Is Uncle Tom's Cabin any good?

How we interpret the past.
May 20 2005 2:40 PM

Uncle Tom's Children

Why has Uncle Tom's Cabin survived—and thrived?

Click here to read more from Slate's History Week.

Illustration by Amanda Duffy.
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Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was a small but fierce woman who hailed from a family of righteous meliorists. After attending a "Female Seminary" founded by her sister in Hartford, Conn., the 21-year-old Harriet moved with her family to Cincinnati in 1832. As Ohio was then a free state, and Kentucky, just across the river, a slave state, Stowe—by that point married to the theologian Calvin Stowe, and supplementing his paltry income by writing short stories—had some firsthand experience of both freed and runaway slaves. In 1850, the couple moved to Brunswick, Maine, where Calvin taught theology at Bowdoin College, and Harriet, inspired by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, wrote the most important novel in American history. Uncle Tom's Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly (published in 1852) was the biggest best seller of the 19th century. Unlike The Da Vinci Code, it did not leave the world unchanged. When Lincoln finally met Stowe at the White House, he reportedly twitted her with, "So this is the little lady whose book started the Civil War."

The main characters of Uncle Tom's Cabin—Simon Legree, Sambo, Little Eva, and, of course, Uncle Tom himself—constitute such a familiar American typology it's easy to feel as though you've read the novel even when you haven't. I hadn't, but in honor of Slate's History Week, I finally did—and threw in some of the major critical essays about the book, by James Baldwin, Alfred Kazin, Ann Douglas, Jane Tompkins, and Jane Smiley. Uncle Tom's Cabin is, along with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the key battleground books in American literature. The use of the N-word on the part of its characters is liberal, to say the least, and some of the author's own attitudes toward race are plainly antiquated; at one point Stowe informs us that the African is "naturally patient, timid and unenterprising," a sentiment she feels compelled to echo as the story progresses. Nonetheless, Stowe earned the respect of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois (and Tolstoy and Dickens) because her goal was as simple as it was righteous: to depict slavery as a uniquely depraving institution—"accursed," as she often put it—whose taint spared no one, Northerners included, and with which no compromise could ever be possible. The living tongue of a Puritan hellfire still lies behind the book's concluding paragraph:

A day of grace is yet held out to us. Both North and South have been guilty before God; and the Christian church has a heavy account to answer. Not by combining together, to protect injustice and cruelty, and making a common capital of sin, is this Union to be saved,—but by repentance, justice and mercy; for, not surer is the eternal law by which the millstone sinks in the ocean, than that stronger law, by which injustice shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God!

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Uncle Tom's Cabin is often the bluntest of instruments, and Stowe could write like the worst of those sentimentalists whom Hawthorne derided as a "damned mob of scribbling women." (Augustine St. Clare is described as possessing a "passionate effervescence of romantic passion," and the chapter foreshadowing Little Eva's death is called "Foreshadowings.") Nonetheless, Uncle Tom's Cabin reflects deep, if often deeply unresolved, thinking on the nature of human identity and responsibility. Where does our tendency to goodness or wickedness come from, exactly? If we don't know the answer to that, how do we ever assign desert or blame? These were not parlor speculations. Stowe knew that to overcome an institution as entrenched as slavery, she had to destroy its key legitimizing concepts. The first of these is summed up tartly by an unnamed woman on a boat carrying Uncle Tom away from his beloved family. "It pleased Providence," she remarks, "to doom the [Negro] race to bondage, ages ago; and we must not set up our opinion against that." The second was the grisly syllogism that, as slaves were property, and as the social contract arising out of the Revolution—itself born out of an ardent reading of Locke—asserted property rights as natural rights, to own another human being was a natural right, and therefore inviolable. To trifle with slavery was, on the first count, an affront to God; on the second, an affront to the very basis of a free society.

To lay permanent waste to these casuistries, Stowe built her narrative around two main characters: George Harris, a fugitive on his way to Canada, and thus presumably freedom, and Uncle Tom, a captive descending deeper into the South, and thus presumably deeper into bondage. Harris is proud and virile, but above all, he is mentally talented, having proven his managerial worth in a local factory. (His master had effectively leased him out.) Over and over, Stowe asks: If God made George Harris, He also made him intelligent; how is Harris' claim on his own fullest potential not a natural right, one that no society should compromise? "We stand here as free, under God's sky, as you are," Harris pronounces to the bounty hunters close on his tail, "and, by the great God that made us, we'll fight for our liberty till we die." Driving the point home, Stowe labels this Harris' own personal "declaration of independence."

Harris' pride, his sense of an almost primordial entitlement to a life of self-directed dignity, strikes a chord with the modern reader. Uncle Tom is a different story. That Stowe believed Tom was the key to the moral power of her book is beyond question: The idea for Uncle Tom's Cabin first came to her in a vision of a black slave being beaten to death, the novel's eventual climax. To Stowe—and to 19th-century audiences, who attended thousands upon thousands of "Uncle Tom" theatricals—Tom stood for the "inviolable sphere of peace encompassed in the lowly heart of the oppressed one," as Stowe puts it, a Christ-like transcendence in the face of immense injustice. But to the 20th century, an "Uncle Tom" increasingly connoted a cringing acquiescence, or worse, an outright betrayal of one's own. (Click here for Kazin's take.)

