Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin
The time has finally arrived for me to review Harriet Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. It is a hard book to review due to the polemical nature of the material. While being fiction and literature, there are many ways in which the book's value cannot be measured solely in those categories. Additionally, the book inspired so many cultural images and stereotypes (some completely counter to Stowe's purpose in the book), that bring their own weight to any reading of the material. All of this makes for a daunting challenge to the modern reader to evaluate the book.
Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1852. The Civil War would formally begin in 1861. Surprisingly, there is little to nothing in the book that hints at the looming war over slavery and states rights. While politicians are certainly addressed there is little intense focus on them either. Politics is only mentioned when its failures are the topic of interest. Instead, religion's role in slavery plays a more pronounced role among the focused stories that only tie together at the end.
As Stowe indicates in the concluding remarks of the book, these stories are rooted and grounded in real events that Stowe or immediate acquaintances could verify. And so the book despite being pointed is truly an attempt at depicting pre-Civil War life for slaves and slaveowners. This makes for a book worthy of much contemplation.
Stowe's book predominantly follows—unsurprisingly—a male slave by the name of Tom (affectionately referred to as "Uncle Tom" by the children in the houses he serves). The story opens with Tom being sold to pay off a debt and follows as he is purchased by a skeptic (both to Christianity and slavery) owner before landing under a cruel master. Intermixed with Tom's travels are numerous characters representing different philosophical standpoints on slavery, the anthropology of slaves, Christianity, government, and life in general.
Tom's character throughout the book is impeccable. While being a faithful and obedient slave, he has multiple encounters of obedience to Christ that supersede all other obligations. His Christian background and tenderness make him well-liked and a sympathetic figure throughout the story. He also brings stability amidst the characters that represent different answers to some of the difficult questions asked by the book.
Stowe pulls no punches in denouncing the practice of slavery. Through the dialogue of numerous characters, Stowe is critical of Southern conceptualization of black people, criticizes Northerners for having a colonial mentality that is also tinged by racism, demonstrates that "good masters" are an oxymoron used to hold up a corrupt system, and that among all of this the church's uses of Scripture was the principal philosophy used to subjugate and justify immoral practices. All of this makes for an impressionable and sobering read. That Stowe was writing even before the Civil War in the face of a society that hadn't come to the clash over slavery makes her words even more intriguing. One can hear her scathing rebukes and hear echoes of many false narratives in the mouths of present-day Americans. And it behooves us to recognize that our country has not entirely learned from this portion of our history.
From a literary standpoint, this emphasis on polemical dialogue does disrupt the early narrative of the book and often expresses itself in out of character moments for multiple individuals. Much of the dialogue does not come from an internal motivation but is blatantly being hashed out as Stowe had likely witnessed in real life encounters. This makes for a diffused literary value among a rather value book on the whole.
Mirron Willis was excellent in his reading of Uncle Tom's Cabin. His voices were distinct and his regular narrating voice was deep and resonating. Certainly, a harder book to read due to its content, Willis did an excellent job in inflection and breathing real character into Tom's speech (in particular his final one).
In conclusion, Uncle Tom's Cabin was a very important read. There are elements that confront our sensibilities and demand we recall America's pre-Civil War hypocrisies. Stowe's writing itself improved in my estimation as the book progressed and made the book only just worth reading for its literary characteristics. Neither a page turner or resounding classic, Uncle Tom's Cabin remains necessary canon to combat increasingly ahistorical American discussion.