The Magazine

The Great American Novel?

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" after a century and a half.

Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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THE CLOSE OF 2002 brings with it the close of the 150th anniversary of the publication of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." But you would hardly have known it from America's premier journals and magazines, which showed little interest in giving "Uncle Tom's Cabin" its due in the course of the year. No other book before or since has had so dramatic an effect on American consciousness--or American history--as Harriet Beecher Stowe's epoch-making novel.

Abraham Lincoln's famous welcome to Stowe when she came to the White House--"So this is the little lady who made this big war"--has the tang of country-boy ribbing, but it also recognizes the impact Stowe had on popular thought and sentiment about slavery. In 1852, its first year in print, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" sold 300,000 copies in the United States and 2.5 million copies around the world. The British found it especially to their liking, perhaps because Stowe's compassion for the downtrodden and eloquent exhortations to do them justice reminded them of Dickens, whom she emulated (and who reciprocated her regard). Russians, too, took it to their sorrowing hearts.

But it was to Americans in particular that Stowe directed her cannonade of black pain and white failure. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" alternates barrages of withering opprobrium with bursts of uplift. By the end of the decade Americans had bought over a million copies of the novel. In the North, her readers came to admit the worst that Stowe told them about themselves, and it is not fanciful to say that many resolved to live and die worthy of the examples of virtue she showed them.

In the South they pronounced her a lying whore who (in the words of poet William Grayson) with prostituted pen assails / One half her country in malignant tales. Reply-novels such as "Aunt Phillis's Cabin" and "The Master's House" defended the South against Stowe's charges of endemic and unconscionable barbarity. In "Life on the Mississippi," Mark Twain laid the blame for the Civil War on Sir Walter Scott, whose chivalric romances thickened the skulls and compressed the brains of the Southland. But the appeal of Scott's medieval fantasies was in part a revulsion against Stowe--a steeling of the Southerners' resolve to live as their fathers had done, which, in turn, convinced the Northerners that such a mode of life could not be tolerated in a nation founded on the principles of equality and freedom.

Stowe drills home her teaching--and if there ever was a novel whose life was inseparable from its message, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is the one--with a tigerish force. The book does not trouble itself with moral nuance and scruple. Some of the white characters are well-meaning weaklings, but most are greedy fools who seize upon the nearest rationalization. To Stowe, the most urgent question facing America admitted only of one answer, and she knew she was chosen--divinely elected--to provide it.

The vision of Uncle Tom's martyrdom came to her one day in church, she said, and the rest of the story fell into place from there; she was also given to declaring that God had written the novel and used her as His amanuensis. (More than one reader has observed that, if such was the case, the weak novels she wrote afterward were strictly her own doing.)

STOWE CONSTRUCTS HER NOVEL along a north-south moral axis. The worst things happen in the deep South, and the best thing that can happen to a slave is to find refuge in Canada. The plot encompasses the descent of Uncle Tom into the infernal pit of bondage at its most cruel--the slavemaster Simon Legree is probably the most notorious literary archvillain since Richard III--and the blessed flight to freedom of the slaves George and Eliza Harris and their young son.

Dastardliness abounds, but every bit as distressing as the raw malignancy is the complicity in evil of ordinary men and women, spiritual mediocrities, who might have lived lives no worse than most but for the baneful institution that corrodes all it touches. Stowe recognizes that the façade of decorousness is the foulest ruse, and that there is really nothing banal about an evil so comprehensively monstrous. "A slave warehouse! Perhaps some of my readers conjure up horrible visions of such a place. . . . But no, innocent friend; in these days men have learned the art of sinning expertly and genteelly, so as not to shock the eyes and senses of respectable society. Human property is high in the market; and is, therefore, well fed, well cleaned, tended, and looked after, that it may come to a sale sleek, and strong, and shining."

Stowe is as acute a critic of the art of sinning as American literature, which is traditionally strong in the penitential line, has produced. To Stowe's mind, the matter of race is the spiritual battleground where the fate of America will be decided, and she conceives of the nation's political life in the largest sense as the summary of the condition of its citizens' souls.

In fact, she considers the existence of racial distinction--the strange fact that there happens to be by nature so striking a difference between one group of human beings and another--a divinely ordained mystery and spiritual trial. The test is whether one can recognize as one's brother or sister a person so markedly different from oneself.

The question posed by slavery thus cannot be reduced to a matter of prudence or politics. Americans must learn to live by nothing less than the truth of the national promise of liberty and equality. Race presents the supreme spiritual problem of the age, and how each man or woman responds to it will determine the fate of his immortal soul.

Stowe is not bashful about preaching a mission in this novel. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is a sort of remedial primer for those souls that have become entangled in what passes for wisdom and that have forgotten the simplest truths. From the mouths of babes, such as the beatifically moribund little Evangeline St. Clare, the daughter of one of the owners through whose hands Uncle Tom passes, and from the simple but noble soul of Uncle Tom himself, issues the essential teaching, which puts all the theological temporizing of ostensibly holy men to shame. "'What is being a Christian, Eva?' 'Loving Christ most of all,' said Eva."

What it means to be a Christian really occupies the core of the novel, and that question is indistinguishable from the racial question: People in the novel talk of little besides slavery and God, as though life has been effectively distilled to those two obsessive concerns. The hot injustice of slavery brings the problem of evil to a painful, blazing focus. Slaves, including the pious Uncle Tom at his most desperate, wonder bitterly how God could have arranged the world so they have to suffer as they do, but ultimately Uncle Tom and others entrust their tribulations to the all-healing heart of Jesus.

To put such faith in divine love when there is such evidence of divine indifference requires a Christian heart of capaciousness and purity. When Simon Legree orders Uncle Tom to whip another disobedient slave, Tom refuses; contemptuous of Tom's religion, Legree warns that he will yet make Tom a convert to the slavemaster's own church, in which he is the presiding deity, but Tom submits to prolonged and murderous torture rather than do what he knows to be wrong.

UNCLE TOM may not be the exemplar of angry black manhood that is now in fashion, but he is no "Uncle Tom" in the current sense of the phrase: shuffling and grinning and pitiably cringing. His triumph is heroic endurance in the name of God, and he possesses a humility that is paradoxically an entirely admirable spiritual pride. He is willing to die for the truth he cherishes.

What's more, his example played no small part in inspiring good men to do likewise in the years that followed the publication of Stowe's novel. Whatever the flaws in Stowe's art--and there are lapses into treacly sentimentality, melodramatic plotting, and a style more often oaken than supple--the novel lives, and continues to move the reader to question whether he does too. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is the great Christian American novel, and one can only wish it had more competition.

A writer in Florida, Algis Valiunas is the author of "Churchill's Military Histories."