Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mixed Feelings about Uncle Tom

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.


IngridLola said...

Great thoughts. I think it's awesome when one book can spark social change, but it totally makes sense that maybe this book was a bit too polarized ... I have never read it, but that makes sense, a lot of times that seems to happen when the author has a strong resentment.

Becky (Page Turners) said...

I am really pleased that I have read your review (which was great by the way). I downloaded this an an ebook some time ago and still haven't prioritised it but I will sure that I read it.

christina said...

This is a really interesting post, especially since I have not read Uncle Tom's Cabin. This past nine week marking period (I teach 7th grade English), I've focused on a slavery unit. It's the first time I've ever embarked on this journey and honestly told the students that I planned on learning with them. We read some illustrative non fiction children's books for a foundation and then NightJohn by Gary Paulsen for our historical fiction novella. I don't know if you've ever read it or not, but the kids have been riveted. NightJohn is a slave who decides to teach children how to read and write. In this novella, his student on the plantation is Sarney. There are some pretty violent scenes where Waller, the slave owner, finds out and cuts off NightJohn's middle toes; and the talk of the breeders really put off some of the kids. But overall we have had some phenomenal conversations about slavery, education, what it means to be free, etc. I continuously thought about Frederick Douglas's journal and the importance of writing for a voice.

Heh, sorry for the ramble. Post just seemed serendipitous. :)

Amy said...

@Ingrid - In a way, I almost prefer it when a book sparks mixed feelings, so long as the discussion is productive rather than destructive because of the mere fact that it brings about discussion at all.

@Becky - I do hope that you read it, and I'm glad you enjoyed the review. :)

Amy said...

@Christina - I'm so interested to hear about your class. I think slavery literature is so diverse and an integral component of our nation's history. If you're interested, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a phenomenal slave narrative by Harriet Jacobs. It's not very well known, but it's written very well and quite accessible. It's also nice to have a female voice, and she wrote the novel herself.

Anonymous said...

Hi Amy,
Thanks for writing this great post. I read this boom for the first time back in January (my personal reading focus this year was civil war-related books, and - also having heard of Lincoln's quotation - thought, "what better book to start with than the one 'that started the war' ") and was moved by it as well.

Thanks also for mentioning Richard Wright's book. I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't heard of it before, but I will hopefully be rectifying that in 2011.

Enjoyed my visit to your blog!