Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

There’s something to be said for being in the right place at the right time. With clever political placement, even an indifferent novel such as this one can be guaranteed an eternal place in history (and good sales in the short term, too). At its best, it’s vivid in depicting the evils of slavery, but unfortunately the visceral and effective bits are broken up by awful treacley sermons. There are good things to be said about it, most of them relevant to its political impact: some of the obvious objections to abolition were foreseen and addressed, so that even the rarity of a “good master” is presented as at best a temporary respite against inevitable evil. Unfortunately, the whole obsession with depicting particular agents as good and evil undermines the characters horribly. There are no shades of gray in characterization. There are evil slave-abusers, good masters who respect slaves, pious slaves who are good, and unsaved slaves who range from unthinking brutality to mischievousness until they’re saved with all the subtlety of a Chick Tract conversion.

It’s also a moderately uncomfortable book to read today. As the above list of characteristics demonstrates, these are not subtle nuanced characters but broad stereotypes. One can read stereotypical good masters and bad masters and slave traders and abolitionists without a twinge, but the stereotypical representations of the slaves are more often than not embarassing, bound up as they are in persistant stereotypes about black people (has a school board banned it yet? It uses the word “nigger” at least as many times as Huckleberry Finn, and uses far more familiar racial stereotypes).

There are parts of it that are enjoyable. Eliza’s flight to Canada mostly works, since it’s long on action and short on sermons. Tom’s stumbling into Christian allegory and martyrdom is somewhat the other way around, and more sentimental than authentically affecting.

See also: Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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