Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), the biggest best seller of the nineteenth century after the Bible, is a central event in American history. By centering on and dramatizing the routine breakup of black families under slavery far more than the usual condemnations of slavery had done, Harriet Beecher Stowe elevated the slaves in the minds of people who had despised them as subhuman or who were just indifferent to their fate. The book aroused the most passionate indignation throughout the world against the special cruelty of American slavery, the worst in the Western world. It was the first work written in English to be translated into such remote languages as Illyrian or Wallachian. The heartbreak of families casually separated by slave traders and owners under economic pressure inflamed the universal audience for the book, especially among women whose prime belief was the Christian sacredness of family.
With one book, Mrs. Stowe became the conscience of her time for millions of Americans who had hated other antislavery writers for disturbing their lives and dividing the country to the point of civil war. Appealing directly to the reader to join her tumultuous feelings of pity and outrage, written as if in a trance (or so she claimed when in later life she said, “I did not write it. God wrote it. I merely did His dictation”), the book aroused the North and maddened the South.
Mrs. Stowe was throughout her life deeply involved in her family and in the Christian consciousness of family. Born in 1811 in Connecticut, she was the seventh child and fourth daughter of Lyman Beecher, New England’s most vociferous Evangelical clergyman. All her brothers (the best remembered was the flamboyant Henry Ward Beecher) were clergymen, her sisters married clergymen, she herself married an ordained minister, seminary professor, and polymath, Calvin Stowe, and was to bear six children. Harriet Stowe felt she needed to soften Lyman Beecher’s hardbottomed theology while retaining the enthusiasm with which Beecher propagated his gospel. His fellow Presbyterians tolerated slavery in the North and defended it in the South. But the influence of a father who spoke in the voice of ancestral Calvinism that could still terrify a descendant of the first Puritans in New England was hard to shake off. She believed most intensely in a personal savior. The death by drowning in 1857 of her oldest son, Henry, was to cause Harriet terrible anxiety about the uncertain state of his soul before death.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is founded on a “religion of the heart” natural to what Alfred North Whitehead was to call the “century of hope”—hope because every day seemed to bring still another invention that would surely advance mankind by freeing it from deadening manual labor. Harriet Stowe was consumed by a personal, achingly assured emotional religion that might also be called a nineteenth-century invention; it was so particularly and immediately addressed to the healing, redeeming power that she felt, as a Christian woman, directly in touch with God. She believed that women generally were the more “feeling” half of the human race. Stowe’s religion softened Calvinism’s insistence on human depravity with an appeal not just to the goodness lurking under the harshness of society but to the great new message of the century—the awakened solidarity of the human race. There was no question in her mind that God heard this message. It was to be brought home to the heart by a novel, the most open and expansive literary form used in the nineteenth century for involving readers in the topics of the day.
So it did not matter to readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin any more than it mattered to readers of Les Misérables and Oliver Twist that Stowe’s novel was diffuse in its organization and charged with intensity to the point of hysteria. Human liberation was in the air, spread by European writers from the most advanced literary cultures—Heine, Victor Hugo, Dickens, Tolstoy—who like millions of readers were aroused by this impassioned tractnovel from missionary America.
When Lyman Beecher in 1832 moved with his tribe to Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, he was more concerned with converting the frontier than with the slave system visible just across the Ohio River in Kentucky. But getting this close to slavery moved Harriet Stowe away from belief in the absolute sovereignty of Calvinism’s Old Testament Father and toward an exclamatory, flaming commitment to the Son as the suffering standard of her wholly personal religion. No one in history had ever suffered as Jesus had suffered for trying to do absolute good—except the black slave, who suffering right under our indifferent and even hostile eyes, had no one to appeal to but Jesus. And Stowe’s Uncle Tom so loved and impersonated Him that, robbed of his wife and children, fated to be beaten to death for refusing to become “hard” toward Simon Legree’s five other slaves, he became a figure of absolute good. Like Jesus.
The full title is Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among The Lowly. The subject of the novel is not Negritude but what Latin Americans in the era of liberation theology called the religion of the oppressed. In the “century of hope” Heine, though scornful of the power of the majority in America, believed in the “liberation war of humanity.” Both in her preface and conclusion Mrs. Stowe emphasized the connection between slaves and the “lowly” of every race and condition. This was aimed at the Southern apologists for slavery, who claimed that slavery alone “raised” the slaves from their initial barbarism; they rationalized the cruelty of the system on the grounds that, unlike “free” labor under capitalism, slaves were paternally cared for.
