patience in 1852 than we do and less available visual entertainment. Above all, Stowe interjects her narrator's voice, speaking directly to the reader, far more often than we might like. To a student of the nineteenth-century sentimental novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin is, if anything, much less tedious than might be expected. But readers not used to these conventions should try to bear with them, suspend disbelief in some instances, and finally relax and enjoy Stowe's dry, often understated, ironic wit.

Finally, Stowe's Christianity may present a problem for some readers. The daughter, sister, and wife of Protestant clergymen and a committed Christian herself, the writer lived at a time when many Americans assumed that the United States was "a Christian country" — and a Protestant country at that. To educate a person, in Stowe's usage, was to make a Christian of him or her, and she does not apologize for her Protestant chauvinism. (At one point in the book, a character makes a slurring remark about "the Jews"; and one can almost feel the forbearance with which Stowe allows some of her New Orleans characters to be Roman Catholics, a sect about whose liturgy she obviously knows next to nothing.) One of the book's major themes is the culpability of Christian churches, North and South, in countenancing slavery, and an even more pronounced theme is that of Christianity itself. Uncle Tom, the central character, is above all a Christian. His trials and sufferings are not so much those of an African in America, nor of a slave, nor of a husband and father separated from his family, as they are of a man attempting to follow Christ's life and teachings; his victory is not a victory of nature but of grace. In our secular time, we tend to avoid the discussion of religion in ordinary "non-religious" circumstances. The separation of Church and State, however, meant something quite different to Stowe, and in reading her book, we will do well to accept, at least for that time, her religious premises and assumptions.