on 2 January 2011
I had read this years ago as a teenager and remembered enjoying it. Seeing it available on Kindle for free I thought it time to read it again and am very glad I did. Very clearly written as anti slavery propoganda during the mid 19th century, at the time before the American Civil War when slavery was allowed in southern American states but not in the North, it movingly follows the lives of several slaves and their owners, refuting the arguments of the pro slavery lobby at the time that slaves could be more comfortable and secure with a paternal owner than braving the labour market on their own. The book explores in heart breaking detail the devastating possible effects of the death or ruin of a slave owner which could force the sale by auction of his property, including his slaves. This often lead to permanent separation of families. The book is often very sentimental but is also very charmingly written with gentle humour and some very moving chapters.
on 29 June 2009
Uncle Tom's Cabin: categorised first as anti-slavery propaganda, then (bizarrely) as a children's book, everyone has heard of it, few bother to read it, which is a pity. Harriet Beecher Stowe was a highly intelligent writer who had learned well from her master Dickens. The best passages of her book are well up to his standard of dry, understated polemic. Some of her characterization, like the dissection of St Clare's disastrous marriage, or Cousin Ophelia in her Puritan New England background, is as brilliant and individual as anything in the nineteenth-century novel. Her evangelicalism strikes us as mushy-gushy now, but underlying it is a moral toughness that has not been given sufficient credit. Like a marksman shooting down one target after another, she dispassionately showed all the many ways in which slavery inevitably corrupted both slaves and their owners. Humane owners could not escape responsibility:
`Well,' said the other, `there are also many considerate and humane men among planters.'
`Granted,' said the young man; `but, in my opinion, it is you considerate, humane men that are responsible for all the brutality and outrage wrought by these wretches; because, if it were not for your sanction and influence, the whole system could not keep foothold for an hour. If there were no planters except such as that one,' said he, pointing with his finger to Legree, who stood with his back to them, `the whole thing would go down like a millstone. It is your respectability and humanity that licenses and protects his brutality.'
She was pretty bold, especially as an unmarried woman writer, in her exposure of sexual exploitation, at a time when George Eliot could cause shock simply by hinting at a character having an illegitimate child (of course this was America, not England). Her depiction of Simon Legree's plantation was astonishingly unsparing. This is in essence a concentration-camp novel, showing that twentieth-century labour camps and Gulags were part of a time-(dis)honoured tradition. The near-impossibility of resisting such dehumanisation throws into sharp relief the heroism of the few that did - and do.
I would not agree that Uncle Tom himself is an unbelievable plaster saint, nor yet the example of servility and acquiescence that later caricatures might lead you to believe. Notice that when Tom gets word that he is to be sold and declines to take the chance to run away, his decision is not because of any misplaced deference towards his owners but for the benefit of his fellow slaves: he realises that unless he is sold to pay off his master's debts they all may have to be sold. If you can bear with Miss Beecher-Stowe's religious effusions, Tom's moral arc is an entirely believable one. In his apparently hopeless position as Legree's slave, he (if not the author) gets beyond the evangelical morality of divine reward and punishment to the existential realisation that one has to choose good ... just because evil is worse. `If I get to be as hard-hearted as that ar Sambo ... it won't make much odds to me how I come so: it's the bein' so - that ar's what I'm a-dreadin'. I find that quite moving.
Of course the author spoils things rather with her poor plotting. When Cassie hatches an escape plan, it goes against the most elementary rules of clandestine association that she should unnecessarily let Tom know the details, just so that he can be a hero and refuse to tell Legree. The resolution of the whole story contains a few coincidences too many. And some of the folksy scenes are undeniably dull. Still, you will not be wasting your time if you read this book. It is a real novel, not just a historical document.
