Thursday, July 9, 2009

Uncle Tom's Cabin

This is a review from The London Times from September, 1852:

The object of the work is revealed in the pictorial frontispiece. Mrs. HARRIET BEECHER STOWE is an abolitionist, and her book is a vehement and unrestrained argument in favor of her creed. She does not preach a sermon, for men are accustomed to nap and nod under the pulpit; she does not indite a philosophical discourse, for philosophy is exacting, is solicitous for truth, and scorns exaggeration. Nor does the lady condescend to survey her intricate subject in the capacity of a judge, for the judicial seat is fixed high above human passion, and she is in no temper to mount it. With the instinct of her sex, the clever authoress takes the shortest road to her purpose, and strikes at the convictions of her readers by assailing their hearts. She cannot hold the scales of justice with a steady hand, but she has learnt to perfection the craft of the advocate. Euclid, she well knows, is no child for effecting social revolutions, but an impassioned song may set a world in conflagration. Who shall deny to a true woman the use of her true weapons? We are content to warn the unsuspecting reader of their actual presence!
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I thought it might be a good read between now and September, as it explores at least one of the literary themes from the Lincoln era, and, as David Blight noted, affected much of the writing in regard to summing up the Black Man at the time.

63 comments:

  1. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is generally accorded the status of America's first mega-bestseller and/or the best selling book in nineteenth century America after the Bible. As a novel it has its high points and low points, and the low points perhaps predominate, at least from an aesthetic perspective.

    While reading it today, you must remind yourself that tastes have changed; however, even though it does get preachy and maudlin, there is no denying its emotional power.

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  2. I read the opening of the book today after Gintaras posted it, expecting it to be preachy and maudlin -- but I was surprised at how powerful the opening was.

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  3. I would read it but I'm afraid I wouldn't be able get those scenes from "The King and I" out of my mind.

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  4. There is also The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin written two years later, which was mostly a defense of her book against the many detractors:

    http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/uncletom/key/keyIt.html

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  5. avrds -- the book isn't entirely preachy and maudlin -- far from it.

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  6. Rick, I may continue to read excerpts on line. Amazing book -- and I don't think I've ever read it before.

    Gintaras, thanks for all these interesting book links.

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  7. Why don't we make Uncle Tom's Cabin the reading group book then? Even if the book may not hold up well over time, it is eminently discussable.

    I had noticed your post on Uncle Tom's Cabin in your blog, rick. Interesting to hear what the feedback from your students has been?

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  8. Here it is online:

    http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/STOWE/Stowe.html

    I'll try to read some of it -- not sure if I can comment or not, but will try!

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  9. I'm sure you can. I think a title like this allows us to explore the abolitionists and their presumed "radical" view on slavery. I'm looking forward to reading the "Key" she wrote to the novel.

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  10. Gintaras -- The book is definitely discussable. I have used it in my American Lit I survey, and most students like it.

    My Composition I students are not reading the book. But I have their essays on race and will be reading them this weekend. Not sure what to expect.

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  11. Here's a link to ebook that can be downloaded:

    http://manybooks.net/titles/stowehar203203.html

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  12. I'll download the book to my new Kindle Machine...I don't recall I ever read it. I look forward to reading the other Stowe book--The Key--I'll see if Kindle has a copy. In any case I'll join the discussion.

    Right now I've started Fischer's PAUL REVERE'S RIDE, for no other reason than to get a solid book back in my hand. A Kindle's nice, but it doesn't substitute for the texture of a real book and the touch and the turning of the page and just plain old fashioned reading...

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  13. Robert, I loved Paul Revere's Ride. Great story teller, but also a much deeper telling of the tale. Hope you enjoy it.

    I'll follow everyone's lead on Uncle Tom. I look forward to everyone's thoughts.

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  14. In the part of my daughter's 10th grade lit. course dealing with the subject of slavery they read an autobiographical work by Frederick Douglass and then Toni Morrison's "Beloved." I confess to questioning the wisdom of the latter for 15 & 16-year-olds but then I had to remind myself how much high school has changed...she handled it better than I did when I read it in my 50's!

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  15. I read "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in a junior year high school lit class but recall pretty much nothing about it.

