Not only does this year mark the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, but this month marks the 200th birthday of the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe. The book was the biggest hardback bestseller in American history and drew such a dramatic reaction across the country that Abraham Lincoln said, famously, on meeting the author, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
I took the opportunity to observe this bicentennial by reading the book that caused such a stir at the time but has endured much distortion and derision since.
I was struck first that the book still has the power to move. The pain and anguish of families ripped apart, of various forms of injustice, of the suffering of innocent people even when surrounded by the well intentioned–all these and more still capture the emotions.
Second, yes, it was hard to miss that it tends toward sentimentalism and is quite overwritten–especially by today’s yardstick of spare prose that Hemingway made standard a century ago. But in this regard the book is similar to other famous novels of the era, such as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. And like Hugo’s masterpiece, Stowe has the ability to make (some, not all, of) the heroes of the book much more interesting than the flat, mono-dimensional villains. (Compare, for example, how both of these Romantic era writers were able to achieve what Milton in all his genius failed to accomplish in Paradise Lost.)
Most importantly, however, it became very clear that Uncle Tom is no “Uncle Tom.” His reputation suffered dramatically at the hands of late-nineteenth century melodrama and a post-Reconstruction revival of racist attitudes and practices throughout the Union. This was so much the case that we now remember the distorted stereotype far better than the actual character in the novel.
Far from being a weak-willed boot-licker, Tom is the consummate man of courage and integrity. Far from cow-towing to the master, he towers morally and spiritually over all others, steadfastly doing what is right in the face of violence–refusing to whip a fellow slave when commanded to do so and, later, refusing to tell where two runaways had gone. He is, in fact, one of the most effective and memorable Christ figures in all of literature.
It has been fashionable to imagine that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War. It can be fashionable now to imagine that 150 years later that racism has finally been expunged from the American character. Uncle Tom’s Cabin shows it was clearly part of our past, while Uncle Tom points us toward what true American character can be as we look forward.