Day 16) P is for Politics: Choose a book that is Political
Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe
In 1852 this book was published and created a phenomena. It became the highest selling book of the 19th century, just behind the Bible. The first year it sold over 300,000 copies in the United States and three years later over a million in the U.K.
This book is credited with, like The Jungle, being a revolutionary change in the actual world.
In fact the political change they believe it started, was the helping bring about more awareness of slavery in the South and promoting abolitionism that sparked the Civil War.
In fact, Stowe’s family claims that when Harriet Beecher Stowe met Abraham Lincoln, he greeted her with “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” Whether or not this is true has been disputed for years with no one really certain whether it happened or not.
Stowe was the daughter of minister Lyman Beecher, and wrote this novel to depict slavery, along with showing Christianity and being an allegory of Christ.
I started reading this book when I was going down a list of classics provided by Barnes and Noble. As I borrowed the book from the library my mom spotted it and said she loved the book, it was one of her favorites.
I wasn’t thrilled to read it at first as I had heard it was a “bad book”, you know making fun of those of African-American descent.
I don’t know…
I started reading it and became sucked in:
I was surprised as it was AMAZING! I couldn’t understand why people hated it. It was fantasticly written and such a great story.
So many people today view the novel negatively; the way it uses “sentiment” to pull at heart strings, how all the slaves “had” to be helped by white men and women, and the fact that Tom never ran away but chose to honor the “contract” of his masters.
But what they fail to see is that it is a powerful story, has some truly great African and white characters, and that Tom is supposed to represent Christ and the things he went through to save our souls.
So the book focuses on six main characters: Tom (called Uncle Tom by others), Eliza, Augustine St. Clare, Eva St. Claire, Ophelia, and Cassey; and their views, interactions, and how they are changed or shaped by slavery.
Tom is a strong, middle aged, African-American slave. He is also a devout Christian and tries to embody the scriptures and live his life for the Lord.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” Matthew 5:43-44
“All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered.” 1 Timothy 6:1
Tom has been a part of the Shelby family for a long time, and has a family and children. As Tom knows how to read, his cabin is the place for the other slaves to go and hear about Christ along with getting individual instructions. George Shelby is the young “master” of the house and spends all his time with his “Uncle Tom”. In fact Tom is more of a father to him then his own father, and also his religious instructor.
However, the Shelby’s have debts and they have to sell somethings…or in this case some people. They choose Tom as his height and strength will get a lot and we have the incredible sadness of seeing a family torn apart because of an archaic principle.
Another slave, Mrs. Shelby’s maid, Eliza is married to a slave from another plantation. After a series of miscarriages, the two were finally able to give birth to a boy, Harry. While the Shelbys are a kind people, George’s master is cruel and he can’t stand it anymore.
“My master! and who made him my master? That’s what I think of–what right has he to me? I’m a man as much as he is. I’m a better man than he is. I know more about business than he does; I am a better manager than he is; I can read better than he can; I can write a better hand,–and I’ve learned it all myself, and no thanks to him,–I’ve learned it in spite of him; and now what right has he to make a dray-horse of me?–to take me from things I can do, and do better than he can, and put me to work that any horse can do…he puts me to just the hardest, meanest, and dirtiest work, on purpose!”
George decides to flee to Canada, earn enough money, and then return to purchase his wife and son. After he takes off, Eliza gets the news that she will be sold as well to pay the debts.
Afraid to be separated from her child, she too tries to take the long road to freedom.
As Tom is taken away, George vows to one day buy his friend back and free him.
Tom is sold to a trader and being transported on a riverboat when he spots a little girl, Eva St. Clare. He misses his own children, so he begins amuses her, and she begs her father to buy him. Augustine St. Clare loves his little girl and gives in to her every whim. He buys Tom and takes him to his plantation.
Here Tom and Eva share their love of Christ as they both have a strong faith and relationship with the Lord. We also meet St. Clare’s sister Ophelia, who is from the North, who has moved to help take care of the house. Now here we have a great critique on the North’s treatment of African Americans. Ophelia is an aggressive abolitionist, constantly lecturing St. Clare and talking about the evils of slavery, yet she can’t stand to be around those of African-American descent. She is a complete racist, but can’t even admit it to herself.
“Well!” said Miss Ophelia, “you southern children can do something that I couldn’t.”
“What, now, pray?” said St. Clare.
“Well, I want to be kind to everybody, and I wouldn’t have anything hurt; but as to kissing – ”
“N*****,” said St. Clare, “that you’re not up to, – hey?”
“Yes, that’s it. How can she?”
St. Clare, tired of her constant lecturing, buys her a slave girl, Topsy, and bets she won’t be able to help her. At first Ophelia does poorly, having to instead be lead by Eva in showing kindness.
Eva and Topsy become best of friends, even though they “should” be separated buy race and class, it doesn’t matter to Eva as all she sees is someone who needs love.
Augustine is another interesting character as he isn’t a fan of slavery, but won’t do anything. He sees the way Christianity is, how his daughter lives but won’t commit to it. He is supposed to represent the people who were against slavery but never took a stand against it, waiting for future people to decide or others to fight. When his daughter dies, he is utterly heartbroken.
He promised Eva on her deathbed to release the slaves and become an abolitionist for his daughter, but waits too long and is killed before he can do it.
Meanwhile, Eliza has been running for her life and from slave catchers, and she actually manages to find her husband. After they go through horrible hardships they manage to make it to Canada and freedom.
Tom is sold by St. Clare’s wife, while Ophelia returns to the North with Topsy, taking what she learned with her, as Topsy does the same.