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  16. Robert, can you download free books off the web with a Kindle, or only those from amazon? Project Gutenberg has such an extensive range of titles, as well as other on-line services. Found Albion Tourgee's A Fool's Errand and Bricks without Straw.

    I know what you mean about the feeling of a real book though. I will be reading my Everyman's Library edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin. But, it doesn't seem my kids see the same value in these books that I do.

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  17. Two things about "Uncle Tom's Cabin" give some readers trouble, me included.

    First, the book is a non-stop polemic. I have no quarrel with Stowe's desire to paint the institution of slavery in its true colors. But I frequently feel, and you may as well, that I'm being lectured. Lectures are fine, I just don't care for them when they also happen to be novels.

    Second, by now there is little in the way of information that Stowe's book has to offer that isn't completely obvious. I always have a few students who are quick to point that out, and they're right. Is it still necessary to read a novel about the evils of slavery, especially one that is predominantly a polemic?

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  18. I'm going to argue yes -- even though I've only read the opening so far, which I thought was very good. At least in that case, the book "shows" -- it doesn't "tell" -- the sign of all good writing.

    But the reason I think it's important is that we've often as a group talked about understanding the man (and it usually is a man) in his time and place in history -- that it's unfair to expect 19th century men, for example, to see the world the way we do on issues like slavery.

    That's why books like this are important, even though they may be obvious to us. It makes it harder to apologize for the racism and mediocre commitments to human rights of a particular time when it's clear that there were people like Stowe who did indeed think much like we do about slavery (I say this again having read very little of the novel).

    Plus, I always find it interesting that a book like this was written by a woman. It seems like they are often ahead of public opinion which was most often controlled by men.

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  19. This is the first I've heard of the Key... It's devastating to read.

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  20. I think the book is important in that you understand how emotional an issue this was at the time and that Stowe felt compelled to write a novel like this in her day. There remains that paternalistic, or in this case maternalistic, view of Blacks, as it seemed many abolitionists still regarded the Black as inferior. This became all the more apparent after the Civil War, which Blight notes in his book.

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  21. That's also suggested in that statue I posted --that slaves were bowed down at the feet of Lincoln, their savior. I think it was WEB DuBois who said of the statue that it was "interesting" or a similar descriptor.

    That's one of the points made in the historiographic review of Lincoln biographies written in the 1960s -- that African Americans were too willing to grant their freedom to a white man. And in fact, many slaves didn't wait on Lincoln but took their own freedom (i.e. in historian terms slave "agency") long before Lincoln was willing to act. Their treatment once they freed themselves suggests this wasn't always what the Northern Army and the North in general had in mind -- i.e., freeing slaves.

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  22. avrds -- Why is it "harder to apologize for the racism and mediocre commitments to human rights of a particular time when it's clear that there were people like Stowe who did indeed think much like we do about slavery"? Because if she thought like this in 1850, then why did it take us -- the nation -- more than another 100 years to "emancipate" black Americans? Just seeking clarification.

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  23. That's really getting at the heart of my point, although I was referring specifically to historical figures.

    Usually, the response to a critique of the so called founding fathers or Lincoln or whomever when it comes to their support or "benign neglect" of slavery is that those were different times then and that's what people believed. So it's unfair to hold them to a higher standard.

    And yet, when you read the work of Stowe or other abolitionists (or even some of the early descriptions of Native Americans which were entirely devoid of race as a construct) you realize that it wasn't what all people believed. In fact, some people were actually quite "modern" or at least enlightened when it came to their views about race -- which I believe was introduced in this country as a concept later in our history, associated with slavery and western colonialism.

    So my point was that it's not unfair to question Washington or Jefferson or Lincoln when it comes to their views about slavery or race since they were surrounded by people like Stowe or Chase and Seward.

    This is a pretty convoluted response, but hopefully it's not totally obscure.....

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  24. [Robert, can you download free books off the web with a Kindle, or only those from amazon? Project Gutenberg has such an extensive range of titles, as well as other on-line services].

    Yes. If you google Kindle gutenberg it'll instruct you just how to do it. Ain't that neat?

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  25. [why did it take us -- the nation -- more than another 100 years to "emancipate" black Americans? Just seeking clarification].

