The classic tale that awakened a nation a nation about life under the slave system. ... Read more
Customer Reviews (26)
Uncle Tom isn't one
I was a history major, an avid reader of American fiction and yet I turned fifty without ever reading "Uncle Tom's Cabin."Since I'm now engaged in a review of American literature, I thought it was time to right this wrong.
This is not a literary review.If I were to look at this book from a writerly perspective, I would find much that is wanting.The narration is wobbly and strangely third and occasionally first person, the sentence often poorly crafted, the tone changeable - overheated one moment and listless another.Yet or maybe because of these writerly problems, the novel comes across as a historic document, the story of a white northern woman who ached to convey the horror that the American white nation had denied, ignored or excused.And here the novel succeeds masterfully, making the reader feel the suffering of families torn apart, lifelong relationships shattered and a people degraded, humiliated and disregarded.
These aren't great, deep literary characters but they convey an often subtle understanding of how slavery was so damaging to everyone it touched and that was all of America at that time.There is Mr. Shelby a kindly slave-owner forced to sell his long-time slave and butler, a man he grew up with and in the sales transaction with slave trader Haley, you see that the way slavery turned humanity into cold, calculating profiteering.We get a portrait of northern arrogance and racism with Miss Ophelia.She overcomes it but we understand that while many in the North abhorred the institution of slavery, they didn't necessarily want to come in contact with black folk.George, Eliza's husband who escapes before she does, articulates a black pride and a courageous sense that his life as a slave isn't worth the risk of dying escaping to freedom.
But the character who occupies the heart and soul of the book is Tom, the Christ-like slave.He is a noble, dignified, spiritual figure who does accomodate his white masters but only up to a point.Tom refuses to obey Simon Legree's call for him to whip fellow slaves.He loses his life in that refusal and yet that character's inheritance is one of spineless accomodation.Blace men who don't stand up to whites are characterized as Uncle Toms and yet he lost his life standing up to a white man.Was that revolutionary message too much for people to bear?
Uncle Toms Cabin: Or, Life Among The Lowly. (The Penguin American Library)
Yes slavery was wrong, but it is still going on today, even here in America the greatest country in the world. Don't really believe all the negatives she writes about slave owners and their cruelty, NO first hand experience/observance of what she wrote about only second hand information. Felt sorry for the slaves it isn't usually told that it was their own kind that captured them in Africa and sold them to the slave traders. She neglects to expound about the many slave owners that were themselves Black. On one of the Cane River plantations in Louisiana was told to have been owned by a negress.
Uncle Tom's Cabin is an essential classic in the canon of American literature and the best expose of antebellum slavery
Uncle Tom's Cabin is a classic which is essential to an understanding of the controversy over the slave issue in nineteenth century pre-Civil War America.
It author is the famous Harriet Beecher Stowe who was the most notable member of the famous Beecher family of preachers and educators. Stowe wrote the book in the wake of the Compromise of 1850 which called for northerners to return slaves to the South as
captured fugitives. Slaves were considered as property and thought to be inferior mentally and spiritually to Anglos. Stowe, the sibling and wife of a clergyman was outraged! She poured her heart, soul and considerable literary talents into making slavery real to many Americans who had no understanding or experience of the "peculiar institution." Abraham Lincoln upon meeting her at the White House remarked, "Mrs Stowe you are the little lady whose book started this big war." (or words to that effect). The novel was published in 1852 becoming the runaway bestseller of all Americans novels published in that century.
The story begins in Kentucky where Uncle Tom lives in amity with his wife Aunt Chloe and their three children. He is sold down river because his benevolent owner Mr. Shelby has got himself into debt. Tom rescues little Eva on a steamboat and is purchased by the wealthy Augustine St. Clare who is her father. Uncle Tom is treated well by the St. Clare family but the saintly little Eva dies (a poignant death reminiscent of the death of Little Nell in Dickens "The Old Curiosity Shop and other Victorian fictional deaths). In his scenes with Little Eva and everyone he encounters Uncle Tom is a Christlike man of strength, faith and charity.
St Clare's wife is a cold, egotistical woman so enamored of her own illnesses she care nothing for Eva. Miss Ophelia is a New England relative visiting the St. Clares who see slavery up close for the first time. She loves little Topsy an abused girl who is owned by the St Clares. Ophelia will eventually adopt Topsy taking her back home to New England. Topsy eventually becomes a Christian missionary in Africa.
