Friday, February 27, 2009

Thoughts on Uncle Tom's Cabin

Our reading and book discussion group at Lake Murray Community Church, Logos, is meeting on Sunday afternoon, and this month's book is Uncle Tom's Cabin. This is my second time through it in about five years, and I'm liking it even more this time than last. Tom himself is an admirable character, and Little Eva (Evangeline -- how perfectly named!) is intriguing to say the least. The two stories that stemmed from the original home in Kentucky are interesting: Eliza and George's flight to Canada with their child to avoid the breakup of their family and Tom's trip down river, meeting little Eva and being purchased by her indulgent and careless father, Augustine (again, well named after the 6th century saint who lived an indulgent, even debauched life until turning his life over to God).

But when the idea of propaganda came up during the writing workshop last Saturday, I mentioned Uncle Tom's Cabin as a prime example. Although Harriet Beecher Stowe's plot is interesting, it was obviously written to inflame the sympathy of the abolitionists and to condemn slaveholders. Stowe doesn't necessarily showcase the "good" masters who treated their people truly as people because writing about truly good slaveholders wouldn't serve her purpose. I am not in the slightest supporting slavery; I am just pointing out the weakness of the book: it truly is propaganda. It contains much truth but was written from the most biased point of view that I have ever read in literature.

While we realize that the book is indeed a piece of propaganda, we can still find much to admire in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe shows the disgusting underside of slavery with clarity: the families being torn apart even by "good" masters who must sell them to settle debts; the slave traders who treat their "property" with extreme callousness; the "bad" masters who breed children only to sell them away from their mothers, treating the Africans just like thoroughbreds or prize heifers; the idea that Africans do not feel with the same intensity as whites do and Stowe certainly shows us how wrong that inhumane treatment is; Africans being hunted down by whites, even little children and old women; and the death of Africans as a business expense, as in the death of Old Prue who told her sad tale to Uncle Tom just before her masters killed her by locking her in their basement and refusing to feed her. The novel represents an extremely sad time in American history, yet we must also keep in mind the danger of propaganda and how it can warp and twist the facts by appealing to emotion rather than logic.

As I am only half done with a mere day remaining to finish the book, I shall go curl up on my sofa, perhaps have T build a lovely fire in the woodburning stove, and pick up Uncle Tom's Cabin once again. It's a heart-breaking novel, filled with three-dimensional people who are suffering physically, mentally, and spiritually from this evil.

Today as the boys and I studied the American Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the southern slaves but not the slaves in the neutral border states of Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware, I found myself thinking often of the characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The people are so memorable, so striking, that they, and hence the book, are not easily forgotten.


Anonymous said...

I remember reading this book a long while ago. I don't remember if I liked it or not. I get the feeling that I didn't, kind of like a lingering aftertaste. My mother will probably swear that I raved about the book and told her to read it, but she would be incorrect. She's been wrong before... However, I think that i should attempt the book again. Maybe I can borrow a copy? (or I'll just 'fess up, pay my library fines, and get it from the library.)

Susanne Barrett said...

You may borrow mine if you don't mind severe pencil defacement. I'm worse than your mother when it comes to writing in books. :)

Elizabeth just finished reading it for her American Lit class I designed for her (and she really liked it), so she's coming to Logos tomorrow. I told her I would cancel her essay exam if she came to the discussion -- no brainer for her. ;)

Susanne Barrett said...

Oh, and BTW, you're right. Your mother swears up and down that she only read it because you gave her a list of American literature that she needed to read, including _To Kill a Mockingbird_ and _Uncle Tom's Cabin_.

And I just got a homeschooling library card -- NO FINES. Even for videos. Woo-hoo!


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