One of the books that I have been told to read, told not to read, and been otherwise instructed on many times is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Like Pride and Prejudice, however, I was fine with not having an opinion on it until I came to here and found a copy in my flat.
I remember my old roommate, Althea, using this book as an example of why not all “classics” are actually any good. I remember her saying that yeah, it was important, but “It’s a terrible book!”
I think the best way to summarize my thoughts is that Harriet Beecher Stowe was a very intelligent woman, and she believed strongly in abolition, in Christianity, and in equality; because of this, she wrote a book that changed society in a way few books have…at the same time, she was also a terrible writer.
This book is like Twilight with a message in its failings of dialogue, its hyperbole of character extremes, and its condescension of narration. I could rest my case for all of this on the very idea that, when Beecher Stowe realized that St. Clare was such a good person and such a benevolent character and such an impediment to her goal of showing the evils of slavery- and that he was on the verge of giving Tom his freedom- she has to kill him off by having him attacked in a fight in a coffee shop when he’s trying to get a newspaper. And of course, he dies immediately, within hours of having rediscovered his faith in Jesus and his need to free Tom.
It’s almost like a girl cutting her finger at a birthday party in a house full of vampires, only to have her boyfriend “save” her by throwing her into a mirror,injuring her much more horribly, because the first drop of blood drove his brother crazy. “Gee,” says the author, “I’m stuck. Time to do something ridiculous!”
I also have a huge resentment of how the slaves talk in this. From Tom and his family in Kentucky to St. Clare’s slaves in New Orleans, the attempt at dialogue is painful, giving the idea that every single one of these slaves is in fact retarded, except for Eliza, George, and their son Henry, all of whom have been taught everything from how to read to faith in God, and who, incidentally, are all quadroons. Coincidence? I really, honestly, think not.
I rather think that in Beecher Stowe was the same feeling shown by the character Miss Ophelia, cousin to St. Clare and raised in Vermont. She hates slavery, but hates slaves even more. And while her realization that she’s even more racist than her cousin’s wife makes her change to some degree, this was the least convincing relationship, of all the ridiculous relationships, in the book.
Do I believe that Beecher Stowe really wanted freedom for the slaves? Yes. Do I believe that she really believed them to be her equals? Not bloody likely, at least not without some serious rehab. And while I guess I wouldn’t blame a well-educated young woman for that belief, living in both New England and later Ohio, she knew white people who were just as uneducated as slaves, and rarely does that get mentioned here. All of the white people, even Tom Loker the slave-hunter, are either given the chance at self-redemption or conveniently written out of the later part entirely, and their stories never really concluded. The only white person who seems entirely evil is Tom’s last owner, but even he seems to realize his faults after Young Master George leaves, leading us to believe that he, too, will conveniently find God before it’s too late.
Despite the book’s glaring faults, I do think there’s a purpose for reading this. It shows us even more than one might expect about slavery, and the views of abolitionists, most importantly that no person is without his or her own prejudices.