Tara Lynn's Reviews > Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
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Jun 30, 2009

it was ok
bookshelves: classics-necessary-for-any-library, booklist-for-2011

While I'll definitely call this book a classic, and say that it most certainly has a place in shaping the foundations of American perception during a dark moment in history, I won't call it great.

It's largely propganda, sensationalist to an extreme, and so rigidly stereotyped that it's almost painful to read.

From Wikpedia.com:

Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly is an anti-slavery novel by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Published in 1852, the novel had a profound effect on attitudes toward African Americans and slavery in the United States, so much in the latter case that the novel intensified the sectional conflict leading to the American Civil War.[1:]

Stowe, a Connecticut-born preacher at the Hartford Female Academy and an active abolitionist, focused the novel on the character of Uncle Tom, a long-suffering black slave around whom the stories of other characters—both fellow slaves and slave owners—revolve. The sentimental novel depicts the reality of slavery while also asserting that Christian love can overcome something as destructive as enslavement of fellow human beings.[2:][3:][4:]

Uncle Tom's Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century,[5:] and the second best-selling book of that century, following the Bible.[6:] It is credited with helping fuel the abolitionist cause in the 1850s.[7:] In the first year after it was published, 300,000 copies of the book were sold in the United States alone. The book's impact was so great that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the Civil War, Lincoln is often quoted as having declared, "So this is the little lady who made this big war."[8:]

The book, and even more the plays it inspired, also helped create a number of stereotypes about black people,[9:] many of which endure to this day. These include the affectionate, dark-skinned "mammy"; the "pickaninny" stereotype of black children; and the Uncle Tom, or dutiful, long-suffering servant faithful to his white master or mistress. In recent years, the negative associations with Uncle Tom's Cabin have, to an extent, overshadowed the historical impact of the book as a "vital antislavery tool."[10

Literary significance and criticism
As the first widely read political novel in the United States,[55:] Uncle Tom's Cabin greatly influenced development of not only American literature but also protest literature in general. Later books which owe a large debt to Uncle Tom's Cabin include The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.[56:]

Despite this undisputed significance, the popular perception of Uncle Tom's Cabin is as "a blend of children's fable and propaganda."[57:] The novel has also been dismissed by a number of literary critics as "merely a sentimental novel,"[41:] while critic George Whicher stated in his Literary History of the United States that "Nothing attributable to Mrs. Stowe or her handiwork can account for the novel's enormous vogue; its author's resources as a purveyor of Sunday-school fiction were not remarkable. She had at most a ready command of broadly conceived melodrama, humor, and pathos, and of these popular cements she compounded her book."[43:]

Other critics, though, have praised the novel. Edmund Wilson stated that "To expose oneself in maturity to Uncle Tom's Cabin may … prove a startling experience."[57:] Jane Tompkins states that the novel is one of the classics of American literature and wonders if many literary critics aren't dismissing the book because it was simply too popular during its day.[43:]

Over the years scholars have postulated a number of theories about what Stowe was trying to say with the novel (aside from the obvious themes, such as condemning slavery). For example, as an ardent Christian and active abolitionist, Stowe placed many of her religion's beliefs into the novel.[58:] Some scholars have stated that Stowe saw her novel as offering a solution to the moral and political dilemma that troubled many slavery opponents: whether engaging in prohibited behavior was justified in opposing evil. Was the use of violence to oppose the violence of slavery and the breaking of proslavery laws morally defensible? Which of Stowe's characters should be emulated, the passive Uncle Tom or the defiant George Harris?[59:] Stowe's solution was similar to Ralph Waldo Emerson's: God's will would be followed if each person sincerely examined his principles and acted on them.[59:]

Scholars have also seen the novel as expressing the values and ideas of the Free Will Movement.[60:] In this view, the character of George Harris embodies the principles of free labor, while the complex character of Ophelia represents those Northerners who condoned compromise with slavery. In contrast to Ophelia is Dinah, who operates on passion. During the course of the novel Ophelia is transformed, just as the Republican Party (three years later) proclaimed that the North must transform itself and stand up for its antislavery principles.[60:]

Feminist theory can also be seen at play in Stowe's book, with the novel as a critique of the patriarchal nature of slavery.[61:] For Stowe, blood relations rather than paternalistic relations between masters and slaves formed the basis of families. Moreover, Stowe viewed national solidarity as an extension of a person's family, thus feelings of nationality stemmed from possessing a shared race. Consequently she advocated African colonization for freed slaves and not amalgamation into American society.

