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Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Harriet Beecher Stowe. 442 pp. Barnes and Noble Books, 2003.

Barbara Cooper/ Part-Time Faculty, School of Education

November 2017

When President Lincoln first met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he reportedly remarked, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” I have always been intrigued by this anecdote, and it is ultimately what motivated me to read this nineteenth-century classic.

To begin, this story is written against the backdrop of the life-taking institution that was slavery. At the time Stowe wrote the book, slavery was completely legal across the country. Roughly 15% of the total population owned slaves. [1] This book, especially when it was first published, directly challenged slavery, and it forced all its readers to question the morality of owning slaves. At the end of the book, Stowe, using third-person voice, describes why she wrote the book.

She [Stowe] could only think, These men and Christians cannot know what slavery is; if they did, such a question could never be open for discussion. And from this arose a desire to exhibit it in a living dramatic reality. She has endeavored to show it fairly, in its best and its worst phases.

As we enter her “dramatic reality,” we see that Stowe highlights one character, that of the book’s namesake—Uncle Tom. He, along with his entire family, is owned by a family in a fictitious town in the South. Tom is highly regarded by his owners and holds several positions of authority on the plantation. We quickly learn that Tom is a devoted Christian, seeking to live out his faith with every single thought, every single act, and every single breath. Because of his exemplary character, he wins the approval and friendship of many living alongside of him. Just as we become familiar with this setting, he is unexpectedly sold to another owner. His new owners are downright evil, but Tom nonetheless serves them faithfully. Though struggling with external circumstances, he is always steady in his faith. On this point, some literary critics accuse Tom of being overly perfect, but I thought his struggle was articulated well and genuinely presented. As the book illustrates:

The gloomiest problem of this mysterious life was constantly before [Tom’s] eyes—souls crushed and ruined, evil triumphant, and God silent. It was weeks and months that Tom wrestled, in his own soul, in darkness and sorrow.

Here is exemplified a constant internal struggle. However, Tom steadfastly chooses to serve, to love, and to encourage both himself and those around him. He is persistent, hopeful, and steadfast. As a result, I cannot help but walk away from this book examining my own faith and walk, wondering if I would be as faithful as Tom.

Alongside Tom’s story, Stowe also describes the lifestyle and beliefs of slave-owners and other slaves. She deftly weaves many individual stories into one thick strand so we are left despising the institution of slavery in general and slave-owning characters in particular. In these pages, I find myself cheering on those fighting for freedom and seeking out a life of hope rather than of bitterness.

In addition to her storyline, I think it is her style that really moves the novel forward. Stowe, a master storyteller, writes in a straightforward, descriptive style. Though embedding much of the dialogue in a cumbersome nineteenth-century Southern dialect, she writes clearly, conveying a variety of emotions among her characters. Stowe often turns to the reader and implores their action. She brings us directly into the fight, coaxing us to take sides and choose compassion. Consider this example as she refers to a male and female slave: “For sir, he was a man—and you are but another man. And, woman, though dressed in silk and jewels, you are but a woman…” Here, I love how Stowe constantly challenges us through her style. She never allows us to sit idly by the fire of indifference, but instead demands that we stand up for justice and march against evil.

No narrative is completely perfect, but Stowe combines excellent storytelling with a call to action. Like countless readers, I walk away from Uncle Tom’s Cabin shocked that slavery ever entered the American story. It is a book that continues to leave a deep impression on my thinking, wondering what social evils face our nation today and what my responsibility is to them as a Christian. This is a long book with a provocative history, an outdated dialect, but an utterly contemporary significance.

[1] https://www.historyguy.com/civilwar/statistics_slave_population.html

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