Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom's Cabin ( Review )

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Harriet Beecher Stowe

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The system drags down both slave and master.

Yes, Tom, we must confess it, was rather proud of his honesty, poor fellow -- not having very much else to be proud of;

A long time ago, I read some Black Power advocate dismiss Uncle Tom, in passing. Tom's humility would not have asked that much consideration. His social humility is really religious humility. And Nietsche thought Christianity a religion for slaves.
Yet Stowe's brand of Christian fervor moved American opinion towards emancipation. Having read the book, I fully believe it. If Uncle Tom's Cabin couldnt change hearts and minds, nothing could.
It is worth immoderate quotation. Take two long exchanges between Miss Ophelia and her southern cousin, St. Clare:

'My dear cousin, you may as well understand, once for all, that we masters are divided into two classes, oppressors and oppressed. We who are good-natured and hate severity make up our minds to a good deal of inconvenience. If we will keep a shambling, loose, untaught set in the community, for our convenience, why, we must take the consequence. Some rare cases I have seen, of persons, who by a peculiar tact can produce order and system without severity; but I'm not one of them -- and so I made up my mind, long ago, to let things go just as they do. I will not have the poor devils thrashed and cut to pieces, and they know it -- and, of course, they know the staff is in their own hands.'

'But to have no time, no place, no order -- all going on in this shiftless way!'

'My dear Vermont, you natives up by the North Pole set an extravagant value on time! What on earth is the use of time to a fellow who has twice as much of it as he knows what to do with? As to order and system, where there is nothing to be done but to lounge on the sofa and read, an hour sooner or later in breakfast or dinner is'nt of much account. Now, there's Dinah gets you a capital dinner -- soup, ragout, roast fowl, dessert, ice-creams, and all -- and she creates it all out of chaos and old night down there, in that kitchen. I think it really sublime, the way she manages. But, Heaven bless us! if we are to go down there, and view all the smoking and squatting about, and hurryscurryation of the prepatory process, we should never eat more! My good cousin, absolve yourself from that. It's more than a Catholic penance, and does no more good. You'll only lose your own temper, and utterly confound Dinah. Let her go her own way.'

'But Augustine, you don't know how I found things.'

'Don't I? Don't I know that the rolling pin is under her bed, and the nutmeg-grater in her pocket with her tobacco -- that there are sixty-five different sugar-bowls, one in every hole in the house -- that she washes dishes with a dinner-napkin one day, and with a fragment of an old petticoat the next? But the upshot is, she gets up glorious dinners, makes superb coffee; and you must judge her as warriors and statesmen are judged, by her success.'

'But the waste -- the expense!'

'Oh, well! Lock everything you can, and keep the key. Give out by driblets, and never enquire for odds and ends -- it is'nt best.'

'That troubles me, Augustine. I can't help feeling as if these servants were not strictly honest. Are you sure they can be relied on?'

Augustine laughed immoderately at the grave and anxious face with which Miss Ophelia propounded the question.

'Oh, cousin, that's too good -- honest! -- as if that's a thing to be expected! Honest! -- why, of course, they ar'nt. Why should they be? What upon earth is to make them so?'

'Why don't you instruct?'

'Instruct! Oh, fiddlestick! What instructing do you think I should do? I look like it! As to Marie, she has spirit enough, to be sure, to kill off a whole plantation, if I'd let her manage; but she would'nt get the cheatery out of them.'

'Are there no honest ones?'

'Well, now and then one, whom Nature makes so impracticably simple, truthful, and faithful, that the worst possible influence can't destroy it. But, you see, from the mother's breast the coloured child feels and sees that there are none but underhand ways open to it. It can get along no other way with its parents, its mistress, its young master and missie playfellows. Cunning and deception become necessary, inevitable habits. It is'nt fair to expect anything else of him. He ought not to be punished for it. As to honesty, the slave is kept in that dependent, semi-childish state, that there is no making him realise the rights of property, or feel that his master's goods are not his own, if he can get them. For my part, I don't see how they can be honest. Such a fellow as Tom, here, is -- is a moral miracle!'

'And what becomes of their souls?' said Miss Ophelia.

'That is'nt my affair, as I know of,' said St Clare: 'I am only dealing in facts of the present life. The fact is, that the whole race are pretty generally understood to be turned over to the devil, for our benefit, in this world, however it may turn out in another!'

