Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe: telling it like it was

Uncle Tom's CabinUncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was in high school when I learned the word didactic: “intended to convey instruction and information as well as pleasure and entertainment.” I’m not sure that we were taught to frown on didactic works of literature as inferior, but I certainly developed a negative stance toward it. The idea of using the art of literature to preach a sermon of some kind—of any kind—disgusted me. “Didactic” literature was obviously inferior to works that explored the mysterious and gray areas of life: the world that we all actually live in.

I thought this even as some of my favorite books of that time, that is, my teen years, were things like Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand: poster children for didactic literature. I continued to think it right into adulthood and up to the present time—right up to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Here is a work of literature that makes no bones about its didactic mission: to wake the reader up to the fact that slavery is an evil institution and a great and hypocritical blot on any society, but especially one that prides itself on the values of freedom and the rights of man. I forget exactly how it made its way onto my reading list, but it may have been while watching an episode of Jeopardy! two years ago, and an answer on the show reminded me that I had not read this classic work. When I finally got a rather massive and imposing-looking critical edition from the library, I was not optimistic. The name Harriet Beecher Stowe sounded like the name of a prim schoolmarm of the era—1852 (although the little vignette photo on the back cover looks more thoughtful and poetic, a 19th-century Virginia Woolf)–and I was expecting a long sermon telling me something I already knew perfectly well: that slavery is Wrong and a Bad Idea.

There’s an old adage in storytelling that you should give the audience what they want, but not the way they expect. Well, with Uncle Tom’s Cabin this might need to be revised: give the audience what they expect—but not the way they expect it.

For the reader can be in no kind of doubt of what the mission of the novel is: the word “activist text” is in the first line of the blurb on the back cover, and the book’s preface starts by announcing that “Harriet Beecher Stowe had to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her political convictions and religious faith, she believed, gave her no choice.” Okay, antislavery tract it is—408 dense pages of it. Let’s go!

From the start I was drawn in by the author’s vivid portrayal of the time, the place, and especially the people. The opening scene has two men negotiating the sale of some slaves in Kentucky: the seller a cultured and decent man who has been driven to this pass by financial pressure, the buyer a vulgar but prosperous slave trader. The chief item of sale: one Uncle Tom, a mature slave of strong ethics and impeccable character. The seller, Mr. Shelby, hates to see him go, and knows he is sending him to an unpleasant fate by “selling him down the river”–meaning down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where slaves were auctioned for hard toil and a short life on the plantations of the Deep South.

Soon we are introduced to Tom, and to other slaves on the place, such as his wife Chloe, the cook, all rendered vividly in their behavior and dialogue. My main exposure to American slave culture had been via Gone with the Wind, which has generated some controversy over its allegedly cartoonish portrayal of slaves, but an early thought in reading Beecher Stowe’s book was, “Holy smokes—Margaret Mitchell boosted her slave material right out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin!” Here we have those quaint and comical portrayals, but in this case offered by an author who was familiar with them at first hand, and who had no hostile or satirical intent (not saying that Mitchell had these, either). For while she portrays the white owners sympathetically—those who are deserving of sympathy—her heart is with the slaves, and this comes through strongly from first to last. The slaves are various: some roguish, others foppish, deceitful, superstitious, irritable, or evasive, and the uneducated ones do indeed talk much like Mammy of Gone with the Wind. The point is that they’re human beings doing the best they can, living in captivity, mostly uneducated, without rights, and routinely subjected to harsh injustice. Two common forms of this are the rending of families, especially the taking of children from their mothers and selling them off, and the pressing of attractive girls into the role of concubines.

Friends, I was hooked. Although I read for hours each day, I almost never have the experience of reading a book that I can’t stop reading. Again and again with Uncle Tom’s Cabin I found myself saying, “Okay, I’ll just read to the end of this chapter,” only to break my promise to myself and keep going because I couldn’t stop! I don’t read that way; I’m not that type of reader; but Uncle Tom’s Cabin made me one for the duration of this book.

The novel follows the fate of Uncle Tom and a few other slaves who make their way from the Shelby estate to other places. Tom wants only to return to Chloe back in Kentucky; the others have the ambition of making it to Canada and liberty. It’s all keenly suspenseful, and your heart—my heart—is with those poor slaves all the way.

The novel is not without its imperfections. Harriet Beecher Stowe made no literary claims—quite the reverse. She had married an erudite but poor man, and as her family grew (she had seven children), she felt the pinch of poverty, and found that she was able to make money by selling pieces of writing. She had a knack that helped her squeak by. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not a potboiler, though; it was a work of passion and conviction which its author had no notion of making money from. No one was more surprised than she was when it became an instant bestseller, earning her $10,000 in its first month out. (The book has never been out of print since then.) Beecher Stowe did not see herself as a literary figure or an artist. Asked to describe herself, this is what she came up with:

To begin with, then, I am a little bit of a woman,–somewhat more than forty, about as thin and dry as a pinch of snuff—never very much to look at in my best days and looking like a used up article now.

Beecher Stowe was not an author, but a Christian woman who saw her own country and society as living in appalling sin, and in deep denial about it. She saw a lot of people sleepwalking to damnation, drugged with ease and comfort, carrying a large toolkit of rationalizations that they wielded with well-practiced skill. The slave states of the South were of course in a bad way, but she was galvanized to action by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required all U.S. citizens to return runaway slaves to their owners. This law made Northerners complicit in the institution of slavery, making criminals out of those who refused to act as slave-catchers. Beecher Stowe could not remain silent, and she didn’t. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not a work of art but a cri de coeur; and Harriet Beecher Stowe was not an artist but a genius.

One of the most powerful aspects of the novel is its spirituality. Uncle Tom and other slaves have an unshakable Christian faith. He can barely read but he knows his Bible and can quote it right to the point when he needs to. Christian virtue pervades his being, and no force on Earth can stamp or whip it out of him. All the while he remains a very human and humble character. For me, a growing mystery, as I read, was how the label “Uncle Tom” has become a term of abuse: for a black American to be called an Uncle Tom is a grave insult, suggesting a fawning subservience to white people. It’s true that Uncle Tom is deferential toward his masters—his owners. But he is this way because it’s the situation that God has placed him in, and so he lives it with integrity. In one of the novel’s most powerful moments, Tom observes that his masters have a Master of their own, to whom they will have to render an account in due course. No matter how he is abused, if he were free to choose, he would much rather be himself than any of them. For this reader, this is what being an “Uncle Tom” really means. Tom knows something that his oppressors and most of us readers don’t: the world is much vaster than what we see, and we are all spiritual beings first and foremost. This perspective runs as a ground note underneath the whole novel.

As I reflected further on didacticism in art, it dawned on me that what may be the greatest work of imaginative literature of all time, namely the Divine Comedy of Dante, is also, arguably, the most didactic. Writers write because they have something to say. If it is something definite, then perhaps their work could be called didactic. But if it is said with power, conviction, and great emotional force, then it could be called brilliant. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a work in this class.

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