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Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Book Review

uncletomscabin02.jpg So long as the law considers all these human beings, with beating hearts and living affections, only as so many things belonging to a master, -so long as the failure, or misfortune, or imprudence, or death of the kindest owner, may cause them any day to exchange a life of kind protection and indulgence for one of hopeless misery and toil, -so long it is impossible to make anything beautiful or desirable in the best-regulated administration of slavery. -From Uncle Tom’s Cabin, page 8-

When Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851, it outraged people in the American South and was criticized by slavery supporters. The novel was declared ‘utterly false’ by Southern novelist William Gilmore; others referred to it as criminal and slanderous. A bookseller in Mobile, Alabama was driven from town for selling the novel and Stowe received threatening letters, including a package containing a slave’s severed ear.

Any book which garners such reaction is bound to be a powerful work.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is set in the South in the 1800s and begins with the story of Tom, a slave from Kentucky, just before he is sold by his “mas’r” to settle a debt. A parallel story follows the life of Eliza, her husband George and their young son, Harry, who flee to Canada when they learn that Harry will be “sold down the river” and separated from his family. Stowe’s writing is accessible, albeit a little preachy at times. She creates characters which resonate with the reader – pulling them from the comfort of their 21st century lives back to the days when American law allowed the brutalization of other human beings.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin has faced recent bans and challenges in Illinois schools and Southern States, and has been challenged by the NAACP for its alleged racist portrayal of African Americans and the use of the “N” word. Many people find the work offensive. But, I believe those sentiments are misplaced. The novel is not offensive – what is offensive is that it is a true portrayal of one of the most shameful periods in American history; things like this actually happened. It is offensive that white individuals were allowed to buy and sell blacks as though they were livestock; that the law allowed murderers to avoid justice because the victims were black; that families were ripped apart and children as young as two years old were taken from their mother’s arms to be sold. This novel is painful and powerful. It is not racist, but exposes racism for what it is – a crime against humanity. It is a slap of reality when a character is murdered, and a slave owner say: ‘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.‘ OR when a wealthy, white plantation owner’s wife justifies separating a black mother from her babies by saying: ‘Mammy couldn’t have the feelings that I should. It’s a different thing altogether, – of course, it is,-and yet St. Clare pretends not to see it. And just as if Mammy could love her little dirty babies as I love Eva!

Stowe notes in the final chapters that although Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a work of fiction, it is based on actual events and the characters are created from people she knew or were told about. Perhaps this is why her prose rings true and clear, and the characters spring to life on the pages. Stowe’s portrayal of the black characters is stereotypical in many ways, a sign of when this work was written. Despite this, Stowe seems ahead of her time, exposing the hypocrisy of the “good masters” and the religious people (including the Northern abolitionists).

“…You loath them as you would a snake or a toad, yet you are indignant at their wrongs. You would not have them abused; but you don’t want to have anything to do with them yourselves. You would send them to Africa, out of your sight and smell, and then send a missionary or two to do up all the self-denial of elevating them compendiously. Isn’t that it?” – From Uncle Tom’s Cabin, page 176-

If Stowe has one fault with this novel, it is that she wraps it up a little too perfectly in the end. Her optimism in happy endings is perhaps her one denial of how terrible things usually turned out for slaves.

This is not an enjoyable book, but it is an important one. As philosopher George Santayana said: “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is as relevant today as it was when it was published more than 150 years ago. When I look at our current world with genocide in Darfur; genital mutilation of women in certain parts or the world; “hate” crimes; and other atrocities…some perfectly legal or (even worse) ignored…I realize we still have a long way to go before we have equality or justice. Reading Stowe’s novel should be required.

Highly recommended; rated 4.5/5.

22 Comments

  1. March 22, 2008    

    Nice Review Wendy. I was thinking of reading this for the Banned Books Project and your review has cemented my decision.

  2. March 22, 2008    

    Thanks, Amy – I’ll look forward to your review!

  3. March 22, 2008    

    This is on my read list. I had read it when I was in school and do not remember anything about it. I will get around it SOON!

  4. March 22, 2008    

    Wow 157 years ago that book was written – and to think it’s still in print. I should really pick up some *classics* maybe I should add this to my wish list…

  5. March 22, 2008    

    What a powerful book. I only read it a year ago and it is still fresh in my mind. Great review, excellent points pondered.