'This is perfectly horrible!' said Miss Ophelia: 'you ought to be ashamed of yourselves!'

'I don't know as I am. We are in pretty good company, for all that.' said St. Clare, 'as people in the broad road generally are. Look at the high and the low, all the world over, and it's the same story -- the lower class used up, body, soul, and spirit, for the good of the upper. It is so in England; it is so everywhere; and yet all Christendom stands aghast, with virtuous indignation, because we do the thing in a little different shape from what they do it.'

In the succeeding chapter ( XIX ) St. Clare continues telling home truths to his naive New England cousin. This next extract includes the nick-name 'Quashy', which another Tom, Thomas Carlyle used to air his 'ugly' views ( as James Michener described them ) perhaps in racist retaliation to such passages as these:

'It's commonly supposed that the property interest is a sufficient guard in these cases. If people choose to ruin their own possessions, I don't know what's to be done. It seems the poor creature was a thief and a drunkard; and so there won't be much hope to get up sympathy for her.'

'It is perfectly outrageous -- it is horrid, Augustine! It will certainly bring down vengeance upon you.'

'My dear cousin, I didn't do it, and I can't help it; I would, if I could. If low-minded, brutal people will act like themselves, what am I to do? They have absolute control; they are irresponsible despots. There would be no use in interfering; there is no law that amounts to anything practically, for such a case. The best we can do is to shut our eyes and ears, and let it alone. It's the only resource left us.'

'How can you shut your eyes and ears? How can you let such things alone?'

'My dear child, what do you expect? Here is a whole class -- debased, uneducated, indolent, provoking -- put, without any sort of terms or conditions, entirely into the hands of such people as the majority in our world are; people who have neither consideration nor self-control, who haven't even an enlightened regard to their own interest -- for that's the case with the largest half of mankind. Of course, in a community so organized, what can a man of honourable and humane feelings do, but shut his eyes all he can, and harden his heart? I can't buy every poor wretch I see...

'Wait -- I'm coming on -- you'll hear. The short of the matter is, cousin,...on this abstract question of slavery there can, as I think, be but one opinion. Planters, who have money to make by it -- clergymen, who have planters to please -- politicians, who want to rule by it -- may warp and bend language and ethics to a degree that shall astonish the world at their ingenuity; they can press nature and the Bible, and nobody knows what else, into the service; but, after all, neither they nor the world believe in it one particle the more. It comes from the devil, that's the short of it; -- and, to my mind, it's a pretty respectable specimen of what he can do in his own line.'

Miss Ophelia stopped her knitting, and looked surprised; and St. Clare, apparently enjoying her astonishment, went on:
'You seem to wonder; but if you will get me fairly at it, I'll make a clean breast of it. This cursed business, accursed of God and man, what is it? Strip it of all its ornament, run it down to the root and nucleus of the whole, and what is it? Why, because my brother Quashy is ignorant and weak, and I am intelligent and strong -- because I know how, and can do it -- therefore, I may steal all he has, keep it, and give him only such and so much as suits my fancy. Whatever is too hard, too dirty, too disagreeable for me, I may set Quashy to doing. Because I don't like work, Quashy shall work. Because the sun burns me, Quashy shall stay in the sun. Quashy shall earn the money and I will spend it. Quashy shall lie down in every puddle, that I may walk over dry-shod. Quashy shall do my will, and not his, all the days of his mortal life, and have such chance of getting to heaven, at last, as I find convenient. This I take to be about what slavery is. I defy anybody on earth to read our slave-code, as it stands in our law-books, and make anything else of it. Talk of the abuses of slavery! Humbug! The thing itself is the essence of all abuse! And the only reason why the land don't sink under it, like Sodom and Gomorrah, is because it is used in a way infinitely better than it is. For pity's sake, for shame's sake, because we are men born of women, and not savage beasts, many of us do not, and dare not -- we would scorn to use the full power which our savage laws put into our hands. And he who goes the furthest, and does the worst, only uses within limits the power that the law gives him...

When I have been travelling up and down on our boats, or about on my collecting tours, and reflected that every brutal, disgusting, mean, low-lived fellow I met, was allowed by our laws to become absolute despot of as many men, women, and children as he could cheat, steal, or gamble money enough to buy -- when I have seen such men in actual ownership of helpless children, of young girls and women -- I have been ready to curse my country, to curse the human race!'

