UNCLE TOM’S CABIN by Harriet Beecher Stowe | Review

“The narrative drive of Stowe’s classic novel is often overlooked in the heat of the controversies surrounding its anti-slavery sentiments. In fact, it is a compelling adventure story with richly drawn characters and has earned a place in both literary and American history. Stowe’s puritanical religious beliefs show up in the novel’s final, overarching theme—the exploration of the nature of Christianity and how Christian theology is fundamentally incompatible with slavery.” {Goodreads}

First published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin has often been described as the book that launched the Civil War. Despite not having read it until recently, this book had been mentioned often enough in past history classes that I figured I had a pretty good idea of what reading it would be like.

Well, I stand corrected.

There’s no denying that the historical significance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is remarkable. The story goes that upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, President Abraham Lincoln exclaimed, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” This novel was a powerful tool for those fighting to end slavery before and during the Civil War; however, it’s easy to forget the story’s antislavery intentions when a modern reading of it reinforces disturbing racial stereotypes. Slaves are often portrayed as ignorant, unconditionally loyal to their masters, and eager to please as many people as possible. I was also taken aback by the glaring religious overtones in this novel; as someone who isn’t religious, it felt as thought I was being pelted with Christian beliefs over and over and over again. Then there’s the fact that this novel was written by a white woman who wrote a novel based on secondhand accounts of slavery from fugitive slaves. Where is the accuracy there? The authenticity? (Hint: there is none.)

This tension between the novel’s historical importance and the actual content and story within the book itself makes writing a review of it much more challenging than I initially expected. The story itself was captivating and entertaining, and I genuinely wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen to the characters. I quickly became invested in Uncle Tom and his family while simultaneously feeling uncomfortable with how they are portrayed as one dimensional caricatures of human beings. Andrew Delbanco  has more clearly and eloquently put my conflicted feelings into words in his New York Times review of David S. Reynold’s “Mightier Than the Sword.” Delbanco writes:

In my experience, students can be embarrassed by it. They recognize it as a valuable document for understanding the history of what we now call the “conversation” about race in America. In response to the prevailing view of black people as inferior beings (a view long held in the North as well as the South), it lifted its black characters to the status of impossibly virtuous victims — just the elevation that James Baldwin felt was a kind of contempt. When Baldwin called Stowe less a novelist than an “impassioned pamphleteer,” he meant, in part, that her characters don’t seem capable of selfishness as well as self-sacrifice, or of pettiness and jealousy along with piety and wisdom. In short, they don’t seem human. Reynolds calls Baldwin’s a “blinkered critique,” though he concedes that Stowe trafficked in the clichés of “romantic racialism” while reminding us, fairly enough, that what now seems “like racial stereotyping” was “progressive” in her day.

So where does this leave me? I’m still conflicted. Let’s just say that while I appreciate the immensely important historical significance of this novel, I’m so glad that our society has come a long way from the language and portrayals of characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 

What are your thoughts on Uncle Tom’s Cabin? How do you deal with books that give you mixed feelings like this? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

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10 thoughts on “UNCLE TOM’S CABIN by Harriet Beecher Stowe | Review

  1. what a thoughtful (amazing) review!!!! I’ve had this book on the book stack for almost 3 years, but I read Frederick Douglass’ “Autobio. of a Slave” and i thought I had taken in the same theme that would be in UTC. That’s so unlike me because the authors have separate viewpoints to go from. I love this review, I’m going to have to read this book!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think Uncle Tom’s Cabin has not aged well in part, too, because it’s a sentimental novel. At one point, this made it much admired and the height of literature. Today, the sentimental novel pretty much elicits only mockery. Some of her characterization probably stems from this, as it’s important for her story to make sure that the readers sympathize unreservedly with certain characters. To us they may seem overly religious and even like caricatures of religious people, but to her and her first readers, they were probably admirably virtuous.

    Obviously the book has also not aged well due to its depiction of race, as you mention. But I’m generally able to recognize that Stowe wasn’t writing from experience and that her views are outdated. I do think it’s important to give her credit, however, for trying. There were plenty of people North and South who did absolutely nothing to stop the evil of slavery. At least she made an emotional appeal to her countrymen in an attempt to wake them up.

    Yes, she was a white woman writing about black slaves and that makes her intervention questionable to some people. However, as a white woman, she also possessed power that even free Black individuals did not. Even Frederick Douglass and others who wrote their memoirs and made speeches often had to be introduced or prefaced by a white person in order for their testimony to be considered valid by other white people. Stowe took the power she had and attempted to do something good with it, which is more than most people can probably say.

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  3. This is such a coincidence that you should choose this week to review a novel by HBS. I was just reading several articles about her as she is a bit of a celebrity in these parts. She spent many winters in Mandarin (south Jacksonville, FL) on the St Johns river and wrote numerous pamphlets in praise of FLorida after the civil war, which are collected in a book called Palmetto Leaves. I havent read the book but learning abit about her life–a preacher for a father, a sister who started many schools for women and was part of the suffrage movement, herself an accomplished painter as well as writer, (her orange still lives are quite good.). She started schools for former slave children in Mandarin FL, and lived in her formative years before the civil war in Cincinnati ohio i think, right at the mason dixon line, and her father actually hired a servant who had escaped slavery in the south and then was brutally reclaimed by his master…truth can be stranger than fiction. HBS also commissioned a tiffany glass window of her view through the spanish moss to the saint johns river, but sadly it was destroyed when a tree fell on the church it was in, i think. I can post the links, but I’ve already overstayed my welcome. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. this is such a thoughtful post & review! i read this book not-so-carefully in my sophomore year of high school, and it was quite hard to reconcile the abolitionism alongside the racism. this is a very in-depth look at the topic!!

    Liked by 1 person

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