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Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852)

by Harriet Beecher Stowe

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9,821133294 (3.79)379
  1. 21
    Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (LisaMaria_C)
    LisaMaria_C: This is the slave narrative of Harriet Jacobs and shares with Stowe a Christian sensibility and emphasis on how slavery destroys a slaves moral agency.

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English (125)  Dutch (3)  German (2)  Swedish (1)  Spanish (1)  French (1)  All languages (133)
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If this was the bright shining light of American social liberalism in 1851, it's easy to see why achieving racial equality continues to be an uphill battle. When even the abolitionists who want to free the slaves don't seem to have any respect or liking for African Americans, something seems wrong.

It's obviously a mistake to judge this book by the standards of today but I think it's equally wrongheaded to consider the book a faithful document of American slavery, as we are sometimes asked to do. It's not. It's pure melodrama and should be regarded as such. Its importance lies in its role as the first American bestseller and in the fact that many people bought its veracity as a document of slave life--it helped create intellectual and cultural conditions in which your ordinary middle class northerner wasn't made to feel like a radical freak for hazarding an abolitionist opinion. It's deeply problematic, but it got the point across.

So how is it as a novel? It's okay. It's more entertaining (if less harrowing) than the autobiography of Frederick Douglass and more captivating (if less convincing) than its own factual final chapter written strictly from Stowe's point of view. Be prepared for Dickensian levels of coincidence and a truly nauseating amount of Christian propaganda. There are some interesting characters and it's very accessible. Without its historical legacy, though, there is no way anyone in 2016 would still be reading this for its literary value. I give it a rating compatible with its symbolic, rather than actual, worth. ( )
  sansmerci | Apr 26, 2016 |
This is a book that every American should have read because its dramatic story helped launch the civil war. ( )
  M_Clark | Apr 24, 2016 |
I loved this! Beautiful and heartbreaking though some of my emotional bonds were stronger with side characters. It's fascinating to see how our perspectives of Uncle Tom have evolved throughout history. ( )
  LaPhenix | Mar 8, 2016 |
I found the author's prejudices, of which I'm sure she was not even aware, to be quite interesting. She makes numerous comments and generalities about "the race" and its traits and tendencies as a whole, which although not derogatory per se, seem a bit condescending and holier-than-thou to me. Ms Stowe, obviously an abolitionist, was in my opinion like members of many other groups speaking up for any given race of people, purportedly wanting them considered equal to themselves while in their hearts considering them inferior in some way. Prejudice is something we all find in our hearts whether we like it or not and is only demolished with close contact and constant interaction with the object of our prejudice. My own prejudice regarding the African race is something I certainly don't want to feel and don't actually feel on an intellectual level, but it is nevertheless there; only if I had friends, co-workers, and neighbors of that race could I rid myself of that prejudice.

This is not to say this book isn't an important piece of classic literature, but I can see why many folks of many different colors don't want this part of the school curriculum. Personally I thought it a bit demeaning to the African race even while purportedly attempting to portray them as equals to the author herself.

Read again in Nov. 2014 ( )
  KathyGilbert | Jan 29, 2016 |
Stowe seems to have two main goals in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The first is to demonstrate that slavery as an institution is wrong. Buying and selling human beings is abhorrent, and arguments about how well slaves are treated are missing the point.

The other goal seems to be to humanize slaves of African origin, especially for those in the North who might oppose slavery but still retain a feeling of prejudice against people of African origin. In large part, Stowe does this by showing how slaves can act just like white people if they are taught and treated like white people.

She offers this as proof that Black people are just as human as white people are, but this is troublesome because it a very narrow scope of behavior. Stowe goes to lengths to show that those slaves who lie or cheat or act brutally are doing so only as products of a system that treats them as subhuman. She offers a similar explanation for the behavior of white people towards slaves: they are products of an abhorrent institution as much as the slaves themselves are. (Of course, the difference is that white people don't need to prove their humanity through their actions; their humanity is a given no matter how inhumanely they act.) This is a reasonable hypothesis, but the way that Stowe presents it seems to suggest that the goal is for all people in the United States to act the same, or rather, for all people to act white, which is very limiting to people who are not white.

I don’t actually get the sense that Stowe herself believes this, but rather that she’s started along this track and has to take it to its conclusion. Indeed, near the end of the novel is a letter from the character George Harris, who has escaped slavery with his wife and son and after several years in Canada has decided to move to Liberia. George lists as one of his weaknesses that half of his blood is "hot and hasty" Anglo-Saxon blood, which is at odds with his African side, which is by nature "affectionate, magnanimous, and forgiving." (616) This is a limitation of Stowe’s abolitionist argument. Black people don’t deserve to be free because the African race is somehow superior to or more moral than the white race but because they are human beings who should not be bought and sold as commodities.

