Sunday, March 30, 2014

Uncle Tom's Cabin: Writing Can Change the World

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut, the daughter of a well-known Evangelical Calvinist minister named Lyman Beecher.  All of her brothers became ministers.  Harriet and her sisters became writers, educators, and social reformers: Catherine was a pioneer of women's education, Isabella became a suffragist and women's rights advocate, and Harriet wrote the most powerful anti-slavery novel in American history.

Harriet married a biblical scholar named Calvin Stowe, and she worked occasionally as a teacher and writer.  Two events happened in her life that focused her attention on the cause of abolitionism: 

First, The death of her son Samuel "infused in her writing the sympathy for people who were helpless in the face of great personal loss."  Sometimes, suffering opens people's eyes to the suffering of others.  In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe writes: "There are in this world blessed souls, whose sorrows all spring up into joys for others; whose earthly hopes, laid in the grave with many tears, are the seed from which spring healing flowers and balm for the desolate and the distressed."

Second, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which made it a crime for even northerners to help escaping slaves, "created in her, as in many other New Englanders, a sense of tremendous outrage."  Shortly after the passage of this Act, Stowe began working on Uncle Tom's Cabin, which would profoundly stir the conscience of the nation.

The novel, which was first serialized in the anti-slavery journal The National Era, was published in book form in 1852 to immediate success.  It sold 3,000 copies in its first day of publication, and 350,000 copies in its first year.  By 1860, it had been re-printed in 22 languages and became the best-selling book of the century, out-sold only by the Bible.  According to the Norton Anthology of American Literature, "The book helped push abolitionism from the margins to the mainstream, and thus moved the nation closer to civil war."

What made Uncle Tom's Cabin such a powerful anti-slavery text?  Abolitionists had been writing against slavery for at least 30 years prior to the novel's publication.  Why was this particular book so effective?  I would argue that at least three factors made the novel so powerful: 1.) It took an abstract issue and humanized it.  Readers could sympathize with the characters in the novel in a way that they could not sympathize with a political tract or essay.  2.) The novel powerfully demonstrated that human slavey was incompatible with Christianity.  Most Americans in 1852 (both northerners and southerners) were Christian.  3.) The novel showed how slavery diminished the humanity, not just of the slaves, but of the slave-owners as well.  Let me give a few examples to illustrate these three elements of the novel.

Humanizing the Issue

First, Uncle Tom's Cabin took an issue that was abstract for many people and humanized it.  Literature has this power.  Readers could sympathize with the plight of the slaves Tom, Eliza, Cassy, and other characters in the novel.  Uncle Tom's Cabin emotionally dramatized their suffering.  In chapter 7, entitled "A Mother's Struggle," the slave Eliza runs away from her master (along with her young son Harry) because she has learned that the master planned to sell Harry to another plantation.  This was a common feature of slavery--it tore apart families.  Eliza, the desperate mother, valiantly struggles to cross the Ohio river, to freedom, as she is pursued by men on horseback.  In a particularly memorable scene, she runs across the frozen river with her child:

"In that dizzy moment her feet to her scarce seemed to touch the ground, and a moment brought her to the water's edge.  Right on behind they came; and, nerved with strength such as God gives only to the desperate, with one wild cry and flying leap, she vaulted sheer over the turbid current by the shore, on to the raft of ice beyond.  It was a desperate leap--impossible to anything but madness and despair…The huge green fragment of ice in which she alighted pitched and creaked as her weight came on it, but she stayed there not a moment.  With wild cries and desperate energy she leaped to another and still another cake;--stumbling--leaping--slipping--springing upwards again!  Her shoes are gone--her stockings cut from her feet--while blood marked every step…"

In this chapter, Stowe does something quite unusual for a novelist--she directly addresses the reader, breaking the "fourth wall" to elicit sympathy and compassion for the plight of Eliza:

"If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, to-morrow morning,--if you had seen the man, and heard that the papers were signed and delivered, and you had only from twelve o'clock, --how fast could you walk?  How many miles could you make in those few brief hours, with the darling at your bosom--the little sleepy head on your shoulder--the small soft arms trustingly holding onto you neck?"

