“And yet, oh my country! these things are done under the shadow of thy laws! O, Christ! thy church sees them, almost in silence!”— Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ch. xl.
Among the canon of American literature, the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly (1852) needs no introduction. Its imprint is found on our history, our imaginations, as well as our language. Yet I am embarrassed to say that I had never read it. Having just finished the book for the first time, I was surprised to find the novel nothing like I had been led to believe.
For example, even as early as the late 19th century, the author was charged with sentimentalism. The book is sentimental, to be sure; it’s style and language belong to the first half of the 19th century, when audiences wept buckets over the death of Dicken’s Little Nell. Yet Stowe’s is not a sentimentalism for its own sake. Wretched situations produce strong emotions (at least they should) as well as commanding our own, and her melodrama is not as stilted nor her sentiment as exalted as that of Mr. Dickens. Nor can she be charged with depicting unrealistic characters or situations: slave children being torn away from their frantic mothers; the lingering, almost ethereal death of a child through consumption; the devotion of a slave to a kindly master; or the sadistic use of power by those who claim to own another human being.
Yet if a “feminine inclination” toward sentiment can be laid at her door, there was certainly method in it. As she writes in the last chapter:
“And you, mothers of America, — you who have learned, by the cradles of your own children, to love and feel for all mankind, — by the sacred love you bear your child; by your joy in his beautiful, spotless infancy; by the motherly pity and tenderness with which you guide his growing years; by the anxieties of his education; by the prayers you breathe for his soul’s eternal good; — I beseech you, pity the mother who has all your affections, and not one legal right to protect, guide, or educate, the child of her bosom! By the sick hour of your child; by those dying eyes, which you can never forget; by those last cries, that wrung your heart when you could neither help nor save; by the desolation of that empty cradle, that silent nursery, — I beseech you, pity those mothers that are constantly made childless by the American slave-trade! And say, mothers of America, is this a thing to be defended, sympathized with, passed over in silence?… If the mothers of the free states had all felt as they should, in times past, the sons of the free states would not have been the holders, and, proverbially, the hardest masters of slaves; the sons of the free states would not have connived at the extension of slavery, in our national body; the sons of the free states would not, as they do, trade the souls and bodies of men as an equivalent to money, in their mercantile dealings.” (ch. xlv)
A later generation also accused the novel of being too religious. It is, after all, an abolitionist work; it’s goal, to waken a sleeping church to action against slavery. The novel reflects a time, quite foreign to us today, when religion, the Bible and pious language permeated most aspects of American society. Christianity was a glue that held much of “respectable society” together, and Stowe did not shy from using it as a switch to chastise her co-religionists. Indeed, it was to that respectable element of society that she addressed much of the book:
“Northern men, northern mothers, northern Christians, have something more to do than denounce their brethren at the South; they have to look to the evil among themselves.
“But, what can any individual do? Of that, every individual can judge. There is one thing that every individual can do, — they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race. See, then, to your sympathies in this matter! Are they in harmony with the sympathies of Christ? or are they swayed and perverted by the sophistries of worldly policy?
“Christian men and women of the North! still further — you have another power; you can pray! Do you believe in prayer? or has it become an indistinct apostolic tradition? You pray for the heathen abroad; pray also for the heathen at home. And pray for those distressed Christians whose whole chance of religious improvement is an accident of trade and sale; from whom any adherence to the morals of Christianity is, in many cases, an impossibility, unless they have given them, from above, the courage and grace of martyrdom.
“But, still more. On the shores of our free states are emerging the poor, shattered, broken remnants of families, — men and women, escaped, by miraculous providences from the surges of slavery, — feeble in knowledge, and, in many cases, infirm in moral constitution, from a system which confounds and confuses every principle of Christianity and morality. They come to seek a refuge among you; they come to seek education, knowledge, Christianity.
