Thoughts on Uncle Tom's Cabin
August 2006
Part of a special reading quest:
Famous Books No One Reads Anymore

(ATTENTION STUDENTS : please don't plagerize my words. Instead, READ THE BOOK. Don't cheat me, and don't cheat yourself.)

I realize that, in some ways, this book doesn't fit in as a part of my quest, because some people do still read this book -- namely, students who have it on their required reading list. But, in all honesty, I have never met anyone who read it, or, at least, has read it and talked about it. Plus, everyone thinks they know this book without reading it -- they do not.

The main character of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and at least one of the minor characters, are frequently mocked by modern black activists, rappers and comedians. Therefore, when I began reading this novel, originally published in 1852, I was expecting a woefully-outdated story with painful, outrageous stereotypes and archaic language, and had prepared myself for a real struggle to navigate through it in order to see how this book mobilized people in the USA against slavery.

The story, its delivery and its characters turned out to be nothing like they have been portrayed to me over the years. Nothing. And more importantly, it is still a powerful call for justice and equality more than 150 years later.

It was a difficult read at first, but after the first 100 pages or so, I was hooked.

Harriet Beecher Stowe paints Tom not as subservient to white men -- or any men -- but as absolutely defiant, a man who serves only one master: Jesus Christ. Uncle Tom's defiance is in stark contrast to everything I've ever heard about him. Stowe never, ever implies in any way that slaves should work only to please their earth-bound masters and never pursue freedom or personal dignity -- contrary to what I've always heard. In addition to Tom, there's George, a representation of the intelligence and potential Stowe obviously felt every African American was capable. Stowe wasn't saying that Tom's way of defiance -- and his not pursuing escape -- was a better path than George's, who risks everything to escape with his family to Canada. Instead, she presents the myriad of ways people -- HUMANS -- react to and survive enslavement. Topsy isn't presented as I thought she would be -- a silly comic relief -- but as a girl who has never known anything but pain from and the contempt of others, and becomes whole only when she's offered full, unconditional love. There are NO one-dimensional portraits in the book -- the characters, white and black, portray a massive variety of values, philosophies, and thoughts of the time.

I was struck not only by how full, rich and diverse the characters were, but also, Stowe's condemnation not only of slavery itself, but of the North, for not wanting freed blacks to live among them, to work in their homes or live in their neighborhoods or attend their schools. She also condemns merciful slave owners, painting them just as bad as ruthless Is the book racist? By today's standards, yes, but no more than it's also sexist. It's dated, no question: the author will very occassionally say something about blacks -- or women -- that make me cringe. The slaves and freed men presented in the book are no more benign, lazy or lacking in values than most of the white people portrayed. But I challenge anyone who has READ the book to say that the stereotypes engrained into our psyche by various contemporary commentators were ever envisioned by the author. After reading the entry about the book on Wikipedia, I've surmised that the stereotypes we hear about regarding the story are actually from the widely-seen and woefully inaccurate dramatizations of the book. And her text drips with a sarcasm, often addressed directly to the reader, that is jarring at times -- this woman hated slavery with every molecule of her body, and she presents, and skewers, every argument of the time in support of it.

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