Uncle Tom is sold to the infamous Simon Legree a Vermont born slave owner who is one of the cruelest characters in all of fiction. He beats Uncle Tom to death but not before the Christian martyr has converted many of his fellow slaves to Christ. It is telling that Stowe made her villian Legree a New Englander. The curse of slavery was nationwide.
An ancillary story features the escape of Eliza and Tom Harris to freedom in Canada. We see Eliza fleeing with her baby Harry across the icy Ohio river where she is befriended by Quakers enabling her escape to freedom. Tom and Eliza settle in Montreal and he travels to France with his family graduating from a university in that land. Stowe insists that Africa-Americans should have the right to read and learn as do whites.
Mrs. Stowe indicts both North and South for the nation's culpability in the cruel slave system. Her great novel still has power today in a time when racisim and injustice still exist in our land. Who reading Uncle Tom's Cabin would have ever believed that a fine African-American gentleman named Barack Obama would sit in the White House as the President of the United States?
Some will accuse Stowe of sentimentality but her storytelling abilities are profound and keep the attention of the reader throughout her sad and moving story. This book is an essential for every American.
Literature And History
There are some books which one gets to know by reputation before one actually reads them."Uncle Tom's Cabin (or, Life Among the Lowly)" by Harriet Beecher Stowe is one of them.Whether from studying American History and slavery, and hearing the pejorative term "Uncle Tom", one gets a strong sense for certain aspects of the book.For whatever reason, I had not read the book until recently, when studying in more detail the history of slavery in the U.S. made this a necessity in my view.
The history of how this book came about is important to the overall experience as well.The 1850 Compromise had seemed to settle the slavery question, before Stephen A. Douglas used its existence as a justification for his argument that the Missouri Compromise had been overturned.However, part of the Compromise included a slave-catching bill which created outcries from the abolitionist movement, and led a thirty-nine year old Harriet Beecher Stowe to write what would become perhaps the most important publication in the history of the Untied States.
The change in public sentiment after its publication was dramatic.Its initial publication in the "National Era" as a 40 part serial, starting with the June 5, 1851 issue, did not draw a lot of notice outside of the abolitionist movement, but its publication as a complete book on March 20th of 1852 resulted in it being the most successful novel ever written up to that point.It was called by one critic at the time "The most valuable addition that America has made to English literature", and it has become a piece of history itself, as well as a classic piece of literature.
In the initial part of the story there are three key slave characters to this story: the title character, Uncle Tom, Eliza (there is also her young son Harry), and George Harris.George is Eliza's husband and Harry's father, and is owned by Mr. Harris, who abuses George, mainly due to his being jealous of George's talents.Eliza, Harry, and Tom are owned by Mr. and Mrs. Shelby.The Shelby's are good to their slaves, yet due to some financial mishaps, Arthur Shelby decides that he is forced to sell off Tom, and is then talked into selling Harry as well to fully clear his debt.This is the opening scene of the novel, and it sets the tone for the rest of the book.
Eliza learns of the sale of Harry and flees with her son in order to save him.She is also aware of her husband's intent to flee from his brutal master.George does also flee and both of them make their way into Ohio where they manage to unite.Tom, learns the reason for his sale, and decides that it is best for his master and the rest of the slaves owned by the Shelby's, and thus he obediently goes along with the sale.The fleeing slaves go north, while Tom is taken south.
The three characters are very distinct and important.Stowe uses Eliza to show the perspective of a female slave.Her family kept apart by slavery, and threatened to be parted from her son, she flees in fear and in do so gains freedom and her family reunited.George is equally important, as by defying an abusive owner, he too gains his freedom and his family by not following the law.In his words we hear the echo of Patrick Henry when he says "I'll be free, or I'll die!"Stowe uses these characters to show the fallacy of the common belief of the time that slaves don't have the same sense of family.She also defies common belief by portraying George as smart and talented and passionate about his thirst for freedom.Of course, the comparison between the dire conditions for George in slavery as well as the broken family situation verses that which they have once they flee is significant.Stowe leaves George, Eliza, and Harry for a long period in the middle of the book, but she does return to them in a chapter near the end to finish their story.