“What do you owe to these poor unfortunates, oh Christians? Does not every American Christian owe to the African race some effort at reparation for the wrongs that the American nation has brought upon them? Shall the doors of churches and school-houses be shut upon them? Shall states arise and shake them out? Shall the church of Christ hear in silence the taunt that is thrown at them, and shrink away from the helpless hand that they stretch out; and, by her silence, encourage the cruelty that would chase them from our borders? If it must be so, it will be a mournful spectacle. If it must be so, the country will have reason to tremble, when it remembers that the fate of nations is in the hands of One who is very pitiful, and of tender compassion.” (ch. xlv)
Neither is the figure of Uncle Tom the stock character cartooned on stage or in popular speech. Tom is a Christian of deep piety, faithful to his master because he is faithful to his Master, and yet, like any man, he deeply yearns for freedom, family and self-determination. In the characters of Tom and George, we have two opposite poles of character: one the long-suffering man of prayer, who would rather die than harm another of “God’s critters”; the other a man of action, prepared to use violence to protect his family and reach the shores of freedom. Stowe neither condemns nor prefers one character over the other. Their choices are ones of temperament and, perhaps, calling. God has his saints as well as his soldiers.
Perhaps if there is one fault in the book, it is that Stowe herself was not a slave and so could not have entered into the real thoughts, dreams, rage and despair of her subjects, but perhaps she comes as close as she could. Yet as an expose of an evil institution and the northern complicity that made it possible, as a story of the demoralizing effects of slavery on both slave and master and on a young nation bound so firmly in its grasp; as a record of the cultivated ignorance and the myriad of prejudices and justifications that perpetuated the institution, as a portrait of the very best and worst in human nature and a snapshot of a turbulent ante-bellum America, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is and always will be unsurpassed in our literature.
There is an anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, that when the author visited the White House during the Civil War, President Lincoln remarked, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Stowe could hardly be blamed for that. In fact, if the book had had the effect she had hoped, the war would not have had to have been fought at all. But the exchange says something of the enormous impact and influence the book had on the minds of a generation, as well as those to follow.
Although, as a legal institution supported by our Constitution, slavery may seem no longer to exist in this country, it has not disappeared from our shores. It still thrives here, albeit in hiding, in agriculture, sweatshop manufacturing, and the sex trade– supported by unjust immigration laws, our insatiable hunger for pornography, our mad pursuit of cheap food and clothing, and a general blindness or indifference to its existence. Slavery also continues to grow apace overseas, where more of our food and clothing are produced, thanks to so-called “free-trade” agreements, and where the sex trade flourishes.
But there are other forms of slavery in which poor nations groan under heavy foreign debts they can never repay, designed to keep them under heel, breeding a steady stream of cheap labor for Western countries– some of the greatest and most egregious examples being in our own hemisphere. There are also those nations which we keep in a kind of slavery through our support of repressive regimes, whose cruelty and suppression of human rights make Stowe’s Simon Legree look like a Swedish au pair.
In honor of Lincoln’s birthday, I thought it appropriate to conclude with an excerpt that forms the final, apocalyptic words of the novel:
“This is an age of the world when nations are trembling and convulsed. A mighty influence is abroad, surging and heaving the world, as with an earthquake. And is America safe? Every nation that carries in its bosom great and unredressed injustice has in it the elements of this last convulsion.
“For what is this mighty influence thus rousing in all nations and languages those groanings that cannot be uttered, for man’s freedom and equality?
“O, Church of Christ, read the signs of the times! Is not this power the spirit of Him whose kingdom is yet to come, and whose will to be done on earth as it is in heaven?
“But who may abide the day of his appearing? ‘for that day shall burn as an oven: and he shall appear as a swift witness against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger in his right: and he shall break in pieces the oppressor.’
“Are not these dread words for a nation bearing in her bosom so mighty an injustice? Christians! every time that you pray that the kingdom of Christ may come, can you forget that prophecy associates, in dread fellowship, the day of vengeance with the year of his redeemed?
“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 and cruelty shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God!” (ch. xlv)