    Because a lot of Americans are filled with hatred of "the other".Emancipation didn't mean equality, it meant freedom, not love. In fact there were whole sets of people who detested the negro----the southern planters, the Northern Irish and labor leaders who believed they would steal jobs from the whites, religious zealots who were convinced of the superiority of the white Christian, etc. And that still exists today.
    Example, I belong to a Roman Catholic Church whose parishioneers were mainly Spanish, (Mexican in the majority). The Archdiocese recently announced the closing of the Church and the Mexicans, abot 300 in number, joined another parish a short distance away. The new Parish has a majority of white middle class working people. Well, you ought to see the postings on the local newspaper's website....What are they doing in our parish..they should stay in their own back yard...watch the crime rate go up...why can't they learn English...they don't belong here...how may are illegals....We don't want them.

    In fairness there were many welcoming posts, but negative posts were very enlightening in a negative way.

    This, in the 21st century.

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  26. I didn't get into UNCLE TOM'S CABIN yet, but plan to do so tomorrow or Monday--busy weekend book hunting....I'm on a David Hackett Fischer kick--I just ordered ALBION'S SEED

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  27. Robert, it was Fischer's Washington's Crossing that made me decide, in spite of all the grandiose language and great story telling, that the emperor may not have had any clothes. The book is very good by the way -- and very celebratory of Washington. My interpretation is just (as usual) unique.

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  28. I think Rick may have been responding to all my double negatives. Sometimes even I am amazed at how convoluted my posts and thinking are.

    When he questioned my post, I went looking for the DuBois' comment about the statue. I did not find it, but did find this which I found interesting, particularly the comments by Hofstadter:

    http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/jala/25.1/guelzo.html

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  29. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  30. I responded to robert's post but decided my response looked unnecessarily contentious and deleted it.

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  31. I do something similar sometimes...I think my posts are Ok or at least not contentious and sometimes they are, though I don't mean them to be. I respect other people's ideas--if I offended you with my post, please accept my apology.

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  32. Stowe has quite a sense of adventure with all that she puts Eliza and young Harry through in the early goes. Interesting how she drives a moral wedge in the Shelby's through Emily's religious views. Stowe sets her characters up pretty well, including Mr. Haley and the runaway slave hunters, after Sam and Andy lead the slave trader all around Robin Hood's barn.

    Of course, it is didactic fiction including a rueful reference to the Compromise of 1850 and Henry Clay, which probably inspired Stowe to write this novel. But, she does a good job of avoiding too many literal references and keeping to the compelling story.

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  33. Spoke too soon. It becomes a bit too didactic as the good senator wrestles with his conscience and that of his wife as to what to do with poor Eliza and Harry.

    The story is couched in pretty strong religious terms, and there are the constant appeals to a "higher law," as she decries the nature of slavery through the many exchanges that take place. Each more sorrowful than the one before. Tom is left to endure these injustices, like Job, maintaining his belief in a "higher law."

    The Mulatto George (Eliza's husband) is a welcome reprieve from all the Biblican referencing. You have to admire his daring by escaping as a dashing Spanish count with his manservant.

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  34. [When he questioned my post, I went looking for the DuBois' comment about the statue. I did not find it, but did find this which I found interesting, particularly the comments by Hofstadter:

    http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/jala/25.1/guelzo.html]

    Interesting indeed, avrds, but I have to wonder if Hofstadter, like Marx, was looking at Lincoln through the prism of his own views on suffrage, and not the political reality that existed at the time in the US. The Emancipation Proclamation could only extend to the Confederate States because he needed a constitutional amendment to outlaw slavery entirely, which he proceeded to push through Congress as the war neared the end. Personally, I think it is too easy to say that Lincoln viewed the issue of slavery as a "tool," which Hofstadter appear to imply.

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  35. Oh, good, I'm glad you saw that Gintaras.

    There was a comment in Goodwin along the same lines which now of course I can't find. Someone says to Lincoln something to the effect that the Emancipation Proclamation was a war effort and easy to defend to his constituents, but that is entirely different than the 13th Amendment (I think that was the comparison) and he's wondering how he can defend that.

    McPherson, who is a strong Lincoln proponent, also shows the proclamation in a similar light. It has been awhile, but as I recall, Miller parses the proclamation to show its brilliance legally, but that is sort of a moral defense of the document.

