Laurie Toby Edison

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Re/Considering Uncle Tom

Laurie says:

This month is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a major figure in the abolitionist and other social change movements of her day.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe (June 14, 1811 – July 1, 1896) was a American Abolitionist and author. Her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin(1852) depicted life for African Americans under slavery; it reached millions as a novel and play, and became influential in the US and the United Kingdom. It energized anti-slavery forces in the American North, while provoking widespread anger in the South. She wrote more than 20 books, including novels, three travel memoirs, and collections of articles and letters. She was influential both for her writings and her public stands on {social issues} of the day.

I read about her in high school, but the major influence on my opinion of her was James Baldwin’s critical  pairing of her with Richard Wright in the essay Everybody’s Protest Novel in Notes of a Native Son. Baldwin castigates her for being too sentimental, and for portraying black slaves as praying to a white God so as to be cleansed/whitened. Equally, he repudiate Richard Wright’s book Native Son for portraying Bigger Thomas as an angry black man – he views that as an example of stigmatizing categorization.

I changed my mind (much as I have always admired Baldwin) after learning a lot more about the history and context of her work, and reading the book again myself.

Except for an oddly deprecatory first paragraph, David Reynolds has written an excellent timely essay in the NY Times on Rescuing the Real Uncle Tom.

…driven by a passionate hatred of slavery, she found time to write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which became the most influential novel in American history and a catalyst for radical change both at home and abroad.

Today, of course, the book has a decidedly different reputation, thanks to the popular image of its titular character, Uncle Tom — whose name has become a byword for a spineless sellout, a black man who betrays his race.

And we tend to think of the novel itself as an old-fashioned, rather lachrymose affair that features the deaths of an obsequious enslaved black man and his blond, angelic child-friend, Little Eva.

But this view is egregiously inaccurate: the original Uncle Tom was physically strong and morally courageous, an inspiration for blacks and other oppressed people worldwide. In other words, Uncle Tom was anything but an “Uncle Tom.”

Indeed, that’s why in the mid-19th century Southerners savagely attacked “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as a dangerously subversive book, while Northern reformers — especially blacks — often praised it. The ex-slave Frederick Douglass affirmed that no one had done more for the progress of African-Americans than Stowe.

The book was enormously popular in the North during the 1850s and helped solidify support behind the antislavery movement. As the black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois later wrote, “Thus to a frail overburdened Yankee woman with a steadfast moral purpose we Americans, both black and white, owe our gratitude for the freedom and the union that exist today in these United States.”

The book stoked fires overseas, too. In Russia it influenced the 1861 emancipation of the serfs and later inspired Vladimir Lenin, who recalled it as his favorite book in childhood. It was the first American novel to be translated and published in China, and it fueled antislavery causes in Cuba and Brazil.

At the heart of the book’s progressive appeal was the character of Uncle Tom himself: a muscular, dignified man in his 40s who is notable precisely because he does not betray his race; one reason he passes up a chance to escape from his plantation is that he doesn’t want to put his fellow slaves in danger. And he is finally killed because he refuses to tell his master where two runaway slaves are hiding.

It’s worth reading the whole essay. And if there is time in your life for it, it’s definitely worth reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

 

3 Responses to “Re/Considering Uncle Tom”

  1. supergee Says:

    I found the whole [Reynolds] book worth reading.

  2. Laurie Toby Edison Says:

    Thanks, I’ll check it out.

  3. In Praise of Harriet Beecher Stowe | The Stay-at-Home Feminist Mom Says:

    [...] far more in common with the Roman Empire than with Jesus. At the end of the book, Uncle Tom dies to protect two escaped slaves. This denunciation of the evils of slavery was incendiary at the time. Just how provocative was it? [...]

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