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Uncle Tom’s Cabin

uncle-toms-cabin-by-harriet-beecher-stowe Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is so well-known that there is little point in reiterating either the story or the basic themes within in.

Rather, I focus on its value in today’s political and social environment.

More than any other thing, Stowe’s classic must be seen in context. The context of the times in which she wrote. Serialized in 1851 or thereabouts, it was pre-Civil War when slavery was accepted, at least in the South, as the norm, as the way life was meant to be.

This explains perfectly it’s reception in the country. It was wildly popular in the North, and scandalously avoided in the South as a direct attack on the Southern way of life. Few other books could claim such a bifurcated history.

Northerners of course love to tout their “enlightened” opinions about the Africans among them during this pre-emancipation time, but as Stowe points out, there were a variety of those opinions. There were those who wanted full citizenship and rights for the people of color among them, but there were perhaps far more who were divided on this issue. Some wished emancipation but not citizenship or at least full human rights. Others favored a repatriation to Africa.

The chapters about the Quakers and their efforts to support and facilitate the Underground Railroad, moving escaping slaves to Canada is an example of the first position. St. Clare’s discussions with his northern cousin Ophelia point out the inconsistencies of northern opinions and the actual practices of white northerners in their personal relations with Black people.

Of course, years later, African-Americans and whites as well came to denigrate Stowe’s portrayal in many ways. She made a variety of claims about the black psyche and emotional predispositions that today we look upon as both racist and naive. Although she goes to some lengths towards the end to point out the educational and economic advancements of a number of former slaves, she apparently believed that in the main they were by nature more docile and simple than the whites who owned and/or helped them to freedom.

This caused her book to be shunned for a significant period of time. No doubt this is understandable.

However, again we must point out that in context the book was of enormous importance. It is certainly not confirmed but has long been related that Lincoln himself, upon meeting Stowe, referred to her as “the little lady who caused the War.”

As such, it is an important book that captures the convoluted and at times bizarre institution that we call American slavery. There is every sort of person here in terms of the white community. The dedicated abolitionist, who brooks no compromise and risks life and limb to live by principle, the benevolent slave owner in the north, who sells slaves to save the farm, setting into motion a chain of events that both liberates and condemns those whom he owned. In the South we are exposed to the slave trader and the face of owning people as mere commodity, to the owner who owns because he inherited his slaves and does his best to be kind, though never on his own considering it his duty to divest himself of human bondage.

Stowe paints the picture in full, even pointing out those slaves who “went along to get along” as we would say. She claims that each portrait and each vignette is adapted from either personal experiences or experiences related to her by friends and family. She thus claims a authenticity that was much decried in the South of course, who claimed that her stories were untrue, and took sharp issue with the truth.

Faced as they were at that time with a growing hue and cry in the North to end the unnatural institution, it is perhaps no wonder that they saw Stowe as stoking the fires of emancipation and spared no efforts to vilify her efforts.

There are many reasons to read this book, least of which is the portrayal of life during the times in question. It is sad for its misconceptions and laudable for what it attempted to do. No doubt it is both a painful and at some times laughable to many. Still, it is an important chapter in American history and one well captured it seems by Stowe’s attempt.

 

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