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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Life Among the Lowly

That’s the subtitle of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’ve recently reread this book—it’s one of the classics I first read in high school, and it’s been interesting to see my response to books more than twenty years later. I’ve concluded that, though Uncle Tom's Cabin has been controversial since its publication, this is a misunderstood book, not a bad one.

“Uncle Tom,” of course, has become a caricature of black subservience, and the novel is commonly thought of as a melodrama, written solely for the purpose of agitating American readers against one of the great evils of their day: slavery. If that were Stowe’s only accomplishment with her first novel, it would be impressive enough. No other novelist of nineteenth-century America, and certainly no female novelist, can touch her for effect. President Lincoln called her “the little lady who made this big war.” A lot of the book makes uncomfortable reading now too, but having finished it, I question whether the real problem is Stowe writing racist caricatures. I read her black characters as people living under a horrible, degrading institution, whether Mammy, who reminds us of a stereotype, or George Harris, the proud, strong young man who leads his family to Canada. Historically, Stowe portrayed slavery accurately, as part of America’s whole society, whether in slave or free states—and her point was that it demeaned every single American, slave, slave owner, or “innocent” third party.

Rita Mae Brown (no fan of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) writes in the preface to her Civil War novel, High Hearts, of the importance of giving characters their voices, including slaves who would not speak the same way as the people who owned them. I believe Stowe writes dialogue extremely well, and when George escapes to his education, he writes, speaks, and thinks in a different way from the plantation slave. Stowe’s story has limitations (would anyone in the nineteenth century write the same way as a writer today?) but that’s not what makes it uncomfortable reading. It’s the fact that, long after Stowe and all the slaves have died, it is still shocking and horrifying to think about what really went on in day-to-day America.

As for Tom, his character is ultimately a martyr. In contrast to cringing master-pleasers, Tom defies any master’s control of what is most precious to him—his soul. Like Job in the Hebrew Bible (falsely thought of as “patient”), Tom is steadfast in the knowledge that what he is doing is right. He will not obey his last and cruelest master, Simon Legree, because Legree wants to make Tom cruel. In a situation where every earthly hope and even the integrity of his own body is taken away, Tom remains steadfast. Is the message that a free black man like George Harris should behave like “an Uncle Tom”? I believe Stowe’s message is that Tom is a martyr made by slavery—that this is the only alternative left to him, because the hateful institution itself is so debasing. Legree has bought Tom’s body, but Tom believes that only God is master of his soul.

“Soul” and “martyr” bring me to this inescapable conclusion: More than a book about slavery, Stowe’s novel is most of all a book about Christianity. It is suffused with Tom’s Christian faith, the struggles of slaves with Christianity, and the appalling failure of slave owners to live up to the Christianity they profess. Without understanding this, I don't see how the book can be appreciated. Stowe came from a family of preachers and she excoriates the Christian church of her time for equivocating, failing to welcome the stranger, to raise up the slave as the equal son or daughter of God. As RenĂ© Girard pointed out in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Christianity came into the pagan world with the new, shocking idea that the victim was blessed, that the lowly, the helpless, the person most ground down was precious and that God in Christ had become like that person. This idea, Paul wrote in the New Testament, was “folly to the Gentiles” and it has been ever since. What Nietzsche found most disgusting about Christianity was that it was a slave religion.

I found Uncle Tom’s Cabin not least a compelling page turner, and I tried throughout to figure out what was also making my twenty-first century self so disturbed. I think it is the fact that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s first novel is, beginning to end, a call to what is right. Stowe is absolutely certain what is right, her hero Tom is absolutely certain what is right, and that makes disturbing reading today. We live in a century when even the slavery of our era—torture—has somehow become an equivocal matter. Well, maybe a little bit of torture, or something like it, you know, for really bad people. How do we respond to a book that warned of God’s judgment against a nation that mistreated strangers within it, and did not live up to its own ideals of freedom and equality? A book that called America’s failings a “sin”?

The late science writer Stephen Jay Gould, in Rocks of Ages, made a point that kept coming back to me as I read Stowe’s novel: that the biggest single difference between people in our Western societies today, and any other people at any other time, is how seldom we bury our children. In the nineteenth century, you could be rich or white or free, but whoever you were, when you had a baby you had to know how likely you were to lose that baby in childhood. Charles Darwin was not exempt from this personal tragedy, and neither was Harriet Beecher Stowe. This note recurs over and over again in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Stowe appeals to mothers—white mothers, free mothers, mothers in the North—to remember the loss of their own children, and understand that the same pain and grief were felt by slave mothers whose children were sold away from them. This seems as far away from our experience as slavery, but it shouldn’t—it is still the experience of parents in many countries in the world. Stowe could make this appeal because her readers knew what it was like, and the interesting thing is that her appeal is not colored, as it were, by racism, in the way that some contemporary comments about African birth rates are! She doesn’t feel the need to tell a white mother reading her novel that a black mother feels the same grief. She writes about women, and children, and men.

That is the power of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly.

2 comments:

Lara Z said...

J.E.! THIS was an AMAZING discussion/reflection on Uncle Tom's Cabin. I am sharing this with every writer I've ever known, and a dozen English Lit teachers to boot. Powerful, powerful interpretation!

J. E. Knowles said...

Wow--thanks, Lara. Some books just make an impact, but I have to admit this was not what I expected. I really appreciate your reading and comment.