Through George Harris, Stowe also points out that no matter how well George assimilates, as a man of African descent, he will always be treated differently within the United States’ white-dominant culture unless he denies all connection to his African heritage. And this leads me to the most uncomfortable part of reading this novel. With as unpleasant (but not surprising) as it was to read about the horrible treatment of people a society has decided for economic reasons to treat as not-quite-human, the most uncomfortable part was how some of the words of her characters echo of the things people say today in defense of violence against Black people. About halfway through the book, one of the white characters says in reference to the circumstance of a slave in another family being beaten to death by her owner, “I don’t feel a particle of sympathy for such cases. If they’d only behave themselves, it would not happen.” (331)

After Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri, I had conversations in which the other person expressed nearly this exact sentiment. If he’d just done what the officers said, it wouldn’t have happened.

Or the unarmed teens who were thrown to the ground at the pool in McKinney, Texas. If they’d cooperated, this wouldn’t have happened.

Or Sandra Bland, who was stopped for a minor traffic violation, arrested for not putting out her cigarette, and later was found dead while in jail in Hempstead, Texas. If she’d behaved herself, meaning, if she’d done what the white police officer said even though she was within her rights to refuse, this wouldn’t have happened.

Combine this with the way that Stowe lets no one off the hook---no matter how far a person is from slavery, if they’re not actively acting against it, if they’re benefitting from the system at all, they are complicit. Holding the view that the system is broken isn’t enough. As a white person who’s constantly struggling with what I can do to help change the racist culture of my home country, that’s pretty difficult to read.

Even with the difficulty, there was beauty in this novel. I found the entire center section when Tom is living with the St. Clares in New Orleans to be particularly poignant, especially the relationship Tom has with the young, too-perfect-to-believe Eva. The transcendent nature of the spirituality that Eva and Tom share with one another and then with everyone they encounter was melodramatic, but it was also quite moving to me.

The brand of nonviolent resistance in which Tom engages at Simon Legree’s plantation sounds very similar to what little I’ve read about Adin Ballou’s Christian nonviolence (which led to the nonviolent resistance of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement via Martin Luther King, Jr, who learned it from Gandhi, who learned it from Tolstoy, who learned it from the writings of Adin Ballou).

Stowe writes about how, once Tom is infused with the divine spirit, the physical abuse he receives no longer reaches him in the way it had: “But the blows fell now only on the outer man, and not, as before, on the heart.” (559)

Was this a parallel idea of Stowe’s, or was she in conversation with Ballou before or during the writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin?

It seems that Ballou was writing widely about non-resistance at the same time that Stowe was writing her novel, so I suppose the influence could have gone either way (or happened in parallel).

Along with the echoes of Ballou, there are also echoes of Stowe’s ties to Unitarianism, including a line that is nearly identical to the Unitarian Universalist First Principle.

The First Principle is “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

The line from Augustine St. Clare is that his mother impressed upon him the “idea of the dignity and worth of the meanest human soul.” (323)

Although Stowe appears to have ties to the Unitarians of her time, I haven’t been able to discover the origin of the wording of the First Principle, which wasn’t adopted officially by the Unitarian Universalist Association until 1985. Was this wording common in the mid-nineteenth century when Stowe was writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin? I don’t know, but the similarity is striking. ( )
1 vote ImperfectCJ | Jan 28, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (182 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Harriet Beecher Stoweprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Curtis, Christopher PaulForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Douglas, AnnEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Holmberg, NilsTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Johnson, EastmanCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kazin, AlfredAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Larsson, EvaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lynn, Kenneth S.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mackey, William, Jr.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Noto Soeroto, TrisnatiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining-parlor, in the town of P_______, in Kentucky.
"Your heart is better than your head, in this case, John," said the wife, laying her little white hand on his. "Could I ever have loved you, had I not known you better than you know yourself?"
Of course, in a novel, people's hearts break, and they die, and that is the end of it; and in a story this is very convenient. But in real life we do not die when all that makes life bright to us dies to us. There is a most busy and important round of eating, drinking, dressing, walking, visiting, buying, selling, talking, reading, and all that makes up what is commonly called living, yet to be gone through; and this yet remained to Augustine.
"Well," said St. Clare, "suppose that something should bring down the price of cotton once and forever, and make the whole slave property a drug in the market, don't you think we should soon have another version of the Scripture doctrine? What a flood of light would pour into the church, all at once, and how immediately it would be discovered that everything in the Bible and reason went the other way!"
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The Young Folks' Edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin has different text and ~92 pages; please do not combine with the main work.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0553212184, Mass Market Paperback)

Uncle Tom, Topsy, Sambo, Simon Legree, little Eva: their names are American bywords, and all of them are characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe's remarkable novel of the pre-Civil War South. Uncle Tom's Cabin was revolutionary in 1852 for its passionate indictment of slavery and for its presentation of Tom, "a man of humanity," as the first black hero in American fiction. Labeled racist and condescending by some contemporary critics, it remains a shocking, controversial, and powerful work -- exposing the attitudes of white nineteenth-century society toward "the peculiar institution" and documenting, in heartrending detail, the tragic breakup of black Kentucky families "sold down the river." An immediate international sensation, Uncle Tom's Cabin sold 300,000 copies in the first year, was translated into thirty-seven languages, and has never gone out of print: its political impact was immense, its emotional influence immeasurable.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:17 -0400)

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First published 1852

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