on 24 February 2003
Anecdotal history claims that Abraham Lincoln described Harriet Beecher Stowe (to her face) as 'the little lady' who started the Civil War. The phrase 'Uncle Tom' has now passed into the popular lexicon, and many more people know this book by reputation than have actually read it. It began as a serialized drama printed in US periodicals, and went on to become a best selling novel. It is the work of an ardent abolitionist, and Christian, and this shows. The novel is unashamedly didactic, and works principally by an appeal to the reader's emotions. And it works very well. Harriett Beecher Stowe lost one of her own children before writing this novel, and one cannot help but feel that this was what allowed her to write so emotively on the subject. The novel is long, but it flies by: HBS has a gift for narrative, character, and suspense.
on 19 June 2011
I was hooked within a couple of pages, though I found the colloquial language difficult as it disrupts the flow. The characters were all stereotypes of the era nevertheless they were well drawn and consistent. Whilst I think religion has done a lot of harm in the world, I like they way the author constructed the arguement against slavery from a Christian perspective. I can also see how the promise of eternal life in paradise helped the slaves survive their abhorrent situation.
on 21 June 2011
This is a poignant, memorable and sad book about the atrocities that occurred during the times of slavery in the US. While I was already familiar with the consequences and outcomes of the barbaric trade in human beings, this brings it into an altogether uncomfortably close light. The truly horrifying revelation for me was to do with the practice of completely indiscriminately separating families - especially children from parents, which I'd never really thought about.
This book has been criticised for being too sentimental, which I did not find to be so. It is clever and relevant and makes some startlingly well-articulated and memorable comments. I fact, I found myself noting down passaged in the book, since I found them so well written, two of which I have included below. There is a real rawness to the ordeals the characters suffer in this book and it's hard not become affected by them.
The book has been written by an very religious yet pious author, and being staunchly atheist, I expected this to bother me but while the 'word of God' so to speak, rings loudly in this book, it has so much humility and believability to it that it didn't bother me - in fact, I wish that many people, both religious and non-religious alike, started taking on some of the values pronounced in this book.
So, overall, this is a harrowing but truly great book and one of significant historical and social importance, so I would highly recommend it. Two passages (of many) that I found interesting:
Page 10: Whoever visits some estates there, and witnesses the good-humoured indulgence of some masters and mistresses, and the affectionate loyalty of some slaves, might be tempted to dream the oft-fabled poetic legend of a patriarchal institution, and all that; but over and above the scene there broods a portentous shadow - the shadow of law. So long as the law considers all these human beings, with beating hearts and living affections, only as so many things belonging to a master, - so long as the failure, or misfortune, or imprudence, or death of the kindest owner, may cause them any day to exchange a life of kind protection and indulgence for one of hopeless misery and toil, - so long it is impossible to make anything beautiful or desirable in the best regulated administration of slavery.
Page 229: In many cases it is a hardening process on both sides - the owner growing more and more cruel, and the servant more and more callous. Whipping and abuse are like laudanum, you have to double the dose as the sensibilities decline. I saw this very early when I became owner and resolved never to begin, because I did not know when I should stop; and I resolved at least, to protect my own moral nature. The consequence is, that my servants act like spoiled children; but I think that better that for both us to be brutalised together. [St Clare indicating his feelings to his cousin, Miss Orphelia in relation to the educating of Topsy].
on 17 September 2009
My husband bought this from Amazon earlier this year. He was gripped by it and recommended I read it after him.
I'm glad I did as it is one of the best books I've read in years. Like much of the best American literature there's an epic sense of scale - Scores of wonderfully rounded characters set in well described locations across a varied landscape. The storylines are wonderfully written and you'll find it difficult not to think about the book's themes when you have to put it down.
Although there are some god-fearing parts in the middle, these aren't too intrusive and merely add flavour to the period in which it was written. It should be noted that not all of the 'good' characters are christian.