The “lowly” for Mrs. Stowe represented the victims of society everywhere, people so generally disregarded that they were invisible: and living in darkness not always their own, they became “black,” like slaves. Color became the distinguishing mark of those who were simply not seen. Tolstoy called those he stumbled on in the worst slums of Moscow the “dark people,” adding, on the moral blindness of more fortunate people, “It is impossible to live so! It is impossible to live so!” This was the tone Mrs. Stowe brought to her book. The cause was not political but entirely religious; it did not admit the toleration of slavery in the South by which “free soilers” like Lincoln, before he became president, sought to confine slavery and keep it from spreading to the West. By transforming public opinion so that many Americans eventually had to accept emancipation as “righteous” and just, Uncle Tom’s Cabin showed the power of religious sentiment as no other American novel had done. The sentiment was all the more charged up and uncompromising because it came out of struggle with her father, and led her to condemn the Church itself in favor of the “heart.” The intensity of this sentiment was thereafter to be challenged and denied, with Mrs. Stowe’s masterpiece so mocked, travestied, and lampooned that in our day it is still impossible, especially among those who mistake Uncle Tom’s religion for submission to slavery, to recognize the book’s wild literary power.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a sensation—on publication day in 1852 it sold 3,000; within the year there were 120 editions, 300,000 copies; over one and a half million copies were circulated in Great Britain and the colonies. It was quickly and crudely dramatized. There were eventually eight different theatrical versions, six of them produced even before the Civil War. Soon people who had never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin routinely spoke of someone being “an Uncle Tom,” or a “Simon Legree,” snickered at the death of “Little Eva,” laughed at Topsy as a minstrel show “darkey.”
The mature Henry James found the book too coarse, as one would expect. But in A Small Boy And Others, his reminiscences of his early life in New York, he described with relish how
one lived and moved at that time, with great intensity, in Mrs. Stowe’s novel… There was, however, for that triumphant work, no classified condition…it knew the large felicity fathering alike the small and the simple and the big and the wise, and had above all the extraordinary fortune of finding itself, for an immense number of people, much less a book than a state of vision, of feeling and consciousness, in which they didn’t sit and read and appraise and pass the time, but walked and talked and laughed and cried;…nothing in the guise of a written book, therefore a book printed, published, sold, bought and “noticed,” probably ever reached its mark, the mark of exciting interest, without having at least groped for that goal a book or by the exposure of some literary side.
James as an old man in England was still amused by the play he saw as a child. “The small boy could hear less the audible creak of carpentry as Eliza jumped from one floe to another” than “the sound of the water being pumped by a Mr. Crummles.” And when Eva falls into the Mississippi and is rescued by Tom, both emerge “perfectly dry!” With such memories of the ridiculous play, no wonder that James in his essay of 1874 on Turgenev made a point of saying that while A Sportsman’s Sketches may have helped free the serfs (a dubious assertion), it was “much less a passionate pièce de circonstance” than a “disinterested work of art.” “Turgenev did not produce an agitation, he presented the case with an art too insidious for instant recognition, an art that stirred the depths more than the surface.”
This was a crack at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and in a sense set the tone (even for people who had never read Turgenev) when Stowe’s book fell into disfavor after the war and became something of a joke. The war was over, the slaves had in some ways freed themselves as the Confederacy fell apart. Post-1865 American realism, even in a novel as perceptive about race as Huckleberry Finn, was cool, careful, had little enough in common with the heavy breathing one could hear throughout Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Mrs. Stowe put her desperate characters to the ultimate test of their virtue, courage, cruelty, and terror, while husbands were torn from their wives, parents from their children. Under Reconstruction, in the era of the Ku Klux Klan, when the blacks were free only to be tenant farmers and when lynchings (when they were even reported) ran into the hundreds a year, what had happened to the confidence Mrs. Stowe had expressed in her preface?
Another and better day is dawning; every influence of literature, of poetry and of art, in our times, is becoming more and more in unison with the great master chord of Christianity, “good will to man.”
The hand of benevolence is everywhere stretched out, searching into abuses, righting wrongs, alleviating distresses, and bringing to the knowledge and sympathies of the world the lowly, the oppressed, and the forgotten.
The moment that Mrs. Stowe seized had passed and she could not go on with the same power to the next. Only slavery had possessed her and only “religion,” in her frenetic, apocalyptic, all-redeeming kind of Christianity, had provided reason for absolutely condemning slavery. The Abolitionists alone had seen slavery as a sin. Whatever her quarrel with the abolitionist leader Garrison (he had burned the Constitution, was a pacifist, and did not understand, as Lincoln did, that only the Union could assure freedom for all) Mrs. Stowe was entirely sure that slavery was the ultimate sin. From sin followed every conceivable inhumanity. But as the Gospels had shown generation after generation, there is no drama like that of the suffering servant, the good and pure man things are done to, who is beaten to death like Uncle Tom. He is “Uncle,” the custodial father figure who throws into relief the unjust world around him, which everyday sinners have tolerated or ignored.