And so on! There is no substitute for reading the book.
One might as well have quoted from the wittily titled chapter XI: In which property gets into an improper state of mind. ( This concerns Eliza's husband, George, also on the run, and hoping to meet her in Canada. The poster, on which he is wanted dead or alive, describes him as 'a very light mulatto... very intelligent... will probably try to pass for a white man;' )

Character degradation of slaver and enslaved.

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All this may not have had any appeal to the Black Panthers. Indeed, Uncle Tom's mid 19th century appeal was largely to sober dress-black puritans. But Stowe brings the keenest intelligence of the effects of the slave system on the whole of society. She combines this with acute observation of its demoralisation of character. She tracks its evils and depravities into every corner of human misery. And she does so in human terms that the reader can feel for, and desire to follow the story.

She combines tragedy, comedy and adventure, for instance, when Eliza runs away with her child, about to be sold from her. Tom is also to be sold, leaving a gap in the service ranks:

Black Sam, as he was commonly called, from his being about three shades blacker than any other son of ebony on the place, was revolving the matter profoundly in all its phases and bearings, with a comprehensiveness of vision and a strict look-out to his own personal well-being that would have done credit to any white patriot in Washington.

This observation was first published in 1851, by which time Stowe has already got the measure of the typical politician, in the democratic experiment.
It turns out, tho, that Eliza's mistress doesnt want Eliza to be caught by the child-buyer. Seeing which way the wind is blowing, Black Sam displays his talents for delay, obstruction and misdirection of the pursuit.

Another woman and child are not so lucky. Thinking she is taking an ordinary boat trip, Lucy finds, to her bewilderment, she is the victim of a cowardly betrayal by her owner. Not only has she been sold, without her knowing it, but her new owner, well versed in these arts ( I almost said 'black arts' ) sneaks away her child from her, for extra profit. Her two owners' deceit, thus avoids them an embarrassing 'fuss'.

Lucy, not surprisingly, is completely thrown down in spirits. During the night, on the river, there is a splash into the water.

The trader was not shocked nor amazed; because, as we said before, he was used to a great many things that you are not used to. Even the awful presence of Death struck no solemn chill upon him. He had seen Death many times -- met him in the way of trade, and got acquianted with him -- and he only thought of him as a hard customer, that embarrassed his property operations very unfairly; and so he only swore that the gal was a baggage and that he was devilish unlucky, and that, if things went on in this way, he should not make a cent on the trip. In short, he seemed to consider himself an ill-used man, decidedly; but there was no help for it, as the woman had escaped into a state which never will give up a fugitive -- not even at the demand of the whole glorious Union. The trader, therefore, sat discontentedly down, with his little account-book, and put down the missing body and soul under the head of losses!

'He's a shocking creature, is'nt he -- this trader? so unfeeling! It's dreadful, really!'
,br /> 'Oh, but nobody thinks anything of these traders! They are universally despised -- never received into any decent society.'

But who, sir, makes the trader? Who is most to blame? The enlightened, cultivated, intelligent man, who supports the system of which the trader is the inevitable result, or the poor trader himself? You make the public sentiment that calls for his trade, that debauches and depraves him, till he feels no shame in it; and in what are you better than he?

This homely title is a passionate denunciation against the sum of vileness towards 'the unprotected'. Slavery confirms C S Lewis' justification for being a democrat, that no man is good enough to be another's master.

Stowe is no patronising propagandist. All libertarians, Black Militants included, could learn from the derided tale of Uncle Tom. Essentially, she attacks slavery as an institution. The colored people, oppressed, included the color white, as well as every deeper shade. Racialism became indistinguishable from legalised snobbery.

This is all the more so, now that we know, to our surprise and incredulity, that chimpanzees have nearly all the same genes as the human race! Their common ancestry with humanity may be as recent as five million years ago, according to recent estimates.

Womens rights, childrens rights and complacency.

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Stowe's attacks are as much against the abuse of women and the break-up of families, quite apart from race. No false delicacy, of her age, prevents her telling about sexual blackmail. An apparently European woman has her lover seduced from her. She is then told her children will be sold into slavery, if she does not give herself sexually. The children are sold, anyway, under threat they will not be 'redeemed', if she is not compliant. And so on.

