Friday, January 28, 2011

Uncle Tom’s Cabin: or Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe was a Christian and an Abolitionist, meaning that she was opposed to slavery. She first started Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a serial in June 1851, in the abolitionist newspaper, The National Era. The series was immensely popular, and the book was printed in March of 1852. The book was a runaway best seller, both at home and abroad. While anti-slavery was not a popular sentiment at the time, Stowe’s book helped stir up feelings both for and against the institution of slavery.

Reading the book today, it is hard to remember that slavery had such acceptance at one time, and that Ms. Stowe’s portrayal of African-Americans as not only creatures who lived and breathed, but as thinking , feeling and caring people was unheard of for most Americans. It was a radical book. The story is about Uncle Tom, an older slave in Kentucky, and Eliza, a young woman, a slave in the same Kentucky family. Tom is sold to pay his master’s debt, and Eliza’s child is sold also, except that she runs away when she hears what her master has done. Their separate stories make up the book.

Today we use the phrase “bleeding heart” in a way to make fun of people, but in that time a writer like Ms. Stowe had no qualms about using that expression seriously. Her work has been criticized for being overly sentimental, creating characters who are angel-like, as little Eva, a Southern planter’s daughter, and devil-like, as Tom’s last owner Simon Legree. Suffice it to say, that Ms. Stowe has defended herself that she wrote it as an argument, and so the book should not be expected to have literary merit. But the characters are compelling, even if their strengths and weaknesses are exaggerated. And in accordance with Ms. Stowe’s Christianity, their failings are always excused, encouraged and even aided by the world, while sympathy, love and compassion find obstacles at every turn.

The character Uncle Tom, as a Christian, believes his body may be bought and sold, but not his soul. His character has been maligned by white and black alike, for what has been called his ‘servile’ acceptance of his condition. Yet in the book, he is a strong figure, one who many turn to for advice and consolation – the master as well as the slave.

Abraham Lincoln met Ms. Stowe in 1862, after the Civil War had started. His words: “So this is the little lady who started this Great War”, may not be entirely accurate. Different economic structures, state vs. federal rights - these and other concerns were also at issue. Still, Uncle Tom’s Cabin played an important role in that war; the greatest separation that this country has so far experienced.

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