It is reported that when President Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he said, “So you’re the little lady who caused this big war.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin
may not have caused
the war, but it certainly stirred anti-slavery sentiments internationally. I first read it more than 30 years ago and remembered it only as a great story, a real page turner. Recently, while researching the concept of evil, there were two things that repeatedly appeared in my reading: the Holocaust and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
A re-reading was in order.Even though she furnished adequate proof that her characters were drawn from real life [see The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin
(1854)], Stowe’s emotional presentation, typical of novels of the period, was distracting to me until, again, I was drawn into the story: a kind slaveowner finds himself in financial straits and must sell property to keep from losing everything. Rather than part with acreage, he sells his most valuable slave, Uncle Tom, along with Harry, the young son of his wife’s chamber maid Eliza. Thus, Tom is separated from his wife and children, and Eliza runs away in the night with little Harry. A key character is St. Clare, Uncle Tom’s new master, who assuages his guilt at being a slaveowner by indulging his human property and foregoing the whippings that are common among his peers. Indeed, he metes out no discipline at all. St. Clare’s petulant wife is capricious in her treatment of her servants. Their child Eva is a younger, Western version of Siddhartha. When her father attempts to shield her from the truth, she protests: “You want me to live so happy, and never to have pain,—never suffer anything,—not even hear a sad story when other poor creatures have nothing but pain and sorrow, all their lives,—it seems selfish.”Stowe uses her characters to deliver her orations on the causes and evils of slavery and how good people behave badly when society seems to demand it of them; or as St. Clare says, “It’s pretty generally understood that men don’t aspire after the absolute right, but only to do about as well as the rest of the world.” St. Clare, too, reflects Stowe’s thoughts on the profit motive behind slavery:"On this abstract question of slavery there can, as I think, be but one opinion. Planters, who have money to make by it,—clergymen, who have planters to please,—politicians, who want to rule by it,—may warp and bend language and ethics to a degree that shall astonish the world at their ingenuity; they can press nature and the Bible, and nobody knows what else, into the service." (p. 189)Mr. Shelby’s speeches present the case of the genteel, kind slaveowner; Mrs. Shelby’s speeches provide the practicing Christian viewpoint; and Uncle Tom and George Harris speak of the experience of being treated as a piece of property rather than a man. Other characters reflect the sentiments of the many voices that weigh in on the complex nature of slavery as an economic necessity.Thus the story I read years ago as an exciting bit of fiction, I now review as a powerful political statement. Knowing now, that even the individual characters, as well as the events, were literally taken from real life, the story has deeper meaning. I was struck by how often some speech or wisp of philosophy seemed hauntingly relevant to today’s society, where the closing of factories and downsizing of businesses do not send workers to the block to be sold, but rather leave them in a limbo, like freed slaves without the tools to make it in this new emerging society.more