Abolitionist History of Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe Essay
A sellout . . . A traitor to your people . . . Eager to do the white man's bidding. These are some of the modern connotations of an "Uncle Tom." Yet, if you were to read the book from which the term originated, you cannot help but come to an entirely different conclusion.
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" tells the story of a middle-aged slave, Tom, and his exploits in 1850s America. A staunch abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote this novel as an illustration of the inherent evils of the system of slavery, not just in the actual practice of it, but also in the passive condoning of it by Northerners. The book was so effective that it swayed public opinion and helped bring forth the Civil War, as implied by Abraham Lincoln.
The book is divided into three parts: The Shelby farm in Kentucky; The St. Clares' home in New Orleans; and wicked Simon Legree's plantation in rural Louisiana. The first two slaveowners are benevolent toward Tom, yet Stowe makes a powerful argument of the evils of slavery even when the slaveowner is upright and kind. Stowe portrays slaves as humans with real feelings and strong family ties - a bold pronouncement for that era. For even if they are in a kind environment, they are just one bad business deal or one untimely death away from being sold "down river" and being separated from all they love forever.
Since the target audience was Christian, Stowe makes illustrious use of religious passages and uses flowery language at times, which may seem a bit too much for the modern reader. Yet, she uses these references effectively in an appeal to Christian love to all people, regardless of race. Furthermore, she condemns the Southern Christians of the time for twisting their belief to rationalize slavery.
As for modern criticisms of the book, it is true that Tom is a loyal servant and wants to please his masters. However, he is no "Uncle Tom," in that he never sells out his fellow slaves and would rather die than betray his brethren. He is treated as a martyr, a near Christ-like figure who will die if others can become free. I doubt Stowe could have portrayed Tom otherwise and still have been as effective. If Tom was rebellious toward his master rather than loyal and loving, the book would have lost its edge.
Overall, this is a great read and provides a window into the thinking of an abolitionist. I'd highly recommend this for anyone who wants to know about the real Uncle Tom.