The race issue over-shadows the book as a pioneer work in womens rights and childrens rights. The little girl Eva is a Victorian ideal, influenced by the Christ's holding up a child as an example for entering the kingdom of heaven. The high child mortality rate made this moral especially poignant to readers of that period.

Raymond Moody's Life After Life has accustomed the modern American, again, to the positive attitude to death, the reader finds in the scene of Eva's dying. Consumption was a drawn-out but deadly disease, common but not certainly diagnosed at first, which punished the hopes of families for loved ones.

Uncle Tom's Cabin was first serialised, like Dickens' novels, which made the nation pray that Little Nell might be spared. The recent age of complacency, about eradicating infectious illnesses, may have made such trials remote from our sympathies.

Nineteenth century Christian readers would have been completely at home with Eva being drawn to heaven as she dies. At this supreme moment, Stowe's writing loses all its power. But its conventional offer of comfort would have been very much to the taste of the time.

Nor should this obscure Stowe's spiritual strength. She was already clever enough to see the first psychologists had not made matters any clearer, in their dogma that spiritual experience was nothing more than a material phenomenum. This daughter of a famous Congregationalist minister may sound melodramatic in her faith. Perhaps that is because we have less faith than she has.

This Christian values heaven more than earth. She is not corrupted by thought of material gains from oppression. Rather, it is an intolerable obstacle to decency, in this short life, or any life to come.

The unspoilt girl's name, Eva is short for Evangeline. Stowe even spells out the idea of Evangeline as evangelist of the gospel of love for all.
( Also, Eva is an example to her author, not to be too proud of her talents. )

Eva is an extravert version of the neglected daughter in Dickens' Dombey and Son. For much of the book, Florence Dombey's thoughts pour out their unrequited love for her father. After nearly a thousand pages of close print, she redeems him, in the end, rather unconvincingly.

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a novel that not even Dickens' genius could match for its message of radical reform, in all his great works. Nor is she inferior in her reading of character. The abused girl desperado, Topsy and the prim New England puritan, Miss Ophelia, and their eventual rapport are as good, or better, than the passages Ive described or quoted.

The adult may be the 'childish' one. Eva's mother, Marie, is a study of callous and vindictive self-pity. The failed pleas for merciful good-will, or even the generosity to abide by her late husband and daughter's word, show-up her character ( as in ch. XXIX ). There are any number of quotable passages in the book. This one ends with the comment:

She ( Miss Ophelia ) saw, at once, that it would do no good to say anything more; for Marie had an indefinite capacity for hysterical fits; and, after this, whenever her husband's or Eva's wishes were alluded to, she always found it convenient to set one in operation.

Even so, the author leaves Marie's company, affording some sympathetic understanding for this unsympathetic character.

There is an example of complacent character, in the woman with her two children ( in ch. XII ) recognisable as a type, in all ages, and, usually, to be seen in ourselves, if we care to look:

The lady said 'Indeed!' yawned, and looked out the cabin window, and finally repeated, for a finale, the remark with which she had begun --'After all, I think they are better off than they would be to be free.'

This anticipates the shallow sentiment behind the romanticising of the plantation 'civilization.' A satirical passage follows on a clergyman quoting scripture to justify keeping the African race in a low condition. He is counter-quoted, by another of his cloth, with the golden rule.

A Moorish mansion.

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Stowe, herself, does her best, in her book, to use the authority of the Christian bible to deter wrong-doers, since the slavery law is a refusal to do so. She is aware that preacher apologists for slavery will discredit Christianity among slaves. Hence, the American negro's widespread change of religion. There is even a passage that is almost prophetic of the unthinkable: Uncle Tom turned to Islam!