In Harris and Uncle Tom, Stowe felt she had flipped the arguments in slavery's favor on their head. No amount of reasoning, however devious, could defend the theft of Harris' natural talents as a God-given right, or portray Tom's fatal beating at the hands of Legree as flattering the providential order. As anyone who has read Uncle Tom's Cabin realizes, Tom's salvation was infinitely more important to Stowe than Harris' emancipation. Harris wanted a right to a fair wage for the value-adding power of his labor. (He doesn't want 40 acres and a mule; he wants to keep working in a factory where he had "invented a machine for the cleaning of the hemp," an invention that made the manufacturing of bags far more efficient.) Her appraisal of Tom, however, is anti-utilitarian: a man's worth, as a creature in the image of God, is infinite, and to barter in it is a grievous sin. Any argument in favor of Harris' right to economic freedom, by which a monetary value would be placed on his human capital, was still too close in Stowe's mind to the entire system of profit and loss that had countenanced slavery in the first place.

James Baldwin, in a famous essay for The Partisan Review in 1949, saw the priority of Tom over Harris as anything but innocent and pious. Harris, Baldwin argued, is a "race apart" from the novel's blackest characters—the little girl Topsy, and Tom himself. Harris' dignity is therefore tied, as Baldwin puts it, to his being "sufficiently un-Negroid to pass through town, a fugitive from his master, disguised as a Spanish gentleman, attracting no attention beyond admiration." It is tied, in other words, to his whiteness. Tom is therefore Stowe's "only black man," whom she has "robbed of his humanity and divested of his sex." Baldwin loathed the novel, which he felt yoked a terror of blackness to a "terror of damnation," then "saved" Tom by rendering him an intellectual and sexual eunuch who gives himself over entirely to martyrdom. Baldwin finally sets his thermometer on roast: "Uncle Tom's Cabin then, is activated by what might be called a theological terror, the terror of damnation; and the spirit that breathes in this book, hot, self-righteous, fearful, is not different from that terror that activates a lynch mob."

We have here an interesting puzzle. How has Uncle Tom's Cabin survived, and thrived, if it proved so offensive to the 20th-century aspirations of the African-Americans it helped liberate in the 19th? Why isn't Uncle Tom's Cabin like Wittgenstein's ladder: Once climbed, it is obsolete, and we ought to throw it away? The answer, I believe, can be found in an essay from 1978 by Jane Tompkins, a prominent feminist literary critic who wrote, "My principal target of concern is ... the male-dominated scholarly tradition that controls both the canon of American literature. ... For the tradition of Perry Miller, F.O. Matthiessen, Harry Levin, Richard Chase, R.W.B. Lewis, Yvor Winters, and Henry Nash Smith has prevented even committed feminists from recognizing and asserting the value of a powerful and specifically female novelistic tradition."

Tompkins composed her article for Glyph soon after elite, male-only universities had gone co-ed and when, for the first time in history, literature PhDs were as likely to be awarded to women as men. To help break into the boys club, Tompkins and the incomparable scholar-critic Ann Douglas made three moves. First, they claimed Stowe as a viable hero for modern feminists, "an impassioned, individual, mischievous, brilliant woman," as Douglas has written. (Not to mention that, in producing a blockbuster, Stowe supplanted her husband as the family's wage-earner.) Second, they identified as sexist a strict hierarchy of aesthetic value that would elevate, say, Hawthorne and Melville over domestic sentimentalists like Stowe and Lydia Sigourney. And by extension, third, they assumed the critical attitude we now associate with "culture studies": Literary merit is a subjective and highly interested value judgment and has no place in rigorous academic discourse.

To block out how important a repudiation of the novel had been to 20th-century American blacks—Richard Wright's early study of racism, after all, was titled Uncle Tom's Children—feminist literary critics focused not on Tom, and not on Harris, but on Little Eva. Little Eva, the angelic daughter of a New Orleans slave owner, dies of a tuberculosis apparently induced by her own deep feelings about the injustice of slavery. (On the subject of how the death of Little Eva gripped 19th-century audiences, Douglas is beyond brilliant; and her masterpiece, The Feminization of American Culture, can't be recommended highly enough.) Stowe's novel gives feminist critics plenty to chew on, given that its primary vehicle for readerly outrage is the violation of maternal affection. Even ferociously proud George Harris is eventually tamed by the language of feminine sympathy: "I was a little fellow, and laid awake whole nights and cried, it wasn't the hunger, it wasn't the whipping I cried for. No sir; it was for my mother and my sisters…" But here, I think, we can reasonably begin to assess the danger of ignoring how luridly overdrawn and crude Uncle Tom's Cabin appears when compared, say, with Jane Austen, the Brontës, or even Fanny Burney.

As good as much of the first-wave feminist criticism of Uncle Tom's Cabin was, it tried to have it both ways, starting with a purely historical observation—that Stowe helped initiate "a monumental effort to reorganize culture from the woman's point of view," then sneaking back in the old-fashioned evaluative buzzwords like "brilliant" and "dazzling" (all in Jane Tompkins' words). It's no coincidence that academic criticism, at just the time Uncle Tom's Cabin was being put back on the syllabus, had started arguing in favor a politics based on "identity," and that the identity of the overwhelming number of professors and students making and listening to the rehab job of Stowe as a feminist icon were likely to be white, middle-class women. In 1996, Jane Smiley, a superb novelist but in this instance a head-scratching critic, wrote an essay for Harper's announcing that Uncle Tom's Cabin deserved to replace The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the central document of American literature, on the premise that it represented a more morally sound book for her own children—which is about as particular as it gets. Nonetheless, Smiley has since gone on to argue, "Stowe's passion, insight and literary skill" transform Uncle Tom's Cabin "into a grand panorama of the American interior."

Having now read it, I have a slightly different take on Uncle Tom's Cabin. In its ability to mobilize mass opinion against slavery, it was certainly a triumph. And in some respects the novel remains a founding document of a peculiarly American theology, built up out of our own narcissism. But 150 years later, maybe we can delineate the understandable limits of its heroism and admit its manifest crudity as a work of literary art. Keeping distinct propaganda and literature, after all, is one necessary prerogative of a free people.

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