Sunday, June 24, 2018

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852)

Harriet Beecher Stowe's great 19th-century tome—candidate for Great American Novel if ever there was one—turned out to be so much better and more accomplished than I expected when I finally got around to reading it. A real page-turner, in fact. Yes, it's pulpy, a series of cunningly constructed dramatic moments. Others have discussed its place with Dickens, and/or with the Bronte sisters, and still others are all over the discerning ear for dialects. That's all there. It's a great panoramic story grappling with a vital moral issue and it's never less than a good ride. But what impresses me most is hinted at in Abraham Lincoln's quip when he met Stowe in 1862: "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." Has any other novel ever had such an impact? Maybe I'm missing something obvious, like Bible stories, which are not exactly the same. The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, Catch-22—they defined their eras to an extent but they did not start righteous wars. In slave narratives, which came before and after Uncle Tom's Cabin and provided key source material for it, I'm often impressed by the twilight legal status of slaves. They had no legal standing. None. They were property ("chattel," which in law is an item of property other than real estate)—and they were valuable property, about as much per person as a car today, give or take. They were savagely beaten and tortured as a matter of routine. The women were raped and their children were taken away from them and sold as needed to raise capital. The owner, who realized the profit, was often the father. Stowe seizes on all this to construct her wrenching stories. She also penetrates the hypocrisy of the North, equally racist but with a kinder, gentler look. Stowe is also good at drawing white Southerners who are opposed to slavery—their child-like helplessness and sadness. It was also interesting to finally encounter "Uncle Tom" himself, after a lifetime of understanding his name as an insult to African-Americans perceived as subservient or fawning toward whites. Stowe's Uncle Tom is something much different—a strong, decent, and sympathetic character. I can understand resenting or disavowing some of his actions and thoughts, especially his Christianity. But he was living in a world where slavery was the reality and had been for generations, for centuries. It's much the same way we accept capitalism now as the right and proper order, more or less. The laws support it (vigorously) and changing it could well involve violent conflict. That's Harriet Beecher Stowe's accomplishment. Imagine slavery as entrenched as bank control of our economy is now. She wrote a book—a novel—that changed that. The only question left is, where's our book like this?

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Good question. Even, though, as capitalist exploitation goes-- which in variety of form we've never lacked-- nothing else else has brought us to the brink like slavery. There are people who still want to deny the civil war was ab slavery, ponder that! History is a bitter pill. Sister Carrie, The Jungle, U.S.A., were trying for something like Uncle Tom's Cabin, but the forms of exploitation they exposed were not as pervasive, volatile, or explosive. Same applies today. You know I thought the great recession meant the jig was finally up on the Reagan Revolution supply-side class war scam. Where's the novel that tells that story? Franzen? Marlon James? Zadie Smith? Someone needs to step up.