Tom is sold again, this time to the incredibly cruel owner Simon Legree. He rapes and beats his slaves. He begins to hate Tom and treat him in unspeakable ways. He has a slave, Cassy, who is his unwilling mistress. He has stolen her children from her and sold them, beat her, and just given her a horrible life. She is bitter and in pain.
She is a quadroon, one quarter black, so she has a strange place in society. She is better educated than most, but is a sex slave, representing the harsh lives of female slaves and how they are at the whim of their master more than the men. Simon is planning on replacing Cassy with a young girl he just bought, Emmiline.
One day as they are picking cotton, Tom sees a woman struggling to fill her sack and looking at horribly beaten or worse. He helps her, aided by Cassy, and is then ordered to whip the women by Legree. When Tom refuses, Legree whips him and Tom has earned a permanent spot on his hit list.
Tom’s pain makes him consider turning back on his faith, but he sees a vision and remains true.
“I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations.” Psalm 89:1
Cassy knows the life that Emmeline will have and decides to run away with her. When Simon finds them gone he tries to beat the answer out of Tom, but he will not reveal anything. He is so horribly treated that he begins to die.
George arrives to buy him, but is too late. He fights with Simon and takes Tom’s body, giving him a proper burial.
Cassy and Emmeline reach Canada and find themselves with George Harris and Eliza. It turns out that Eliza is Cassy’s daughter, and the two are finally reunited.
In the end George goes home and decides to honor Tom and free all his slaves:
“It was on his grave, my friends, that I resolved, before God, that I would never own another slave, while it is possible to free him; that nobody, through me, should ever run the risk of being parted from home and friends, and dying on a lonely plantation, as he died. So, when you rejoice in your freedom, think that you owe it to that good old soul, and pay it back in kindness to his wife and children. Think of your freedom, every time you see UNCLE TOM’S CABIN; and let it be a memorial to put you all in mind to follow in his steps, and be as honest and faithful and Christian as he was.”
So this story is an amazing thing. Why would people call it horrible?
Well what I personally feel has caused this shift from honoring Uncle Tom and all the other characters to having their names now be used as derogatory terms was the over-popularity of the novel.
As this book became so sought after and was selling millions of copies; everyone wanted a piece of the pie; but when there such a wide amount of people madly grabbing to make their fortunes, they tend to forget about what the book actually stood for and was trying to change. Plays and films were being made based on the story, but instead of honoring and revealing the social issues that Harriet Beecher Stowe was writing about, these pieces became all about entertainment and cheap laughs. No longer are we shown the characters going through different trials to reveal the hypocrisies and social injustices of the time, but instead are given pure comedy or in extreme cases sexual innuendo.
Too few people actually read the novel and understood how the characters and situations can be easily relatable.
Uncle Tom is more than a slave toiling in the United States waiting for his freedom, but is a figurehead for any oppressed people. As David Reynolds writes in his book, Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Fight for America, Tom easily connected to the Russian serfs; the Chinese peasants, the Chinese immigrants in America, Jews all over the world, black slaves in Brazil, black slaves in Cuba, etc. Tom’s passive resistance to Simon Legree, as he does not listen to Legree’s warning but continues to stand up for what he believes in and aids Cassy, and Emmeline; can even connect to passive resistance done by Gandhi in India, Martin Luther King Jr. in the South, and Cesar Chavez here in California. While the unjust situations may never be the same as those that Tom or the other slaves faced, wherever trouble arises and people are suffering Uncle Tom is there struggling alongside and encouraging the oppressed that everything will be alright in the end.
Another way that Tom’s character is still so relatable and present in today’s time is how loving and willing he is to protect others. Tom lives by the mantra “the needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few”; causing him to be the type of person we all want to be. The way Tom lays down his life so that the rest of the Shelby slaves could be spared and in the end dying to protect Cassy and Emmeline; is behavior we all admire and hope would imitate in such situations; as no one wants to imagine themselves being a Sambo or Quimbo character; betraying their fellow man to protect their own interests. We all recognize the value and honor of self-sacrifice for a person or a cause.
In Stowe’s novel she hit upon so many issues, and attempted (and in some cases succeeded) in trying to make a difference in how African-Americans were treated. While she did not completely change the way the United States worked, or resolved every issue; her novel did bring awareness and start people talking and thinking about abolition, integration, education, religion, politics, etc. This initial jolt eventually set America on a path to striving for change.
To start the 30 Day Challenge from the beginning, go to It Was a Pleasure to Burn: Fahrenheit 451
For the previous post, go to The Great Depths of the Ocean are Entirely Unknown to Us: Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
For more Harriet Beecher Stowe, go to If It Means A Lot to You
For more on the Civil War, go to Why Everyone Should Read Gone With the Wind
For more Frank Peretti, go to A Giant Metal Man: The Iron Giant (1995)
Today’s song is O Holy Night. In 1843 Roquemaure, France; the church organ was renovated. The priest asked wine merchant and poet, Placide Cappeau, to write a poem to commemorate the event. Four years later it was turned into a Christmas carol by compser, Adolphe Adam.
In 1855, minister John Sullivan Dwight translated and created the version that most sing today.
I choose the version by Josh Groban.
For more Josh Groban, go to Midnight in Austenland
For more Christmas Carols, go to I’d Spent Some Time As a Kid Wishing My Name Were Ashley or Katherine, if Only Because It Would Have Made Life Simpler, But My Mom Liked to Tell Me That My Name Was a Litmus Test: Along for the Ride