The carriage stopped in front of an ancient mansion, built in that odd mixture of Spanish and French style, of which there are specimens in some parts of New Orleans. It was built in the Moorish fashion -- a square building enclosing a courtyard, into which the carriage drove through an arched gateway. The court, in the inside, had evidently been arranged to gratify a picturesque and voluptuous ideality. Wide galleries ran all around the four sides, whose Moorish arches, slender pillars, and arabesque ornaments carried the mind back, as in a dream, to the reign of oriental romance in Spain. In the middle of the court, a fountain threw high its silvery water, falling in a never-ceasing spray into a marble basin, fringed with a deep border of fragrant violets. The water in the fountain, pellucid as crystal, was alive with myriads of gold and silver fishes, twinkling and darting through it like so many living jewels. Around the fountain ran a walk, paved with a mosaic of pebbles, laid in various fanciful patterns; and this, again, was surrounded by turf, smooth as green velvet; while a carriage-drive enclosed the whole. Two large orange-trees, now fragrant with blossoms, threw a delicious shade; and, ranged in a circle round upon the turf, were marble vases of arabesque sculpture, containing the choicest flowering plants of the tropics. Huge pomegranate-trees, with their glossy leaves and flame-coloured flowers; dark-leaved Arabian jessamines, with their silvery stars; geraniums, luxuriant roses bending beneath their heavy abundance of flowers, golden jessamines, lemon-scented verbenum, all united their bloom and fragrance; while here and there a mystic old aloe, with its strange, massive leaves, sat looking like some hoary old enchanter, sitting in weird grandeur among the more perishable bloom and fragrance around it.

The galleries that surrounded the court were festooned with a curtain of some kind of Moorish stuff, and could be drawn down at pleasure, to exclude the beams of the sun. On the whole, the appearance of the place was luxurious and romantic.

As the carriage drove in, Eva seemed like a bird ready to burst from a cage, with the wild eagerness of her delight.

'Oh, is'nt it beautiful, lovely! my own dear, darling home!' she said to Miss Ophelia. 'Is'nt it beautiful?'

''Tis a pretty place,' said Miss Ophelia, as she alighted; 'though it looks rather old and heathenish to me.'

Tom got down from the carriage, and looked about with an air of calm, still enjoyment. The negro, it must be remembered, is an exotic of the most gorgeous and superb countries of the world, and he has, deep in his heart, a passion for all that is splendid, rich, and fanciful; a passion which, rudely indulged by an untrained taste, draws on him the ridicule of the colder and more correct white race.

St. Clare, who was in his heart a poetical voluptuary, smiled as Miss Ophelia made her remark on his premises, and, turning to Tom, who was standing looking around, his beaming black face perfectly radiant with admiration, he said:

'Tom, my boy, this seems to suit you.'

'Yes mas'r, it looks about the right thing,' said Tom.

Like children, the negro slave had no legal rights, so even the kindliest owner called him 'boy'. When I went to grammar school, the teachers ( mainly kindly ) were called 'masters', and addressed as 'sir', like local squires to the serfs.

Martyred in the labor camp.

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However, Tom loses his kind master and is bought by a merciless slave-driver, who tests to the utmost his Christian charity. The 'bad' plantation anticipates the inhuman privations imposed by the twentieth century dictators.
Uncle Tom's Cabin is a deeply informed root-and-branch exposé of a labor camp regime, as influential in the nineteenth century as Solzhenitsyn's work was in the twentieth.
The truth is, as Solzhenitsyn said in The Gulag Archipelago, it was not possible to be kind and stay alive. He likened the process to one of 'natural selection' of the most ruthless inmates.

Stowe already saw the same systematic evil in slavery:

The woman sternly continued:
'And what are these miserable low dogs you work with, that you should suffer on their account? Every one of them would turn against you the first time they got a chance. They are all of 'em as low and cruel to each other as they can be; there's no use in your suffering to keep from hurting them.'

'Poor critturs!' said Tom -- 'what made 'em cruel? -- and, if I give out, I shall get used to't, and grow, little by little, just like 'em. No, no, missis! I've lost everything -- wife, and children, and home, and a kind mas'r -- and he would have set me free, if he'd only lived a week longer; I've lost everything in this world, and it's clean gone for ever -- and now I can't lose heaven too; no, I can't get to be wicked, besides all!'

'But it can't be that the Lord will lay sin to our account,' said the woman; 'He won't charge it to us when we're forced to it. He'll charge it to them that drove us to it.'

'Yes,' said Tom; 'but that won't keep us from growing wicked. If I get to be as hard-hearted as that ar Sambo, and as wicked, it won't make much odds to me how I come so; it's the bein' so -- that ar's what I'm dreadin'.'

So, Tom is not really a white man's model of a submissive black man. He is a good man, who is forced to become a Christian martyr, redeeming two of his black persecutors.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, however, the Islamic militant has come to the fore of the American negro's civil rights movement.

Harriet's home

Richard Lung

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