Saturday, August 6, 2011

Review of the Day: Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin is one of those classics I just never got around to reading, for one reason or another.  Mostly because I thought it would be preachy and boring.  It is neither.

That is, it is preachy, but not in a stale, pedantic way.  The anti-slavery sermonizing is refreshingly sarcastic.  Harriet Beecher Stowe aimed her acid pen at the sanctimonious but hypocritical Northerners with as much vigor as she did at the slave-holding South.  Also, she looked at the issues from a range of viewpoints, from that of the purely evil Simon Legree to the saintly Quakers operating the Underground Railroad.  By far the most interesting are the views of the characters in the middle, those either paralyzed with ambivalence or misguided by their own ideas of morality.

And there is nothing boring about it.  There are daring escapes across ice floes, midnight raids, gun fights, disguises, and ghost sightings.  Like with any good 19th-Century serial novel, there is plenty of excitement and adventure to keep the story rocketing along, which no doubt explains why it was the best-selling book in the world in the 1800s, second only to the Bible.

The drawback of the book is just how offensive it can be to modern sensibilities. Even with a high tolerance for anachronistic literature, Stowe's condescension is striking, no matter how well-intentioned.  She hit all the stereotypes and hit them hard.  She was also a big fan of sweeping generalizations, such as, "Tom . . . had, to the full, the gentle, domestic heart, which . . . has been a peculiar characteristic of his unhappy race," or "[t]he principle of reliance and unquestioning faith . . . is more a native element in this race than any other."

On balance, while these passages will make a reader cringe, they are more distraction than fatal flaw.  The book was published in 1852 and had a huge influence on public opinions about slavery – to the point that Abraham Lincoln apocryphally credited Stowe with starting the Civil WarUncle Tom's Cabin should be read – and enjoyed – for what it is and was intended to be, without the expectation that it will mesh completely with current opinions.


If you would like your review of this book listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.


Uncle Tom's Cabin shows up on several Must Read lists, including the College Board's Top 101, the Easton Press' 100 Greatest Books Ever, and the Daily Telegraph's 1899 List of 100 Best Novels in the World.

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