Like Eliza, each of the slaves in Uncle Tom's Cabin suffers in ways that would move even a callous reader to sympathy.  Cassy is separated from her child and sexually abused by her master.  Tom is brutally beaten to death.

Slavery and Christianity are Incompatible

Uncle Tom's Cabin powerfully shows that human slavery is incompatible with Christianity.  While this may seem like a "no-brainer" for modern Christians, it was not so obvious for 19th century readers.  Most southerners, including slave owners, were Christians who went to church on Sunday and actually believed the Bible condoned slavery.  Stowe seeks to refute this in her novel.  In chapter 9, entitled "In Which it Appears That a Senator is But a Man," a U.S. Senator who voted for the Fugitive Slave Act has an extended conversation with his wife, who is outraged by her husband's vote.  "Now John," she says, "I don't know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate, and that Bible I mean to follow."  The senator tries to justify his vote by saying that it was for the "greater good" of preserving the union, to which his wife responds: "Obeying God never brings on public evil.  I know it can't.  It's always safest, all round, to do as He bids us."

Ironically, shortly after this little debate, Eliza and Harry arrive at the senator's house, seeking shelter and help.  This experience transforms the senator's thinking as the issue (again) becomes real, not abstract: "His idea of a fugitive was only an idea of letters that spell the word,--or, at most, the image of a little newspaper picture of a man with a stick and bindle, with "Ran away from the subscriber" under it.  The magic of the real presence of distress, --the imploring human eye, the frail, trembling human hand, the despairing appeal of helpless agony, --these he had never tried.  He had never thought that a fugitive might be a hapless mother, a defenseless child."  Seeing the real suffering human before him compels the senator to help her, to break the very law he had voted for, and to realize that he was wrong.

To further illustrate this theme that slavery and Christianity are incompatible, Stowe gives us the character of Tom, a devout Christian, and the most Christ-like character in the novel.  As he is being beaten to death by his master, Tom prays, echoing the words of Christ on the cross, "I forgive you with all my soul."  

Slavery Diminishes Humanity

Finally, Uncle Tom's Cabin was a powerful novel because it showed that the institution of slavery diminished the humanity, the soul, not just of slaves, but of slave-owners as well.  As Tom is being beaten by the brutal plantation owner Simon Legree, he says to his master,  "Mas'r, if you was sick, or in trouble, or dying, and I could save ye, I'd give ye my heart's blood; and, if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, I'd give 'em freely, as the Lord gave his for me. O, Mas'r! don't bring this great sin on your soul! It will hurt you more than 't will me! Do the worst you can, my troubles'll be over soon; but, if ye don't repent, yours won't never end!” 

The utter depravity of Legree is itself a powerful demonstration of how slavery corrupts both slave and slave-owner.  In chapter 34, entitled "The Quadroon's Story," the slave Cassy tells her sad story to Tom, as she tends to his wounds after a brutal beating.  Cassy, like other female slaves, was sexually abused by Legree and this has caused her and others to "grow loathsome, till we loathe ourselves."  In a moment of powerful empathy, she asks Tom of her master, "God in heaven!  what was he, and is he?"  The implication is that no one on this plantation escapes the soul-crusing destruction that is caused by slavery.  This makes Tom's death all the more powerful.  In the face of great evil, he preserves his dignity, even in death, and he is an inspiration to Cassy.

In conclusion, Uncle Tom's Cabin was a brilliant piece of fiction, written with impassioned fury and empathy by Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Some modern scholars have criticized the novel for some mis-representations of African Americans, and even for creating some racial stereotypes.  I believe the novel must be taken in the context of its time.  Despite its imperfections and flaws, the positive social impact of the novel is undeniable.  As a writer, I am inspired by Stowe's writing.  It shows me that writing and literature can actually change the world.

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