When Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” met President Abraham Lincoln in the White House, the great man supposedly said to her, “So you are the little lady who helped start this big war.”
That exchange is probably legend, but it’s a legend formed from truth.
Stowe’s novel hugely helped sway worldwide opinion against slavery. Published in 1852, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was the biggest bestseller in the 19th Century, second only to the Bible in sales.
As a literature student for years, I’d always heard “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a hoked-up melodrama, oozing sentimentality. I knew it had spawned all kinds of negative stereotypes of Afro-Americans, including the subservient victim, Uncle Tom; and the charming sassy child, Topsy.
I never wanted to read it, even though I was aware of its importance as a force for social change in its heyday. Recently, a book club sent me a copy of it, and I decided to give it a try.
After reading the first pages, I was stunned by how good it is, and I couldn’t put it down. I am now convinced it’s the most unfairly neglected novel in all of American literature. Yes, it has its share of sentimentality and melodrama, as most novels typically did in the 19th Century. However, as a stringent antidote to those aspects, the book is filled with scenes of harrowing, brutal realism; heartbreaking depictions of families being ripped apart by slave traders; and the most vicious cruelties (physical and mental) perpetrated against slaves by their “masters.” In fact, the book is downright incendiary in its evocations of the evils of slavery, so much so it makes one’s blood boil with anger about that shameful era of American (and world) history.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a story of interconnecting plots about slaves and plantation families in various places. Characters include slaves Eliza, her husband and son, who manage to escape to the north, all the while being hounded by slave chasers; a “genteel” plantation owner and his slaves, one of whom is Uncle Tom and another being a saintly little white girl, Eva, who teaches Tom the Bible; the irrepressible slave girl Topsy; and – at a hellish place down river – the sadistic plantation owner Simon Legree (originally a Northerner).
Yes, on the surface, the novel is a page-turning potboiler. However, a close reading reveals impressive complexities. For one thing, Stowe brilliantly exposes the notion there are “good” plantation slave owners. Though many were not as cruel as Simon Legree, they were all bad because the institution of slavery itself is evil.
In bold strokes of genius, Stowe evokes the horror of slavery through its heartbreaking consequences – the splitting apart of black families whose members, including children, are sold to work like domesticated animals in faraway places. Stowe’s vision of those terrors are placed within a highly matriarchal context in which she shows the strength of mothers under such unthinkable patriarchal oppression. Stowe, a feminist as well as an abolitionist, was one of the towering forerunners of the later women’s movement.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” also ingeniously explores various coping behaviors slaves developed to survive. Uncle Tom is an example of passive resistance to violence. He keeps telling Legree he may own his body, but he will never own his soul. Topsy tries to preserve her inner freedom by very shrewd “comical” antics that include mimicry, imaginative play-acting and stubborn but “cute” disobedience. Topsy and Tom are not as simple-minded as some detractors of the book have claimed.
Stowe, by the way, based her book on scrupulous research. I highly recommend “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” In its shocking violence, its heartbreak, its complex explorations of slavery, its breathless storytelling pace and even its occasional humor, it’s a novel you will not be able to forget.