Spoiler alerts here.
About five or six weeks ago, continuing in my favorite field, literature, I finished reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influential novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Here are some reactions:
First, it is a deeply religious novel. She was the daughter of a Calvinist preacher; her brother Henry Ward Beecher was a leading Protestant clergyman; she retained a lifelong commitment to Christian teachings; and faith-based beliefs inform every aspect of the story.
Second, literarily, this is a good story, for it generates genuine conflict. Will George, Eliza, and their young son elude the pursuing slave hunters and escape to freedom? What is the fate of Eva St. Clare, the angelic young white girl afflicted with a serious ailment? What becomes of Tom Loker, the coarse slave hunter after his wounds are healed by a Quaker abolitionist? Above all, will the brutal slave driver, Simon Legree, succeed in breaking Uncle Tom’s deep Christian faith in God? Too often Beecher Stowe’s novel is praised exclusively as an effective social tract against slavery as though it were a non-fiction essay or political screed. But the truth is that it is an overly sentimental, relentlessly-and-tiresomely religious novel that presents a handful of vivid characters caught in significant moral conflicts all the result of the vile institution of human slavery. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a flawed but ultimately powerful work of literary art.
But worse than a failure to appreciate Beecher Stowe’s literary artistry is the persistent interpretation of Tom himself as a foot-shuffling, subservient “house negro,” lacking moral backbone and endlessly submissive to his white “masters.” For decades now, and continuing, any black American suspected of cowardly surrender to white racism is accused of being a contemptible “Uncle Tom” or more succinctly a “Tom.” Such a delusional interpretation of Beecher Stowe’s main character raises the question of whether the accusers have actually read her book.
The truth is that Uncle Tom, the character, is a profound depiction of a Christian hero.
What textual evidence supports the charge of abject submissiveness? Rather than attempt escape like George and Eliza, he lets himself be sold down the river to the New Orleans slave market. But, in fact, he’s twice their age and beloved by the Shelby family—especially the son George, who looks up to Tom as a moral mentor—who promise to buy him back as soon as family finances allow; a promise solemnly kept by George Shelby, tragically just too late to save Tom’s life.
Uncle Tom accepts his slavery without a fight? So would I when the sole alternatives are beatings and hanging. Ayn Rand is right in claiming that morality ends at the point of a gun. All the blame for the wrongs of slavery lie with the slave drivers—not with their innocent victims.
On the profoundly Christian premises of Beecher Stowe, Tom is a towering hero. Observe the evidence: He mentors his young white “master” George Shelby regarding Biblical principles and guides him to a proper Christian life. He risks his life to rescue the five-year-old white girl who has fallen off the riverboat and plunged into the Mississippi. Subsequently, the saintly Eva St. Clare becomes Tom’s devoted Christian friend before her tragic death from an unspecified terminal illness. Later, although threatened with death by the vicious slave master Simon Legree, he refuses to divulge the whereabouts of the escaped slaves Cassie and Emmeline. Legree then orders his brutal overseers to beat Tom to death, which they do. But both are awakened to humanity by Tom’s devout faith and loving nature—and both convert to Christianity.
Beecher Stowe’s story clearly depicts one of slavery’s most evil aspects: Breaking up families by selling children or mothers or fathers to different “owners” sometimes hundreds of miles away. Her vision in the story is clear: The hideous institution of human slavery will be terminated neither by mass escape nor by armed rebellion—but only by an extensive spread of genuine Christian love.
Her theme is: Christianity versus slavery. Her theme requires a hero of Tom’s religiously moral stature.
To Leftist illiterates who construe Tom as a contemptibly submissive nebbish, I have two pieces of advice:
1. Read the book.
2. Grant Beecher Stowe her Christian premises.