Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) Part One

I felt this book.  Not as much as I wished, but I felt it.

I’m not surprised that it’s unpopular today.  It shows racism in its bleakest form.  It shows how slaves lived and how they acted and the things they said - not from a modern day viewpoint, but from the viewpoint of people who saw it happening at the time, who experienced it.

There is a strong possibility you will never read this book.  I'll give spoilers here, and I'm going to tell you how it ends.  Got it?  Okay.

Uncle Tom is a good guy.  He’s a hero.  In the end, it shows him winning.  How does he win?  He dies with dignity, and he is a Christian.  He is beaten to death by a white, racist, non-Christian.

Christianity plays a big part in this book, far more so than can be culturally acceptable in modern day America.  I've read enough reviews to understand that many people today hate this book, and now I understand why.  It portrays Christianity in a good light, and shows the slaves turning to that as a form of relief.

I was fascinated by this book.  I can't say I loved it, because it was brutal, and it made me angry.  For modern readers, this will probably be nothing more than a period piece, a relic.  Why do I say that?  Mainly because the purpose of it was to convince people of the brutality of slavery, of the sheer horrible nature of enslaving and owning other people.  Fortunately, that is the worldview of all of us today.  So it's sort of like preaching to the choir.

What I find interesting is when the book was published, there was an outcry against it in the south.  First, they claimed the book didn't accurately show how slaves were treated.  The claim was they were treated much better than portrayed in the book.  Second, slave owners and people economically or culturally dependent on slavery objected to the book's objections on slavery, so they wanted it banned.

As to the first point, I'm sure it's true that many slave owners were probably better to their slaves than those evil ones in the book.  But that ignores the fact that it is morally wrong to enslave another person.  Plus, Harriet Beecher Stowe addresses that very issue.  In a chapter she calls "The Unprotected", she shows us exactly what can happen to people owned by good slave-owners when they are sold.  The slaves are basically unprotected.  There were no laws protecting them, and they depended entirely on the good nature of whoever owns them at the time.

For the second point, that many people simply wanted to maintain slavery for cultural or economic reasons, it reminds me of an interesting quote by Mark Twain.  He grew up with slavery, and as an adult was very much against it.  But as a child, it was just something everyone accepted.  I spent like an hour looking for the right quote and couldn't find it, so I'll just paraphrase.  Mark Twain said that growing up in Hannibal, slavery was accepted as a normal thing, but nobody asked the slaves how they felt about it.  He has a way of using humor to illustrate a serious point.  Satire.  But the point remains that even though southerners may have depended on slavery, it's still slavery.

In fact, I don't know why I'm even talking about this.  As I said before, this book gets you ready to fight a battle that was won a century and a half ago.  It gets you all riled up against an institution that hasn't existed in 150 years.  That's why I say it can be nothing more than a relic, a historical piece for people to read so they can understand the issues of a time long gone by.

More later.

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