Although the book is far from a one-sided rant against slavery (some of the most likeable characters are slave owners) it's easy to see how it was credited with starting the civil war. Anger wasn't an emotion I'd expected from this book, but I felt it in spades.
on 18 February 2009
I really wanted to read this work as I've long has a conceptual knowledge of it and it's importance in highlighting the plight of slavery in the Southern US states. I was quite disappointed to find the start so slow, and to feel less moved than I was expecting, but persisted and I am so glad that I did. This work is enormously rewarding, after about a third of the way through, it picks and pace and sentiment. While some claim it is over-pious, I would argue that St Clare's religious doubt, yet innate goodness plays off nicely against Ophelia's piety - whose clinical piety is in turn undermined my her inability to empathise with the slaves on a human level. Eva's belief is in the redemption of Christ's love that transcends race and underpins values of the novel. Pious indeed this book is, but it is not badly placed given the setting and beliefs of the time and the respresentations of faith and doubt are broader than Ophelia's New England rigidity, or Marie's tacit 'Christianity' as yet another token of being part of polite society. Religion aside, it preaches the more noble of Christian values: that everyone can reform and that all people are equal; ultimately it is what they do that distinguishes them. The turn of events are both wonderful and heartbreaking. This is a real masterpiece and for what it may lack sometimes in pace and style, it makes up with in heart, soul and conviction.
on 26 June 2012
Uncle Tom's Cabin is a fascinating story about slavery in the southern United States in the nineteenth century. The author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was a fervent abolitionist and her book is a reflection of this passion. Uncle Tom is a well treated slave living in Kentucky where slavery had not yet been abolished. During the course of the book he is sold "down the river" and eventually becomes the slave of a cruel and vicious master. Christian love and sacrifice are prominent features of the story and there are some moments of pure sentimentality which, despite my best efforts not to so, made me cry! In our modern multi-cultural age some of the content is definitely not PC and therefore this book will never be top of anyone's list. It is interesting, however, from a historical point of view giving an in-depth slant on what slavery meant to those whose lives were not their own. It seems that Beecher Stowe used true stories which she incorporated in her book and for that reason alone, I would recommend it.
on 3 November 2010
Did read it at school and hated it. While abroad a few years ago,I had no book to read I was given a dog-eared copy of this book and really loved it. Imagine my delight when I found I could download it to my kindle ready to read again at my leisure. Best of all it was free. I would urge you to re-read this dreaded school book as it's wonderful. I now know I was too young to really appreciate it.
Uncle Tom's Cabin
on 4 December 2007
Uncle Tom's Cabin is one of the most important and popular novels in literary history. One hundred and fifty years on it remains as controversial as it was at the time of its publication and has spawned the term Uncle Tom to describe black people who are excessively meek and submissive in the face of racial abuse and prejudice. The debate today though is not about the morality of slavery, which is universally reviled, but instead focuses on whether or not the author inadvertently demeans and degrades the very people for whom she sought both dignity and liberation.
The novel begins in relatively liberal Kentucky in the home of a `liberal' slave owner and his wife who are reluctantly forced to sell two of their slaves to an unscrupulous dealer due to severe financial difficulties. On hearing that her son is about to be sold, mulatto Eliza flees across a frozen river with her little boy and heads for free Canada with the aid of sympathetic Quakers, meeting up with her bitter, estranged husband along the way. In contrast, pious Tom accepts severance from his family and his fate at the slave auction with resigned docility and is fortunate at first to be reassigned to a family headed by another liberal-inclined slaver. It is here that we meet the golden-haired (of course) little angel Eva, daughter of Tom's new master and his unsympathetic wife. Eva has bottomless compassion for Tom and the other slaves and servants and is adored in turn until she dies in one of the most saccharine death scenes in literature, reminiscent of the death of Bambi's mother. Eva's father promises his daughter on her deathbed that he would grant Tom his liberty but this promise is ignored by Eva's mother after his death and Tom is resold to the theatrically evil dealer Legree.
If Uncle Tom's Cabin did not contain scenes of emotional power and lyrical writing it would have been long-since forgotten. Despite Tom's cringing servility and all the black characters being apparently trapped in some kind of evolutionary stasis, a moving sincerity flows throughout the book and the effect it had on the conscience of nineteenth century America cannot be overstated. However, the world has moved on (allegedly) and in the end, the cloying sentimentality and the disturbing notion that Congregationalist Christianity is the only means available for gaining the freedom and dignity of the gentle, saintly slaves and redeeming the souls of their corrupt masters become overwhelming.