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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 depression throughout her life, and in 1849 she watched helplessly as cholera claimed the life of her infant son. Her marriage to theology professor Calvin Stowe, although ultimately successful, began without enthusiasm (on her wedding day Harriet wrote to a friend that while she had been "dreading and dreading" her upcoming marriage, now she was happy to report that she felt "nothing at all"). Such troubles gave Stowe a genuine sympathy for the struggles of others, a sympathy that was on full display in her first novel.

In later years when asked how she came to write Uncle Tom's Cabin, she replied, "God wrote it!" That was the benefit of hindsight. Upon completing the novel in 1852, she fretted that no one would read it. But the book became an international bestseller and Stowe's claim to lasting fame, though she went on to write another eight novels.

In his introduction to Oxford University Press's 150th anniversary edition, the noted African American author Charles Johnson ably summarizes some of the book's literary strengths, praising the novel for its "pure storytelling" and observing that "a contemporary writer experiences Stowe's bottomless talent for invention with just a twinge of professional envy."

Nevertheless, Johnson, like many contemporary critics, finds the book unsatisfying due to its "unfortunately toxic racial thinking," which presents "a portrait of black people that, from a twenty-first-century perspective is ineluctably racist." Johnson further chides Stowe for "willfully soft pedal[ling] much of slavery's real sadism and surrealism."

While there is merit to some of these criticisms, there is also much more that can be said about Stowe's achievement, especially when her book is analyzed as an example of Christian political rhetoric. Stowe's great accomplishment in Uncle Tom's Cabin was finding a way to reach those who were ambivalent or indifferent about slavery. In short, she took the virtue of prudence seriously. Not content merely to denounce slavery, she wanted her novel to actually change people's hearts and minds, and she tried to craft a story that could persuade the undecided rather than alienate them.

One example of the novel's prudence is its charity toward its villains. Rather than depicting slavery at its most depraved, Stowe opened her story by presenting slavery in its mildest form, featuring a middle-class couple who treat their slaves more like family than property. Despite their good intentions, Mr. and Mrs. Shelby are the ones who precipitate the various disasters that occur throughout the rest of the book. Mired in debt, they sell some of their slaves in order to stave off financial ruin. Against their natural inclinations, they agree to break apart two families, selling off a small boy (Harry) from his mother and father, and selling off Uncle Tom from his wife and children.

By having the Shelbys set in motion the ruinous events of the rest of the novel, Stowe tried to show how an immoral system that reduces people to the legal status of property will inevitably generate heartrending results. She wished to persuade both fair-minded slaveholders as well as ambivalent Northerners that good intentions on the part of individual slaveowners would never undo the systemic evils perpetrated by the slave system.

Another example of the novel's prudence is its self-criticism. Self-righteousness can be the bane of moral reformers, yet Uncle Tom's Cabin is remarkably free of that vice. Stowe was an equal-opportunity critic, skewering the North nearly as much as the South. One of the novel's most memorable characters is Miss Ophelia, a dogmatic New England abolitionist who comes to visit her slaveholding cousin Augustine St. Clare in New Orleans. Miss Ophelia, Stowe writes, "would walk straight down into a well, or up to a loaded cannon's mouth, if she were only quite sure that there the path [of duty] lay." She spends her time preaching to her cousin about the evils of slavery, but she herself can't stand to touch a black person. She loves slaves in theory but is repelled by them in practice.

It is her slaveholding cousin Augustine who exposes Miss Ophelia's blindness to her own faults. In one exchange, St. Clare chides Northerners who are offended by the evils of slavery but are silent about the working conditions of free laborers in Northern factories. Clearly modeled after Stowe herself, the character of Miss Ophelia likely revealed some of Stowe's own struggles with race prejudice. By demonstrating her willingness to indict even her own weaknesses, Stowe made it easier for ambivalent readers to consider her full critique of slavery without rejecting it out of hand.

A third example of the book's prudence is Stowe's attempt to frame an argument against slavery based not only on morality but on the slaveholders' self-interest. A standard indictment against slavery was that it dehumanized the slaves. Stowe's insight was to demonstrate that slavery was just as dehumanizing for the masters. In Stowe's Protestant universe, human beings reflect the image of God by creating and producing—in short, by working. One of the underlying themes of the novel is how productive slaves are. They are inventors and managers and cooks. They tend their masters' crops, and they raise their masters' children. As a result, there is little worthwhile work left for slaveholders themselves to do. By relying almost wholly on others to do their work for them, they condemn themselves to a meaningless existence.

In some ways Stowe's most chillingly depicted slaveowner is not the sadistic Simon Legree, who comes at the end of the novel, but the noble Augustine St. Clare and his petty tyrant wife Marie. A slaveowner who laments the evils of the slave system, Augustine is nevertheless so enervated and indecisive that he is a hollow shell of a man. His wife Marie, meanwhile, lives only to complain about her problems and to demand that her slaves wait on her slightest whim. She has no positive reason for existing, and she gives nothing back to society. The St. Clares supply a vivid portrait of why slaveholders need to renounce slavery for their own good.

Perhaps the supreme example of the novel's prudence is the title character. It should be noted that the Uncle Tom of the novel is far from being an "Uncle Tom." He is a man of courage and resolve. While his turn-the-other-cheek attitude is so pervasive that it borders on the incredible, his meekness serves an important rhetorical function. By offering readers such a gentle hero, Stowe deprived Southern critics of the potentially damning charge that her book would stoke the flames of a violent slave rebellion. Instead of viewing slaves as a threat to social order, Stowe wanted her readers to identify them with the plight of the suffering Jesus.

Stowe's ability to engage in genuine self-criticism, her refusal to demonize slaveholders as a class, and her enlistment of self-interest in the cause of moral reform all helped her produce a powerful work of lasting value. Given the array of divisive social issues confronting American evangelicals today, we can learn much from Stowe's example of prudential rhetoric in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

John West is associate professor of political science at Seattle Pacific University and a senior fellow of Discovery Institute.

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