Book: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)

Awhile back, when I first moved to St. Louis, I decided to go back to some old classics I had read long ago, to see if I viewed them through different eyes.  The following review was written on July 2, 2009. 

I couldn’t find the exact quote (although maybe I’ll do some digging and edit this later), but it is said that when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he said something to the effect that this was the lady that started the war. Well, this was her method, right here.

I read this book two or three times in the past, maybe more. But I had not remembered how completely dependent on Christianity it is. Tom is a good man because he believes, and is ultimately martyred. Simon Legree is a bad man that Tom very much wishes to convert. The people who help runaway slaves do it because of their religion. The arguments for slavery in the south are in the mouths of preachers, but so are the arguments against it in the north. And, with a great deal of courage, also in the south.

I expect you know the basic story. Eliza’s four-year-old boy is sold because her master is in debt to a slave trader, and she escapes Kentucky across the floating ice. Tom is taken to be sold, as well, but little Evangeline (Eva) persuades her kind and indulgent father to buy him. He lives well as Eva’s pet, until she dies of consumption. Topsy is a naughty little slave girl who is given to Miss Ophelia, Eva’s aunt from the north, to bring up how she chooses, mostly as an experiment by Eva’s father. Eva’s mother is a selfish, neurotic woman who has no respect for her slaves. When Eva’s father dies, she sells them south and returns to her father’s estate.

The next time Tom is sold, it is to the wicked Simon Legree, who is determined to break his spirit or kill him trying. He eventually does the latter.

There is, of course, much more to the story. Eliza and her husband George and their child are quadroons, and light enough to pass for Spanish. That is their disguise, and they eventually make it to Canada. Later, after George gets a good education in France, they go to Liberia, which they consider to be the proper homeland of the freed slaves. Attractive quadroon girls are sold to brothels in New Orleans, or to people like Legree for their own personal concubines.

Throughout it all runs a thick strand of Christianity, and one gets the impression Stowe believes the only hope of ending slavery is to appeal to the higher instincts of the men and women of slave-holding states. Problem is, as she admits, that so long as there is slavery in the US by right of law, when good people free their slaves, bad people do not. And while she paints Legree as an atheist, she also acknowledges that many preachers in the south argue that slavery is ordained by God and mentioned with approval in the Bible.

That this book was enormously influential when it came out is undeniable, and Lincoln may well have been right about it starting the war. Dover says that 300,000 copies were sold in the first year of its publication, and that is an amazing number for 1852. It was not only read, it was talked about, written about, and formed the basis for much of the abolitionist movement. In the “Concluding Remarks,” Stowe points out that all the people and incidents in the story are taken from true life, although she has clearly patched things together for the sake of the story. It is of course all the more powerful for that, for good or ill.

I couldn’t help being put off by the heavily Christian tone of the book, but I know it to be accurate to the times. While it is not the case that the nation was Christian, it certainly was the case that Christianity was the dominant influence on American culture at the time. Whether or not that was a good thing is up to the reader to decide.

Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.