Every now and then, amid the deluge of Star Trek novels, I read something of historical importance. I’ve read Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov), Childhood’s End (Arthur C. Clarke) all on my own, and now Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe).
The main theme in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is that slavery is bad. I honestly expected a work more viscerally and consistently violent but instead encountered a word of slow-burn, but unrelenting despair. I suppose that better captures the essence of slavery. The story takes the titular character through several settings and that’s the true damnation of slavery. It isn’t the whippings, or the work, but the fact that black life was so little valued so as to see husbands taken from wives, brothers from brothers and sisters, and parents from children.
The book is a difficult read for a variety of reasons. It was published 164 years ago, so the English in which it was written is not the language we know. The vernacular of the slaves and the uneducated southern whites is written phonetically and at times difficult to read. Stowe constantly breaks the fourth wall to talk to the reader, not a problem in itself, but ultimately it distracts from the potency of the story. It is a story that stands well enough on its own without Stowe explaining it every few paragraphs.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is considered condescending (by the book’s own jacket no less) and it’s pretty easy to see why. Stowe’s pity for slaves is constant and evident throughout the book. Her respect for black people seems to be lacking. Her disdain for slavery seems to be generated more by the thought that is a mark on the souls of whites than it is an evil that subjugates an entire race. Even when the novel speaks positively of its black characters there seems to be an unwritten ‘for a black man/woman’ following every sentence.
I’m not going to rehash the plot, you can read it a number of places. Ultimately Tom, pious and humble to the bitter end, is sold to pay a debt to the dickhead trader Haley, sold to the benevolent Augustine St. Clare, and sold again to the abusive Simon Legree where he meets his end for refusing to whip another slave and refusing to give information on the whereabouts of two runaways.
I think the most interesting exchanges take place at the St. Clare household. Marie, Augustine’s insufferable hypochondriac wife is just as emotionally cruel as the physically abusive Legree. Marie constantly bemoans her (invented) ailments while belittling her slaves for ills such as caring about their children or wanting to rest when sick or sleep through the night. Augustine brings his cousin Ophelia from Vermont to the south to help manage the estate as his wife is pretty much useless.
Marie sees slaves as beneath her, but still interacts with them while (Vermonter) Ophelia acknowledges the ills of slavery, but is disgusted by the slaves themselves, at first refusing to come into physical contact with any black individual. It’s a very apt contrast of northern and southern attitudes, the latter who would pretend the ills of slavery don’t exist, and the former who would sooner pretend slaves don’s exist. It’s a breakdown of north/south attitudes that still exist today. For all the inclusive policy and rhetoric of the North, it still has some of the most segregated cities in the country.
Ultimately Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a book about exposing the evils of slavery and nothing does that better in the novel than the plight of Uncle Tom. Uncle Tom is devoutly religious, humble, and embodies and lives the words of Jesus in refusing to raise a hand or speak an ill word of anyone. One of his last acts is to chastise his former master’s son, George Shelby, for being happy that his master, Simon Legree, will wind up in hell. And despite doing everything right, Tom still ends up separated from his wife and children, sold multiple times, and ultimately murdered.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin disproves many of the prevailing thoughts about slavery, that blacks were better off under it, that cruel Masters were a rare breed, that if slaves just acted appropriately they would be fine. (Some of these you’ll still find out of the mouths of modern day politicians.)