Horrifying History of Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe Essay
I thought I knew everything I needed to know about Uncle Tom's Cabin. I've read the history books. I know it first appeared as a serial story in an abolitionist magazine in 1851. I know it appeared as a novel in 1852. I know it is credited by many with having pushed the nation into the Civil War. I know that it is the best selling American Novel of the 19th century. I know it is the 2nd best selling book in America in the 19th century, second only to the Bible. I know it is recognized as one of the most influential works of literature in America and set the stage for many political works that followed for quite some time. I know many of its images and terms have since served to themselves become stereotypes over the years seen very differently today, than they were in the days before and even shortly following the Civil War.
So, when I saw that the novel was available on the Kindle as a free download, I wasn't sure I needed to read it. But I went ahead and I'm glad I did.
There's always a temptation in reviewing a book critically, that the more popular a book is, the more tempting it is to adopt an elitist attitude that serves to further, not the value of the book, but rather the size of the ego of the reviewer. I was tempted while reading this to adopt some of this attitude.
The book plays out as a Victorian morality play and it sermonizes in true Puritan and Calvinist form to seek to bring shame on both the North and the South for their direct and indirect support of the institution of slavery in America. Many of the characters are, from the perspective of a 21st century reader, contrived representations which seem very unrealistic and are designed to tug at the emotions of the reader.
However, the measure of a book is not how it is read by those removed from its time, but rather those of its time. In spite of myself, as I progressed through the book, I found myself grudgingly in places, entering into the story and spirit of the book. In some ways, the effectiveness of the book, even with the elements mentioned comes from Stowe not painting things as negatively as might have been her temptation. With the notable exception of Simon Legree the main characters of the book, in the South of the slaveholder class, are presented in a somewhat sympathetic light. "Good" masters are shown for their benevolence and care for their slaves and in come cases it could be argued that these servants are better off than they might otherwise have been as free. But this works its way clearly to the conclusion that even with good masters the system itself is evil and there is no guarantee that benevolent circumstances will continue. Good masters can fall on hard times and be pressed to sell their property.
I found myself, despite resisting and recognizing the in places heavy handed methods used in the book to appeal to emotions, entering often into and sensing the humanity and emotions of the characters. There is in places almost a Dickensian appeal to social justice that works quite well and makes it evident why the book had the impact that it did.
In short, I enjoyed the book and feel now that I know, not only about the book but have entered into the book and seen America as it was before the Civil War. The final afterword of the author that appeals for action of all Christians (the primary target of the book) is quite effective and the arguments presented against some of the common defenses of slavery of that age are laid out and shown for the rationalizations they were.