  6. March 23, 2008    

    I read this book during my freshman year of high school and had to give an oral book report on it. I was so nervous! The book really stayed with me though–such a powerful story and message. I think it’s interesting how often groups challenge books like this without really looking at what the book is saying and much less looking at the book in context of the time period it was written. This is one of those books that says a lot about our history and is still pertinent to today, as you pointed out. Great review, Wendy.

  7. March 23, 2008    

    Gautami: I’ll be interested to see what you think of it!

    Mrs. S.: It is amazing, isn’t it? I can’t believe it took me so long to actually read this book.

    Jeane: Thanks! I’m still thinking about it 🙂

    Wendy: I’m sure I must have read this book high school, but I can’t remember it…so many of the classics I think really mean more to us as adults; so it is nice to hear that something you read in Jr. High stuck with you!

  8. March 23, 2008    

    You know, I’m surprised the NAACP has a problem with this book. It was written in the mid-1800’s, not last year. I completely agree with you, the book highlights slavery as crimes against humanity…it is not racist. This one ranks at the top of my personal list of greatest american novels. I’m glad you really liked it too.

  9. March 23, 2008    

    I loved this book, I read it once in high school and again in college. I really enjoyed reading it for the second time when I was older and understanding more of all that was going on. It is true, what you say about the end, and the picture that it portrays as “too good to actually be true”. But, as you said already as well…she was ahead of her time, and I guess I feel like she was trying to help, trying to do good, and not be hateful. She was naive, but as far as literature goes from back then, she did a pretty good job. nobody is perfect.

  10. March 23, 2008    

    I think I must have read this ages and ages ago. I would love to reread it as I have very little recollection of my first reading. Thanks for the great reminder for this book!

  11. March 24, 2008    

    Alisia: I was also surprised by the NAACP’s opposition to the book – it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

    Bethany: *nods* I do think Stowe was one of the good people – her courage to write this book actually put her in danger.

    Maw Books: I’d love to hear your thoughts on a re-read of this…I think sometimes we are more affected by classics as we get older!

  12. March 24, 2008    

    Great review Wendy. I read this book a few years ago with Barnes and Noble University and also gave it high marks.

  13. March 25, 2008    

    I read this book last summer – I was on a ‘classics’ kick – and spent the whole time feeling outraged! I think fiction is one of the most powerful ways to move the masses, to get them to see outside of their own perspectives. Great review.

  14. March 26, 2008    

    Raych: Thanks for visiting – sorry it took a couple of days for your comment to show … somehow it got funneled into “spam” and it took me a couple of days to realize it was there (I’m still getting used to my new blog!). I agree with your thoughts on moving the masses…it is amazing what a well written book can do!

  15. March 26, 2008    

    Thanks, Teddy 🙂

  16. March 28, 2008    

    I’ve been meaning to read this one and your review has reminded me that I should read it sooner than later. Very nice review, Wendy–eloquent as always.

  17. March 28, 2008    

    Thanks, Trish 🙂 I will look forward to reading your thoughts on it!

  18. Herbert Herbert
    June 24, 2009    

    Read the article with great interest. I have some things I should like to say about the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin but I do not know how blogging works at all. After many, many tries, this is the first one I found that let me give an opinion. My view is that Uncle Tom hardly deserves the opprobrium with which his name is connected in our time. I also have some historical facts that illustrate much of what I think is the reason so many Bible readers did support slavery, and I should like to connect many older laws about slavery, from times before it was a legal act in The United States, to the laws passed during the time when slaves were burdened with their lot here.

    Sorry this is so long. Please contact me should you wish.

  19. June 28, 2009    

    Herbert: I always enjoy reading other peoples’ thoughts on books – thanks for sharing yours!

  20. Anna Anna
    November 25, 2009    

    Sorry so late finding your review but I just read the book myself for the 1st time. I think your review is right on. I don’t understand why it is not mandatory reading in schools – it should be in either a lit or history class. It is one of the best American novels ever written. Further more, Uncle Tom is not a character to be scorned but one who should be respected by all.

  21. December 9, 2009    

    Anna: So glad you found this to be a satisfying read…I agree, it is a wonderful novel. I do think most adults will appreciate it more than kids…mainly because I think there are some mature themes in the book.

  22. jacob jacob
    December 6, 2011    

    it was written in the language of the time so it CAN NOT be racist

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