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.
3 thoughts on “He Was No “Uncle Tom””
This recounting of the facts concerning Uncle Tom, the central character of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the natureof his character reminds one of the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., cited the famous historian, Arnold Toynbee, to the effect that the hope of renewal for Western Civilization might well lie with the African Americans. Certainly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer felt the tug of the great African American Christian tradition, when he took back to Germany his appreciation for the preaching of the Bible he had heard in Negro churches and his collection of Negro Spirituals, a musical motif for the repudiation of the Stanley Elkins’ thesis that slvery produced Uncle Toms and Black Sambos, a point some historians have made. I added to that in an address in Summer Afternoon Lecture Series at Columbia University in the Summer of 1971, the information which my research into the church records of the Old Sout had suggested, namely, that the Blacks came to embody a representation of the Christian Faith that remains to this day as a magnification of what the teachings of Jesus could do for a people suffering from the Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome of such a magnitude that serious Psychotherapy lacks the tools with which to evaluate and measure it.
Just think of slave owners purchasing the freedom of a Black man and calling him as pastor of a church in Virginia, circa 1790s, or the purchase of the freedom of two Black men in Alabama by White Baptists and setting them free to preach the Gospel to Blacks. Black folks, when they were sold to one part of the country to another moved their church memberships just like free whites did. In my Prospectus for a Doctoral Dissertation, written in the Summer of ’71, I proposed to show the trememdous Christian characters that God raised up in such opporessive conditions.
O by the way, there is a character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s experience who was the model for Uncle Tom. The sterling qualities of African American Christian believers explains why they were able to succeed in their long quet for civil rights in a nation where such rights were the ideal but seldom practice reality.
Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, the influence of the church in Harlem on Bonhoeffer is underappreciated and not well known. The 2012 Wheaton Theology Conference will focus on Bonhoeffer and I know one of the main presentations will be on this very aspect of his life. And I agree that the leadership role the Black church has played and can play in the future of the church generally needs more attention. There’s much more to be said on all that.
Thank you for your response. The half has never been told concerning Black folks and their conversions and commitments to the Christian Faith during the long years of slavery and segregation.. While I did not get to do my doctorate in Black History at Columbia, I did do a prooject for a Doctor of Ministry at Souheastern Baptist Theological Seminary in NC on Christian Love & Race Relations in ’75-76. Ten sermons on I Cors.13 and 10 lectures in Black History seem to have little effect at the time, but 20-30 years later a family of those that participated had a son who had married an African American lady and had two sons. Those two sons seemed to have had an impact upon the attitudes of the members of that white Southern Baptist Church…for good.
O by the way, the project was done without the support of the seminary. The director of the projecct said to me, “You ought to have known better than to select a controversial topic like this. If they fire you, I will be right there behind the church, supporting them.” Funny part about it? The seminary then was supposed o be liberal. There is more to the story, but I desist. The end of prejudice is a costly process for everyone.
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