Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stowe seems to have two main goals in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The first is to demonstrate that slavery as an institution is wrong. Buying and selling human beings is abhorrent, and arguments about how well slaves are treated are missing the point.

The other goal seems to be to humanize slaves of African origin, especially for those in the North who might oppose slavery but still retain a feeling of prejudice against people of African origin. In large part, Stowe does this by showing how slaves can act just like white people if they are taught and treated like white people.

She offers this as proof that Black people are just as human as white people are, but this is troublesome because it offers a very narrow scope of behavior. Stowe goes to lengths to show that those slaves who lie or cheat or act brutally are doing so only as products of a system that treats them as subhuman. She offers a similar explanation for the behavior of white people towards slaves: they are products of an abhorrent institution as much as the slaves themselves are. (Of course, the difference is that white people don’t need to prove their humanity through their actions; their humanity is a given no matter how inhumanely they act.) This is a reasonable hypothesis, but the way that Stowe presents it seems to suggest that the goal is for all people in the United States to act the same, or rather, for all people to act white, which is very limiting to people who are not white. 

I don’t actually get the sense that Stowe herself believes this, but rather that she’s started along this track and has to take it to its conclusion. Indeed, near the end of the novel is a letter from the character George Harris, who has escaped slavery with his wife and son and after several years in Canada has decided to move to Liberia. George lists as one of his weaknesses that half of his blood is “hot and hasty” Anglo-Saxon blood, which is at odds with his African side, which is by nature “affectionate, magnanimous, and forgiving.” (616) This is a limitation of Stowe’s abolitionist argument. Black people don’t deserve to be free because the African race is somehow superior to or more moral than the white race but because they are human beings who should not be bought and sold as commodities.

Through George Harris, Stowe also points out that no matter how well George assimilates, as a man of African descent, he will always be treated differently within the United States’ white-dominant culture unless he denies all connection to his African heritage. And this leads me to the most uncomfortable part of reading this novel. With as unpleasant (but not surprising) as it was to read about the horrible treatment of people a society has decided for economic reasons to treat as not-quite-human, the most uncomfortable part was how some of the words of her characters echo some of the things people say today in defense of violence against Black people. About halfway through the book, one of the white characters says in reference to the circumstance of a slave in another family being beaten to death by her owner, “I don’t feel a particle of sympathy for such cases. If they’d only behave themselves, it would not happen.” (331)

After Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri, I had conversations in which the other person expressed nearly this exact sentiment. If he’d just done what the officers said, it wouldn’t have happened.

Or the unarmed teens who were thrown to the ground at the pool in McKinney, Texas. If they’d cooperated, this wouldn’t have happened.

Or Sandra Bland, who was stopped for a minor traffic violation, arrested for not putting out her cigarette, and later was found dead while in jail in Hempstead, Texas. If she’d behaved herself, meaning, if she’d done what the white police officer said even though she was within her rights to refuse, this wouldn’t have happened.

Combine this with the way that Stowe lets no one off the hook—no matter how far a person is from slavery, if they’re not actively acting against it, if they’re benefitting from the system at all, they are complicit. Holding the view that the system is broken isn’t enough. As a white person who’s constantly struggling with what I can do to help change the racist culture of my home country, that’s pretty difficult to read.

Even with the difficulty, there was beauty in this novel. I found the entire center section when Tom is living with the St. Clares in New Orleans to be particularly poignant, especially the relationship Tom has with the young, too-perfect-to-believe Eva. The transcendent nature of the spirituality that Eva and Tom share with one another and then with everyone they encounter was melodramatic, but it was also quite moving to me.

The brand of nonviolent resistance in which Tom engages at Simon Legree’s plantation sounds very similar to what little I’ve read about Adin Ballou’s Christian nonviolence (which led to the nonviolent resistance of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement via Martin Luther King, Jr, who learned it from Gandhi, who learned it from Tolstoy, who learned it from the writings of Adin Ballou).

Stowe writes about how, once Tom is infused with the divine spirit, the physical abuse he receives no longer reaches him in the way it had: “But the blows fell now only on the outer man, and not, as before, on the heart.” (559)

Was this a parallel idea of Stowe’s, or was she in conversation with Ballou before or during the writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin?

It seems that Ballou was writing widely about non-resistance at the same time that Stowe was writing her novel, so I suppose the influence could have gone either way (or happened in parallel).

Along with the echoes of Ballou, there are also echoes of Stowe’s ties to Unitarianism, including a line that is nearly identical to the Unitarian Universalist First Principle.

The First Principle is “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

The line from Augustine St. Clare is that his mother impressed upon him the “idea of the dignity and worth of the meanest human soul.” (323)

Although Stowe appears to have ties to the Unitarians of her time, I haven’t been able to discover the origin of the wording of the First Principle, which wasn’t adopted officially by the Unitarian Universalist Association until 1985. Was this wording common in the mid-nineteenth century when Stowe was writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin? I don’t know, but the similarity is striking.
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2 comments

  1. Deb at The Front Door Project · January 5, 2016

    I just purchased this book to read! I was visiting the Harriet Beecher Stowe House which is close to where I live and I felt that I should read it (I wrote a post about my visit if you are interested). I appreciate your assessment of the book – I’ll have to let you know what I think. Given today’s environment, the work Harriet started certainly isn’t done.

    Like

  2. Pingback: 2015: My Year in Books | Imperfect Happiness

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