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Uncle Tom's Cabin (Oxford World's Classics Hardcovers)
Uncle Tom's Cabin (Oxford World's Classics Hardcovers)
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Oxford University Press, 2002
480 pp., $22.00

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John West

Going Back to Uncle Tom's Cabin

The book that started the Civil War.

According to Abraham Lincoln, it was the book that started the Civil War. Queen Victoria wept while reading it. Tolstoy included it among the greatest achievements of the human mind. Even the usually acerbic Mark Twain praised it as "a drama which will live as long as the English tongue shall live."

Today, more than 150 years after publication, Uncle Tom's Cabin rarely inspires such accolades. Indeed, if mentioned at all, the novel is likely to be derided as patronizing, racist, and overbearingly sentimental. When I finally read Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel for myself nearly a decade ago, I was astonished by its sophistication. As a political scientist, I was intrigued by Stowe's multi-layered exploration of such themes as civil disobedience, human equality, and the role of religion in politics. Given Stowe's background, I shouldn't have been so surprised. A daughter of New England preacher and reformer Lyman Beecher, Stowe grew up in one of America's most celebrated families of Christian intellectuals.

Someone once quipped that the human race was comprised of "men, women, and Beechers," and the observation was only half in jest. Lyman Beecher's children devoted themselves to transforming the culture, and they played leading parts in many 19th-century reform movements, including abolitionism, temperance, public education, and woman's suffrage. The Beechers' activism was fueled by their passionate commitment to pursue truth whatever the cost. In the Beecher family, debate was not merely tolerated, it was obligatory. As Harriet's brother Charles later recalled, "the law of [the] … ;. family was that, if any one had a good thing, he must not keep it to himself … ;. . To look upon some hotly-contested theological discussion, a stranger might have said the doctor and his children were angry with each other. Never; they were only in earnest."

Such freewheeling exchanges honed Harriet's intellectual skills, while a life full of heartache gave her skills depth. She wrestled with ...

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