Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Uncle Tom's Shadow

I found this interesting essay in The Nation which looks at how Uncle Tom's Cabin has been interpreted over the years,

Nor is Uncle Tom an "Uncle Tom." He is a Christ symbol. This pivotal character needs to be understood both in the context of religious nineteenth-century America and Stowe's contrapuntal narrative. In the midst of this very violent book, the religious Uncle Tom is the calm at the eye of the storm: patient, tolerant, unwilling to use violence himself even when--a point conveniently overlooked--he approves of other slaves' decision to stage overt revolt. Uncle Tom encourages George and Eliza to flee. Knowing no other way of life, he chooses to resist the slave system by small acts of kindness and moral persuasion. The vast majority of American slaves would never flee their plantations. Stowe is contrasting two forms of resistance (which in many ways parallel the philosophical differences between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X): the Bible and the gun.

Quoted from Darryl Lorenzo Wellington's essay. However, this essay will be a spoiler for those who haven't finished the novel.


  1. Ooops.... missed your point about the spoiler.

    Still, an excellent essay and a reason to keep reading.

  2. Met Aunt Hagar this morning, who has all of her children taken away from her one by one. Now I understand Edward P. Jones' book of short stories: All Aunt Hagar's Children.

  3. There is a definite parallel to be noticed with respect to Edward P. Jones and Uncle Tom. Jones' award winning novel, "The Known World," was not exactly embraced by the black community. Many considered him akin to an Uncle Tom for addressing the issue of black slaveholders. I've been informed more than once that Jones needed to examine his priorities and/or loyalties before ever writing "that kind of trash."

  4. I heard him talk when I was in Virginia and he was asked a similar question -- something like are you trying to be a black revisionist? It was clear this wasn't the first time he had been asked something like. He's a very mild mannered man, but you could tell the question got under his skin.

    I thought that book and his short stories are amazing. But then I'm a bit of Jones' groupie....

  5. You ask me, Baldwin and Richard Wright took a lot of liberties in addressing Uncle Tom's Cabin. As Wellington noted, both author's took Stowe's novel as a jumping off point for their bitter feelings regarding race, rather than provide anything akin to a close examination of the book. Unfortunately, they recontextualized the novel in the process. One can see Wright as George in the novel: proud, defiant, holding the white man in contempt (until he met the Quakers anyway). As Lockwood noted, Stowe provides a remarkable range of characters from the time with many parallels to the present, which is why I think the book remains relavent after all these years.

  6. It's not at all what I expected -- having seen the book through Baldwin, Wright, et al.

    For example, the opening as I noted earlier, could have focused on a "bad owner" that Eliza escapes from -- that would have really set the scene about the evils of slavery right at the beginning. But she paints a fairly sympathetic picture of that husband and wife who are in many ways enslaved to the system.

    She doesn't take the easy way of showing any of this -- other than maybe the constant reminder about Tom with his Bible always open -- which I think adds to its greatness (even if her comments about the simplicity of the black race jar now).

    Interesting that she took so much heat about how it could possibly be accurate given the way she has chosen to tell the story -- although I haven't reached the horrific accounts yet.

    So far -- Tom has just arrived in his new household where the head "servant" examines him through opera glasses wearing the master's vest (what a picture!) -- it hasn't been overly preachy at all. Although I did like the aside to the horrors of buying slaves in Africa, but it's a totally different question when you are buying them in Kentucky.

  7. Stowe does create many memorable images, as Lockwood noted. I'm glad I read the book because it pretty much dashed all my preconceptions. While it may not be a literary tour de force, it is very strong emotionally and I was impressed with the range of characters and complexity of relationships. She tries a little too hard in the end to tie the loose ends together, but then it allows for the emotional sense of reunion which she wants the reader to experience after eloquently showing how families were torn apart and often destroyed as the result of slavery.