The familiar objection to the novel is that Uncle Tom is too good, too simple, just as the slave traders are too primitive, Simon Legree too beastly, Eva too saintly, Topsy too cute, Miss Ophelia too severe, George Harris too determined, Eliza too desperate, the Quakers too perfect. It can be maintained that the only complex character in the book is Augustine St. Clare, who disdains the slave system that enables him to live with so much beauty and in supreme comfort. Married to an entirely selfish woman whom he despises, St. Clare has wearily learned to tolerate the contradictions of his existence.
St. Clare, surviving by irony, is a character who can interest the modern reader, but his irony and complexity are not what matters in the book. When he is stabbed to death trying to break up a barroom fight, it turns out that like Tom he too must sacrifice his life for a higher good. And the importance of the good in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is that this is a novel not about character, not in any sense psychological, like most modern novels, but an impassioned narrative wrapped entirely around slavery as the ultimate evil, meaning the total domination, victimization, and demonization practiced on human beings.
What is peculiar to slavery, and distinguishes it from free servitude, is evil, and only evil, and that continually…. The great object of the author in writing has been to bring this subject of slavery, as a moral and religious question, before the minds of all those who profess to be followers of Christ, in this country.
Tocqueville, visiting America just thirty years before the Civil War erupted—he had feared that the political hatreds created by slavery would culminate in War—was nevertheless astonished by the equanimity, indifference, moral carelessness with which Americans everywhere managed to live with slavery. How could these people not see the lie slavery gave to their professed democracy and that the violation they lived with threatened them as well as brutalizing the slave?
Oppression has, at one stroke, deprived the descendants of the Africans of almost all the privileges of humanity. The Negro of the United States has lost even the remembrance of his country; the language which his forefathers spoke is never heard around him; he abjured their religion and forgot their customs when he ceased to belong to Africa, without acquiring any claim to European privileges. But he remains halfway between the two communities, isolated between two races; sold by the one, repulsed by the other; finding not a spot in the universe to call by the name of country, except the faint image of a home which the shelter of his master’s roof affords.
Of course Tocqueville, speaking too generally from his distant vantage point as a European Catholic aristocrat, was wrong to assume that “the Negro, plunged in this abyss of evils, scarcely feels his own calamitous situation. Violence made him a slave, and the habit of servitude gives him the thoughts and desires of a slave; he admires his tyrants more than he hates them, and finds his joy and his pride in the servile imitation of those who oppress him.” This was for its time as doubtful as the later claims for slave militancy made by the leftist historian Herbert Aptheker and then by the black nationalists who in the Sixties vehemently attacked William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner because Styron’s character was too complex to fit the political needs of the moment.
Nevertheless, Tocqueville was right to fear the deep effects of slavery on its victims, and to predict that the freed slaves would be too weakened to counter the racial fear and hatred that would become ever more virulent after emancipation, in whatever form it came. Slavery would never leave the American mind. Slavery meant total domination. And as twentieth-century totalitarianism even in defeat has shown, the experience of total domination can seem irrevocable to its victims. Nor does oppression elevate and purify the character. What baffles us and can even provoke us now, when we encounter Mrs. Stowe’s optimism at the end of her book about the emancipation that had to come, is its faith in a Christianity all her own.
A day of grace is yet held out to us. Both North and South have been guilty before God; and the Christian church has a heavy account to answer. Not by combining together, to protect injustice and cruelty, and making a common capital of sin, is this Union to be saved,—but by repentance, justice and mercy; for, not surer is the eternal law by which the millstone sinks in the ocean, than that stronger law, by which injustice and cruelty shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God!
The question of God’s possible wrath over slavery was raised in public by the rationalist and religious skeptic Abraham Lincoln. He had once declared “I hate…the monstrous injustice of slavery…because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world.” In his second inaugural he went further and uttered a great public cry of willingness to accept a different vision.
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Still, Lincoln cautiously asked “if God wills”—a condemnation of slavery that would finally bring an end to it. Harriet Beecher Stowe had no possible doubt of God’s will. Her book claimed entire communion with His will and “wrath.” No wonder she was able to convince millions that her novel had the power of scripture. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was New England’s last holiness.
Copyright © Alfred Kazin 1994