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  36. I've only read the first three chapters of Uncle Tom's cabin, so haven't reached the higher law business, but since it's available online, I may have a chance to read more while I'm gone.

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  37. Abolitionism and Christianity go hand in hand. You typically don't get one without the other.

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  38. I'm sure that's true, but were the transcendentalists Christians? I thought they were more deist-like. And I thought they were all strong abolitionists.

    I haven't read the novel about Walcott's father who goes off to war, but as I recall he was an eccentric religious leader of some sort and an abolitionist. Or have I got these people all mixed up?

    I read a very thin book on many of this group (American Bloomsbury) -- the people interested me greatly. The book did not.

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  39. avrds -- the point I attempted to make, obviously too briefly, was that the majority of vocal abolitionists used the Bible and/or Christianity liberally.

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  40. I assumed that was your point.

    Seems like Christianity can be used liberally in all sorts of ways (e.g., in the defense of slavery).

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  41. Indeed it can, has been, and no doubt always will be used to support almost anything -- slavery, the murder of doctors who perform abortions, the repression of women, the vilification of gays and lesbians. The list goes on and on.

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  42. Stowe does a pretty good job of showing how the Bible can be used both against and in defense of slavery, although she does not elaborate too much on the pro-slavery positions.

    She sets up a number of dualities, the most interesting is that of Uncle Tom and Ophelia St. Clare as they both come to a Louisiana plantation by separate routes. Both work on dashing Augustine in their own ways, one as a concerned slave who has earned the affection of his Master and the other as the Aunt who can't stand the disorder on the plantation and the way her nephew's wife plays the victim. Some pretty compelling chapters here with young Eve, Augustine's daughter much in love with her Mammy and Uncle Tom. But, Augustine seems to be "above" religion, treating slavery on its most pragmatic terms, refusing to accept his wife's religious arguments.

    Meanwhile, George, Eliza and Harry find themselves in a Quaker commune in Indiana, with George being the skeptic in this case until the good Quakers show him the light. Doesn't read as well as Tom's story, as it seems Stowe treats their plight more as an adventure to keep those entertained who wouldn't necessarily be too interested in the religious side of it.

    Of course, Americans were for the most part very religious so a book like this appealled to them greatly as Stowe tugs on all the heart strings in presenting her characters.

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  43. This is one of the points about the civil war made by Gilpin-Faust -- that because the nation was generally so religious, it was able to accept so much death on both sides because it was all part of God's bigger plan.

    Seems like we have moved beyond that kind of reasoning but then when you think about it, maybe we haven't.

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  44. I don't know if Americans accepted the death toll any better then they did in wars that followed. Judging by all accounts, Lincoln had a pretty hard time keeping the war going due to the death toll and the long protracted sieges of Vicksburg, Atlanta and Richmond. A lot of the deaths were the result of disease, malnutrition, and poor or non-existent medical help at battle sites.

    Anyway, Stowe seemed to hope that the South would see the folly of their institution, setting up a number of characters within the Southern context that presented a more benevolent view. She also harbors in Eve the desire for equality, as the young girl as she views the slaves as her extended family.

    Augustine is an interesting character since he seems to be the archetypical disaffected Southern aristocrat who accepts slavery but can't stand the hypocrisy surrounding it. I think you will like him when you come to him, avrds.

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  45. Not surprisingly there was quite a bit of "Anti-Tom" literature,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Tom_literature

    Two of the more well-known novels were "The Sword and the Distaff" and "The Planter's Northern Bride."

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  46. Not much interest being expressed in Uncle Tom's Cabin. I have to say the novel does become quite tedious in the middle passages. The long drawn out story of Little Eva's death and transfiguration took over most of the central part of the novel, with Uncle Tom become quite incidental to the story. I assume Stowe will get the reader up to speed on George, Eliza and Harry now that she seems to have closed out her story on the St. Clare family.

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  47. Interesting that Stowe has used "Jim Crow" a couple of times in reference to young Harry and Topsy in their abilities to sing and dance. Apparently the term came from the pen of "Daddy" Rice, who wrote a song and dance routine for the stage in the late 1820's, referring to one of his characters as Jim Crow. Rice used "black face." By the 1830's Jim Crow became a stock character and eventually a collective racial epithet. Here's more,

    http://www.ferris.edu/news/jimcrow/who.htm

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  48. If you are reading an un-annotated version of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," it is a bit of a jolt when Mr. Shelby calls Harry, Jim Crow.

