In my very first entry in this blog, I promised I would take the time to discuss my feelings about Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe in more detail. My first reading of this book inspired me to devote myself fully to Classic Literature and will forever be meaningful to me for that reason. In that first reading of it, I was so immersed in the tragic story that I read most of it in one sitting. This was the first time I ever cried reading a book because I became so attached to the characters.
In addition to the story, I was also moved by Stowe's direct critiques of slavery. One of my favorite scenes is when a stranger confronts one of the "kind" slaveowners, saying, "It is you considerate, humane men, that are responsible for all the brutality and outrage wrought by these wretches; because, if it were not for your sanction and influence, the whole system could not keep foothold for an hour." She regularly condemns slavery and exposes its utter cruelty both in story and in narrative.
I have also always been attracted to Stowe's novel for its historical significance. During my first reading, I heard the legend in which Abraham Lincoln said to Stowe, "So this is the little lady who started this great war." I like the idea that fictional literature can spark dramatic social change. I still believe that great literature has the power to do this in some capacity or another. I've heard that the "practical" business world tends to look down on the humanities as a "weaker" study that doesn't actually contribute to social function. However, we have literature such as Uncle Tom's Cabin that dramatically affected social change and other literature that individually affects a person's sense of identity and purpose. This shows me that literature not only contributes to society but can be critically impacting on both an individual and collective level.
Yet when I engaged with this novel academically years later, my initial devotion to Uncle Tom's Cabin faded. I became aware of the legitimate problems scholarly African Americans like W.E.B. DuBois had with this novel. I realized that a white woman really could not be expected to understand the African American struggle, and her one-dimensional characters could be patronizing. Moreover, Uncle Tom's perfect and unfaltering spirit of grace and humility might very well have been impossible to maintain in slavery, and it would be wrong to expect African Americans to respond this way. Richard Wright, one of my favorite authors I've mentioned before, wrote a challenge to Stowe's novel called Uncle Tom's Children. This collection of short stories emphasizes the violence and brutality against African Americans a few generations after slavery. It removes any trace of Stowe's peacefulness and replaces it with a dark reality. I think it is imperative for readers to keep this in mind when engaging with Uncle Tom's Cabin, and it somewhat lowered my unbridled enamor with it.
Nevertheless, I still maintain that Stowe did a brave and good thing in writing Uncle Tom's Cabin. I still admire her intentions and love the book for its social significance. I just find it important to balance my understanding of the book with the components of African American struggle she neglected or inadvertently euphemized. I think it should be seen as a building block for racial understanding and equality but not necessarily as an accurate, finished assessment.