Several weeks ago, I heard a segment on NPR’s Diane Rehm’s show about “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. I wasn’t particularly listening carefully (I was keeping my eye on the road) and can’t even tell you the name, or qualifications, of her guest, but certain things struck me: the book was not only a best seller in this country, but was translated into many languages almost immediately, something unusual for the first half of the 19th century – that it was an international best seller; that the current reputation of some of its characters has been distorted – for example, Uncle Tom was not an “Uncle Tom”; and that it was a good read.
So, I decided to read it, something that I had not done before, although many people I know had it assigned to them while in school. Perhaps being raised in mid-twentieth century, border state city St. Louis accounts for the fact that it, and books like it, were not part of the curriculum.
What surprised me about that book most was how readable it was, how concerned the reader became about the characters in the book, and how contemporary (and unstilted) so much of the writing seemed to be. Of course, there were facets of the book that I couldn’t latch onto, the most obvious being the messianic Christianity of Tom and little Eve, but then and again Harriet Beecher Stowe was the daughter of a prominent minister, so perhaps this can be forgiven.
The story line is both complex and intriguing. The early focal point is a plantation in Kentucky, where the slave owner is progressive for a slave owner (his wife even more so), and the slaves (including Tom and certain others you will follow throughout the book) are generally well treated and satisfied with their life. But changes are in store when the slave owner finds himself financially at terrible risk, and can only save his house and any of his assets if he sells his better servants (Tom and his wife’s house servant Eliza, along with her young son), which he does. Eliza (her husband George) and their son run away, miraculously (too miraculously) getting across the Ohio River and being hidden for a time in a Quaker settlement in free Ohio, and Tom finds himself with a new master. Eliza and family eventually get to Canada, and Tom finds himself in New Orleans, with a second progressive master (who lives with his always-too-sick-to-do-anything wife, his spinster cousin from New England, and his precocious daughter Eva). Eva’s death from tuberculosis is quickly followed by her father’s unexpected death, leaving his wife (and her lawyer) to dispose of the property, including Tom, who winds up again on the auction block, and this time under the ownership of evil Simon Legree.
The story has twists and turns, and emphasizes the arbitrary nature of the treatment of slaves, their complete inability to have any control over the own lives, and how they cope (some well, some unsuccessfully, some by emulating their harsh masters) with their situation. The evils of slavery are apparent, the differences of opinions amongst members of the slave holding class are emphasized, as are the indifference (at best) of many so called liberal residents of the northern states. Politics are not in the picture, nor is the dependence of the Southern economic structure on slavery.
The writing is compelling, with the author able to separately follow a number of story lines, weaving them together as appropriate from time to time, and while the novel is basically a third person narrative, from time to time, the author inserts herself, directly, with a “We now turn our attention to……”, or other form of first person interjection.
If an “Uncle Tom” connotes someone (usually African American) who refuses to speak up for himself and who kowtows to the powerful classes, be clear that this is not the Uncle Tom of the book, who is a many talented, yet uneducated man, who consistently speaks out on behalf of himself and other slaves, relying on his own indispensability as his defense (sometimes successfully, sometimes not), while his strong Christian sensitivity and his desire to convert the world to his “religion of peace” overshadows everything.
Yes, it’s an old book – but still worth reading.