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  49. So, when done with this reading, is everyone planning to rent/see Spike Lee's "Bamboozled"?

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  50. I'm inching my way through the book since I'm reading it online, but haven't given up on it. So far I find it remarkably well done given the time and subject -- picking the "best" owners and the model slaves to focus on, rather than the worst examples (at least to get the book started).

    Is anyone else reading it other than me and Gintaras? Should we find another one for August?

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  51. Stowe leaves the worst for last in Simon Legree -- Tom's journey into Hades. Haven't quite finished but some interesting characters emerge in the closing section, including a very interesting mulatto slave in Cassy.

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  52. Uncle Tom is a far more complex character than he has been caricaturized over the years. Stowe has infused a great deal of religious meaning into him, not least of all the value of humility. To say that he was a "sell out," because he was willing to accept his condition, is selling Uncle Tom way short. The chapter, "The Quadroon's Story,"

    http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=StoCabi.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=34&division=div1

    where he is nursed by Cassy, after the beating he took from Legree's mongrels, is perhaps the most compelling passage in the novel.

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  53. I've only read the beginning of the book, so can't say anything more than based on that, but my initial impression was exactly what you have written -- surely this isn't the stereotype of the "uncle tom."

    He was willing to be loyal to "his master" because he was brought up to do so (taking the baby in his arms years before and told by his family? to look after him) but also because if he didn't stay behind, he would put all the others at risk. That's a much more complex choice/decision than I expected.

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  54. I'm soldiering on through Uncle Tom (I'm 10 or 12 chapters in now). I'm not particularly "enjoying" the book, but glad I'm reading it since I never have.

    I'm still wondering about the notion of an uncle tom since so far Tom has been presented as above that kind of stereotype. Plus, he seems to have a binding loyalty to God and Christianity that would appear to be a positive attribute at the time. But I'm assuming that must change as the book progresses (or he has been grossly misrepresented/understood over time).

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  55. You will find it is the latter, avrds. I think the idea of an "Uncle Tom," politically speaking, is something that came about in the 60s when the rift opened up between those who wanted to continue peaceful means of resistance and those who sought more militant forms.

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  56. That makes sense. He accepts his fate (so far at least) while Eliza and George refuse.

    What's interesting about those two characters is they can both pass as "white." How complicated race becomes when it really has nothing to do with the color of your skin.

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  57. Sorry I sort of faded out on my reading of this one.... Only made it to Topsy before I got too busy in the a.m. which is when I was reading it. I'll make it up on TR.

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  58. I've been reading Chekhov and came across this in Shelby Foote's introduction to a collection of stories written between 1888 and 1893:

    "[Chekhov] had a habit of expressing himself obliquely . . . [and] could not abide the strained delivery of a 'message' in a story or novel. After reading Uncle Tom's Cabin, for example, he experienced 'an unpleasant sensation which mortals feel after eating too many raisins or currants.'"

    Think prunes, perhaps, instead of raisins or currants.

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  59. That should have been stories written between 1888 and 1903.

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  60. Hey, Rick, drop a line in War and Peace. We can do a Chekhov reading there!

    I can see how Uncle Tom's Cabin would have left an unpleasant sensation in the pit of his stomach.

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  61. It did mine. But not for the reason Chekhov apparently had. Still, it is interesting to think of Chekhov and Stowe as near contemporaries.

    I love Chekhov's plays -- haven't read many of his stories -- but he seems to be more interested in the elite, rather than the poor or the Russian versions of slaves. I think of his work as akin maybe to an antebellum story here.

    [Reading through the posts here, this was a very interesting discussion.]

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  62. Sorry I did not join this discussion. Just watched Pollard's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" [1927] for the first time in 50 years. I was a huge fan of the old TV show "Silents Please" which aired in NY back in 1961 and 1962. Hadn't seen this classic since that time. A lot of memories were stirred up in me since I am old enough to remember growing up in segregated times. It always surprises people to know from me just how segregated Brooklyn was in those days. Be nice is all manner of injustices were done away with in this crazy world.

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