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A Review of the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Mervyn Edwards

A Review of the Harriet Beecher novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).

In 1787, Stoke’s master potter Josiah Wedgwood produced his white jasper “slave medallion” with the inscription, “Am I not a man and a brother?” encompassing the image of a manacled black slave. It was the seal of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and it became the most famous portrait of a black person in all of eighteenth century art. Key dates in the nineteenth century bullet-point the advances of the anti-slavery movement, but in the southern states of America, man’s inhumanity to man died hard.

Designated by some, perhaps unfairly and inaccurately, as a sentimental novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin depicts very graphically the brutalities of slavery in the southern states. It “helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War” according to Will Kaufman, and has otherwise been recognised as an example of a fictional work that became an agent of social change. It deals with colour prejudice, womens’ rights and even ageist attitudes towards women, exposing some of the cant and pretence of nineteenth century society.

Connecticut-born Stowe cites some of the evils of capitalism in America and Britain, and questions the dogmatic views of middle class religious humbugs and hypocrites. Marie St. Clare, the wife of a wealthy slave-owner, drips with silk, lace and jewellery on her visits to a “fashionable church”, making a point of being “very pious on Sundays.” Yet such brazen displays of empty-hearted religion are juxtaposed with the simple fervour of the lower churches:

“’I do wish St. Clare ever would go to church,’ said Marie, ‘but he hasn’t a particle of religion about him. It really isn’t respectable.’
‘I know it,’ said St. Clare. ‘You ladies go to church to learn how to get along in the world, I suppose, and your piety shed respectability on us. If I did go at all, I would go where Mammy goes; there’s something to keep a fellow awake there, at least.’
‘What! Those shouting Methodists? Horrible!’ said Marie.
‘Anything but the dead sea of your respectable churches, Marie. Positively, it’s too much to ask of a man..’”

In her Afterword, Stowe adds, “Both North and South have been guilty before God, and the Christian Church has a heavy account to answer.” It’s the admission of both a hand-wringing penitent and a religious thinker – American Christianity with a conscience – and it might explain how this book became, unbelievably, the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century and the second best-selling book, after the Bible. The book simultaneously holds Christianity to account whilst peddling its glories. After all, it is through Uncle Tom that we witness how Christian love can infuse the human spirit even when cruelty and inhumanity appear to reign supreme. He is seen as an upright, noble individual with an unshakeable faith in God.

As a proto-feminist, Stowe promotes the moral authority of motherhood, and the futile cries of women slaves who lose their children in the story are meant to wrench at the heartstrings of all mothers who have loved and lost their progeny. Stowe’s writing deliberately draws a trenchant comparison between the helpless slaves and the disenfranchised housewife of the mid nineteenth century. She wrote in 1869, when campaigning for the expansion of married women’s rights:

“The position of a married woman… is, in many respects, precisely similar to that of the negro slave. She can make no contract and hold no property; whatever she inherits or earns becomes at that moment the property of her husband… Though he acquired a fortune through her, or though she earned a fortune through her talents, he was the sole master of it, and she cannot draw a penny… In the English common law a married woman is nothing at all. She passes out of legal existence.”

Another Stowe observation that many women would salute today, runs, “So much has been said and sung of beautiful young girls, why don’t somebody wake up to the beauty of old women?”

That said, Stowe shows us a truly vile and self-pitying older woman, the preening matriarch Marie St. Clare, a woman of stomach-churning self-regard.

The novel – without any intention – popularised several social stereotypes, notably the figure of the docile black servant, loyal to a white, middle-class master. I believe that the book has been mis-read, or perhaps not read at all, by some critics nursing their own agendas, including a few over-zealous and wrong-headed anti-racism campaigners.

The fact is that Stowe showed tremendous courage in writing a work that she knew would be attacked in her own time by Establishment figures and conservative elements in the American South. No wonder that one of Stowe’s critics remarked, that her great novel was “perhaps the most influential novel ever published, a verbal earthquake, an ink-and-paper tidal wave.” No champion of Stowe’s work could have written a more apposite epitaph.

Posted: 22nd August 2016

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