The book has also been seen as an attempt to redefine masculinity as a necessary step toward the abolition of slavery.[62:] In this view, abolitionists had begun to resist the vision of aggressive and dominant men that the conquest and colonization of the early 19th century had fostered. In order to change the notion of manhood so that men could oppose slavery without jeopardizing their self-image or their standing in society, some abolitionists drew on principles of women's suffrage and Christianity as well as passivism, and praised men for cooperation, compassion, and civic spirit. Others within the abolitionist movement argued for conventional, aggressive masculine action. All the men in Stowe's novel are representations of either one kind of man or the other.[62:]

Creation and popularization of stereotypes

Illustration of Sam from the 1888 "New Edition" of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The character of Sam helped create the stereotype of the lazy, carefree "happy darky."In recent decades, scholars and readers have criticized the book for what are seen as condescending racist descriptions of the book's black characters, especially with regard to the characters' appearances, speech, and behavior, as well as the passive nature of Uncle Tom in accepting his fate.[63:] The novel's creation and use of common stereotypes about African Americans[9:] is important because Uncle Tom's Cabin was the best-selling novel in the world during the 19th century.[6:] As a result, the book (along with images illustrating the book[64:] and associated stage productions) had a major role in permanently ingraining these stereotypes into the American psyche.[63:]

Among the stereotypes of blacks in Uncle Tom's Cabin are:[10:]

The "happy darky" (in the lazy, carefree character of Sam);
The light-skinned tragic mulatto as a sex object (in the characters of Eliza, Cassy, and Emmeline);
The affectionate, dark-skinned female mammy (through several characters, including Mammy, a cook at the St. Clare plantation).
The Pickaninny stereotype of black children (in the character of Topsy);
The Uncle Tom, or African American who is too eager to please white people (in the character of Uncle Tom). Stowe intended Tom to be a "noble hero." The stereotype of him as a "subservient fool who bows down to the white man" evidently resulted from staged "Tom Shows," over which Stowe had no control.[20:]
In the last few decades these negative associations have to a large degree overshadowed the historical impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin as a "vital antislavery tool."[10:] The beginning of this change in the novel's perception had its roots in an essay by James Baldwin titled "Everybody’s Protest Novel." In the essay, Baldwin called Uncle Tom’s Cabin a "very bad novel" which was also racially obtuse and aesthetically crude.[65:]

In the 1960s and '70s, the Black Power and Black Arts Movements attacked the novel, saying that the character of Uncle Tom engaged in "race betrayal," saying that Tom made slaves out to be worse than slave owners.[65:] Criticisms of the other stereotypes in the book also increased during this time.

In recent years, however, scholars such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. have begun to reexamine Uncle Tom's Cabin, stating that the book is a "central document in American race relations and a significant moral and political exploration of the character of those relations."[65:]

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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Robert (new)

Robert Lent Sensastionalist? If anything, it seriously understates how bad slavery was.

Tara Lynn While there is no dispute that slavery is an affront to humanity, the sensationalism I describe is a deliberate attempt to paint all Southerners as "Simon Legree," and to that end, paint all black people as sad children in need of a white, Christian guiding hand. The stereotypes painted by the novel helped establish generations of cultural "Uncle Toms." While the novel has a definite place in history, and can be said to have stirred the fury of the abolitionist movement, it was undisputedly sensational.

message 3: by Robert (new)

Robert Lent The book doesn't depict all southerners as being Simon Legree. First of all, many of the slave owners are portrayed as being decent people, good to their slaves, and secondly, Simon Legree is originally from the north, this Simon Legree is a negative depiction of a northerner.

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