  8. Orwell summed up the book pretty well, I thought,

    Perhaps the supreme example of the "good bad" book is UNCLE TOM'S CABIN. It is an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous melodramatic incidents; it is also deeply moving and essentially true; it is hard to say which quality outweighs the other. But UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, after all, is trying to be serious and to deal with the real world.


  9. Or the bad "good book." I would put Orwell's Animal Farm into that category as well, although Stowe may be a better polemicist overall than Orwell -- at least in this instance.

  10. Another E. Jones "groupie" here, avrds.

    When I consider those who set themselves up as members of some "community" or other and upbraid writers, I recall how early Phillip Roth books were excoriated by Jews, and how very angry Ishmael Reed was when Alice Walker betrayed her race when she had a black man "villain" ("Mister") in "The Color Purple" (though he seemed to overlook the fact that she "rehabilitated" the character.)

    Sigh, here am I with all this pent up outrage and no miscreant pen pusher in sight... I guess white villains are all too believable.

  11. I suppose Uncle Tom's Cabin had its day, or rather decades, where it stood as the benchmark of books on Race in America. There were quite a number of former slave accounts,


    which Stowe apparently used to some extent, but none received the attention that Uncle Tom did. After all, we were talking about a principally white reading audience at the time, and such accounts usually needed to be filtered through a "white pen" in order to see the light of day.

    I guess you could call it "poetic justice" that writers like Hughes, Wright and Baldwin later turned that pen on Stowe (long after she had gone), probably because they were sick and tired of being seen through Uncle Tom's Cabin. Wright wrote a collection of essays entitled Uncle Tom's Children, filled with the bitter sense of alienation that characterized much of his work.

    I was hoping to find something W.E.B. DuBois had to say about Uncle Tom's Cabin, but no such luck.

  12. In Chapter Ten of "The Souls of Black Folk," DuBois writes: "This deep religious fatalism, painted so beautifully in "Uncle Tom," came soon to breed, as all fatalistic faiths will, the sensualist side by side with the martyr. Under the lax moral life of the plantation, where marriage was a farce, laziness a virtue, and property a theft, a religion of resignation and submission degenerated easily, in less strenuous minds, into a philosophy of indulgence and crime. Many of the worst characteristics of the Negro masses of to-day had their seed in this period of the slave's ethical growth. Here it was that the Home was ruined under the very shadow of the Church, white and black; here habits of shiftlessness took root, and sullen hopelessness replaced hopeful strife."

    You can read the entire chapter here:


  13. Thanks for the link, Rick. I thought Stowe did a marvelous job of showing how the black family was broken up and parceled out over the course of the novel. Cassy's story probably best epitomized this. However, I don't think Stowe viewed Uncle Tom's religious faith as that of resignation and submission but rather a silent victory over the oppressor.

  14. I don't think she viewed it that way either. He is Christ-like, as many commentators have pointed out.

  15. I've gotten to the point where Tom offers to carry the woman's basket of bread (rusks -- which are like zweiback or "twice baked" I found out) and she tells her horrible story of why she drinks:

    "Up in Kentuck. A man kept me to breed chil'en for market, and sold 'em as fast as they got big enough; last of all, he sold me to a speculator, and my Mas'r got me o' him." Then she loses her last child to starvation.

    I'm sure Stowe doesn't believe this, but somehow Tom's telling her that Jesus loves her doesn't seem to be enough in this instance.

  16. In that same chapter, Dinah's kitchen reminds me of my own. Ophelia wouldn't be any happier here I'm afraid.

  17. A lot of compelling character sketches interspersed through the novel. I like the way Stowe treats Adolph. Unfortunately, the passage at the St. Clare Plantation became a little long as Stowe struggles over how to convert Augustine.

  18. Adolph is an amazing character -- you wonder where in the world she ever came up with someone like that. But the description of Dinah and her kitchen is also right up there. Felt like I'd be right at home there.

    I'm obviously inching along -- reading one or two chapters in the morning -- but I'm getting there. Well worth reading.