The Great American Novel?
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" after a century and a half.
Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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."