The other character, Uncle Tom, is the most controversial.His almost infuriating obedience and subservience to his masters in the story resulted in the creation of the derisive term "Uncle Tom".His character today reads as one who is not intelligent, and someone who blindly follows his master and his religion.In my opinion, it was important to have him as the central hero of the story and important that he act as the "ideal slave" would act.One key point is the contrast between what happens to an "ideal" slave who does what the master tells him to do, and the "bad" slaves who run away.Unlike Eliza and George, Tom loses his wife and children when his master sells him.
Another important aspect of Tom is that he is always, by far, more moral than those that supposedly "own" him.Even the relatively benign Arthur Shelby allows his personal needs to not only sell Tom, but in doing so breaking his promise to free him, and beyond that, he fails to make a real effort to regain Tom, which he also promises to do.This contrast serves its purpose well.Tom is not dumb, and his faith is pure and true, unlike the faith of the slave-owners which they have had to twist to convince themselves that slavery is a moral good.
Tom's second master is Augustine St. Clare, who inherited a plantation in Louisiana, and though he feels slavery is a sin, it is a sin he is unable to abstain from.His cousin, Miss Ophelia St. Clare, is from New England and argues with him to try to get him to give up his slaves.His response is to have her try to raise and educate a wild young slave girl called Topsy.Though separated from his family, Tom is still able to correspond through an exchange of letters, which gives both himself and his loved ones hope of being reunited.Tom's obedience again earns his master's trust, good treatment, and promise of freedom, but a tragedy results in Tom being sold again.
Tom's third master is the infamous Simon Legree, a brutal master who trusts no slave, and who finds Tom too soft.At this point, Tom's separation from his family is complete, there is no communication at all.It is here where Tom refuses to do as his new master acts, and the reader learns that Tom has never really been a slave, that his actions have always been carried out because he believed they were the best course of action.He will not let Legree turn him into a Slave Driver, and he will readily sacrifice himself for others, as he has done throughout.
Though the slang can be difficult to navigate, and there are certainly other weaknesses as well, such as a wrap-up which is a bit too neat and some ideas on Liberia which demonstrate the racism which was even there in those that were against slavery, this is a book which every American ought to read and experience.When initially published, the book did well not only in the Northern part of the United States, but in Europe as well.Stowe makes use of the current events of the time in her narrative.For example, in one of the narrative comments, Stowe makes a comparison to a runaway slave and a Hungarian defying the law and making his way to America, which is a clear reference to the Hungarian, Louis Kossuth, fleeing Austria and the hero's welcome he received when he came to the United States.
The edition I am reviewing is the Penguin Classics which includes an introduction titled "The Art of Controversy" by Ann Douglas.It provides some good insight into Harriet Beecher Stowe's life and her writing of this novel, but I did think she somewhat oversimplified some of the historical context.Nevertheless, I would definitely highly recommend the novel.
Penguin Edition, edited by Douglas, is Not Reliable
My one-star rating applies only to the Penguin edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The Penguin edition, edited by Ann Douglas, has a high rate of transcription error. So it is not suitable for serious study.
I listed a selection (over 100) of the transcription errors in the Penguin edition for a presentation at the 2007 American Literature Association conference.For example, the Penguin edition on page 619 (in the 4 copies that I've examined) has the following line:
"If the laws of New England were so arranged that a master could [it]now and then[/it] torture an apprentice to death, would it be received with equal composure?"
In the 1852 Jewett edition (the first printing in book form), the sentence included an additional clause:
"If the laws of New England were so arranged that a master could [it]now and then[/it] torture an apprentice to death, without a possibility of being brought to justice, would it be received with equal composure?"
This error--the omission of "without a possibility of being brought to justice"--diminishes a key theme in Stowe's work. I encourage scholars, teachers, and students to purchase Ammons's or Sklar's editions of UTC. Among editions that I've examined, those editions have more reliable texts. I have not examined the new Bedford edition (Railton) or the new Norton edition (Gates and Robbins).
If you choose to buy some other edition, perhaps your choice will encourage Penguin to publish a corrected edition. This edition was ranked 41,945 at Amazon when I wrote this review in July of 2007.
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