Thursday, September 07, 2006

Uncle Tom's Cabin: Part one

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe joins a long list of novels which are written with the primary motive of persuading the reader of the validity of a political cause – in this case for the abolition of slavery in the US in the mid nineteenth century. In most cases the cause quickly overwhelms the artistic integrity of the novel and it plunges into obscurity. What great works of fiction are remembered from the Russian and Chinese socialist literature of the 1930s and 1940s? Occasionally the novel and the cause dovetail to produce a seminal work that takes its place in literary and political history. Tolstoy wrote for overtly political purposes in the late 19th century as he longed to see a reformed Russia. The Women’s room by Marilyn French published in 1977 had an impact on the lives of millions of women, but by most accounts (I haven’t read it) is an extremely good novel. Uncle Tom’s Cabin deserves to join such exalted company, despite the occasionally overbearing authorial voice and some shoddy sentence construction.

That it had a huge impact on 1850s America is beyond question. When Abraham Lincoln was introduced to Harriet Beecher Stowe he is famously attributed as saying "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!". The narrative of the book is compelling. Stowe traces the journey of two slave heroes (George Harris and Uncle Tom) through the subtleties and harshness of slavery. George Harris attempts escape to Canada with his family who are about to be sold individually to different owners. Uncle Tom hates his slavehood, but chooses to submit to his masters out of Christian piety (and strength?), with painful but dramatic results.

Where Harris’ story takes him out of slavery, Tom’s story burrows right to its core and explodes it. It is therefore with the journey of Tom that Stowe is most concerned and as a Christian it is also the more challenging. Stowe’s primary concern is the affects of slavery on both master and slave. Through Tom’s journey we see slavery through the eyes of the benevolent, but apathetic owner (St.Clare), the northern visitor (Miss Ophelia) and the tyrant master (Simon Legree). Stowe is critical of them all and the social groupings they represent. St. Clare alleviates his conscience by treating his servants well. He does not beat them and believes slavery to be wrong, but is not prepared to step out publicly and challenge his peers or rock the boat. Through the relationship of Miss Ophelia and the abused black girl Topsy, Stowe brilliantly uncovers the distaste and prejudice that many northerners felt towards black people whilst still calling for abolition. Stowe expects a lot of her characters – personal piety and a comfy, lukewarm, socialised morality is not enough. The true Christian is expected to risk exclusion, jeering, financial, familial and social disaster in actively and wholeheartedly challenging the evil they see around them.

In this, it is Tom that leads the way. As he enters the hell of Legree’s plantation he battles to keep his faith and the souls of all those around him (both owner and slave) alive. For Stowe slavery is a system that has so brutalised and marred the identity of all involved that the participants are little more than animals. Formerly ‘good people’ like Cassy are sucked into the swamp of anger and violence and inadvertently try and pull Tom down with them. To triumph Tom must beat and transcend the system by refusing to play by its rules. He turns away the opportunity to ‘take his liberty’ and kill Legree for he knows that it will be a false victory that will only mar his race and sink humanity as a whole further into the pit.

The power and pull of a brilliantly crafted story of an unlikely hero fighting for his and others’ souls makes this a great novel, despite the intermittent weaknesses in style and prose. The story of George Harris has only two endings: either makes it to safety or he doesn’t. The journey of Tom seems to take on cosmological significance as it cracks open and draws out the central venom of slavery and it easy to see, one hundred and fifty years later, why Uncle Tom’s Cabin shook America to its core.

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