Book 26: A book older than 100 years, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of the most widely known novels in the American literary tradition. When published, it was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and was the second best-selling book of the century, coming in just behind the Bible. It is credited as being a driving force for the onset of the Civil War, and definitely supported the Abolitionist cause. However, it also created several Black stereotypes such as the “Uncle Tom,” “Mammy,” and “pickaninny” caricatures that are unfortunately still pervasive in representatives of Black people to this day.
It oversimplifies race relations in pre-Civil War America and underscores the complicated emotions and struggles that slaves faced on a daily basis. Perhaps the most problematic aspect for me as a modern day reader is the message at the end of the novel. Stowe seems to suggest that Black people living in the hell of slavery can only escape by “lucking out” and having a nice Master or by submitting themselves to the hands of a Christian God who will ultimately leave them to suffer in this life but will give them endless rewards in their next life if only they remain pious in the face of absolute evil and continue to “turn the other cheek.”
I’m glad that I read this book because again, it is an American classic. I did feel a huge disconnect as a modern reader, though, because while the book is about slavery and its evils, it’s also really about pushing a very strong Christian agenda. Readers today aren’t as likely to get on board with that. Slavery was abolished because it’s really unimaginably evil to own human beings and sell them like property. We don’t (or shouldn’t) need a Bible to tell us that. I understand that this is, of course, a modern perspective after living in a world where slavery has been abolished for over a hundred years. I’m sure back then it would have made more sense and appealed to her audience, but for me, it was overkill and it actually irked me. I wanted to slap some of these characters and tell them to stop being so pious and waiting for someone (“God”) to act; I wanted them to take it into their own hands to help others. I could have done without all of the Bible quotes and references and constant allusions to being a good Christian.
Additionally, portraying Black people as happy to serve their white overlords (a la Mammy in Gone with the Wind) is hugely problematic. At the end of the novel, the slaves on the Shelby plantation are granted their freedom and they protest that they don’t want to be free—things have always been good for them there. This notion that Black people were so dependent on their white owners is insulting and serves to reinforce many of the arguments in favor of slavery. While there were several characters unafraid to break their bonds of slavery by running away, the more pious “protagonist” characters disagree with it, feeling it would be “evil” or a “sin” to escape (think Tom, Emmaline, etc). Many characters were depicted as completely ignorant and dim-witted, feeding into other racial stereotypes about Blacks. Overall, I found the novel about as problematic as it was uplifting. Again, I’m sure this is because as a modern reader I am bringing a completely different perspective than readers during Stowe’s time.
My last point on this novel that I would love to explore in depth at a further time would be the use of the Mulatta character. I have done research on the Tragic Mulatta in the past and the power that this character holds under the surface of her tragic nature. Stowe’s Mulatta characters (Eliza, Emmaline, Cassie) actually do not end tragically, and it would be very interesting to explore the methods in which Stowe’s Mulatta figure compare to Chesnutt’s from my previous research.