Saturday, January 19, 2013

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin
By Harriet Beecher Stowe


Until Uncle Tom's Cabin, I had never listened to an audio book. In fact I'm not really an mp3 sort of guy. Aside from a couple of year in high school when I was an anti-social metalhead with a walkman full of Megadeth firmly stitched into my ears in school, I have never really used portable listening devices. I picked one up a few years back when I started running in earnest in order to while away the doldrums of running 10k. I quickly tired of music because it allowed me to subliminally thing about time (each song is roughly four minutes long and if you count the songs, you can count your minutes. Recipe for disaster). I moved from music to podcasts. Fresh Air, Science Friday, Freaknomics, TED. It was all good.

Then another blogger turned me onto LibraVox. LibraVox is a website that allows users to download novels (that exist in the public domain of course) free of charge in mp3 format. I figured this was an ideal way to read classic novels that I would otherwise continue to pass up. It's an hour of uninterrupted reading (something I don't get with actually reading these days what with a two-month old daughter demanding a fair degree of attention).

Needless to say, I'm sold on audio books. It allows me to get more reading done, it lets me combine two of my favorite things (reading and running) and it means I can read marginally more than I used to. Add to that, I will be able to fill more than a few glaring holes in my reading while staying in shape. What a wonderful tool technology can be. Still won't buy a smart phone though.


So, Uncle Tom's Cabin. A novel that I have had on my shelf more than a few times over the years but have always managed to pass by. Perhaps it was its girth or the fact that it was written in that sentimental 19th century style that I grew to loathe in high school. At points Beecher Stowe's brow-beating melodrama loses its effect. In discussing the cruel and inhume treatment of plantation slaves, she is liable to add enough overwrought imagery to pull your heartstrings as taut as a tightrope, losing the effect (or at least I felt that way, 170 years later in a world not troubled by institutional slavery).

The plot is a loose collection of stories that center on the character of Uncle Tom, a pious slave who, for economic reasons, is sold to a slave trader Haley. Haley takes Tom down river to New Orleans where he is sold, first to a reputable family and then to a despicable man. The novel also chronicles the flight of George and Eliza from Kentucky to Canada, thus ensuring their freedom as well a few other strands though out.

One of the major drawbacks of Uncle Tom's Cabin was that often the characters come across as stereotypes: Simon Legree is the cruel-hearted southern slave driver and there is not a single redeeming quality in his entire person, St.Clare is the well-meaning southern gentleman whose every word is infused with folksy southern wisdom, his wife that sends the belle's heart aflutter, and his wife, the delicate ingenue so pro-slavery that the reader hopes that she'd just hurry up and die already. Never mind the slave  characters in the book who would (much to Beecher Stowe's dismay I would imagine) go on to become the "Mammy" and "Uncle Tom" archetypes that would color a good amount of American culture during the Jim Crow years (pardon the borderline pun).

But despite the stereotypes, one characters stood out from the rest in their complexity. The slave trader Haley is both abominable and plaintive. In one instance he is as cruel a master as Simon Legree and at others he seems to have at least a dose of the compassion of Evangeline. Of all the characters in the book (aside from Miss Ophelia) it is Haley alone who I felt evolved. While all the other characters were fully formed prior to the narrative and showed nothing over the course of the novel that could be construed as growth, Haley alone seemed to morph in front of our very eyes from the hardened slave trader to a man questioning their worth in the world. One gets the feeling at the end of the novel that Haley is perhaps not long for his profession and perhaps a full change of character is not far off.

The novel itself is pretty blunt. It drives its point home not with any subtle nuance but with a sledgehammer of melodrama. At points the novel becomes more of a strident diatribe against slavery and it's not difficult to see why this book's reception and success has been attributed as one of the key cultural steps toward The Civil War. But I suspect such harsh treatment of the subject of slavery was decidedly needed at that precise point in American history. Perhaps subtlety and nuance had run their course by then. One wonders when a novel of this sort will appear in regards to the current sectarian divisions in America.

As a modern reader I also had a problem with Tom's religion. Harriet Beecher Stowe was so good about covering all the different facets and angles of slavery, I was surprised that she neglected to discuss this one. She discussed the role of Christianity and spirituality in the slave communities but handled the topic with kid gloves, never asking the tough questions. I guess religion wasn't yet under the microscope when Uncle Tom's Cabin was written. Pity, though. I'd like to know what Tom would have said if someone had pointed out that he was trying to escape one form of bondage for another. Meet the new master, Tom. Same as the old master.

But I'm being hard on Uncle Tom's Cabin. The novel holds up surprisingly well and there is enough action and excitement between the polemics to make this a readable story over and above the issues of the day. Since I listened to this entire book while running, I actually found the chapter dealing with the flight of George and Eliza especially compelling as I felt as though I was running along side them and that every footfall was one more in the direction of freedom. I'm going to miss my runs with Uncle Tom, Eva and George. They helped me through many a difficult kilometer.


Man of la Book said...

Great review. I don't remember Uncle Tom's Cabin all that well since I read it in High School. It was meant to shock people into action I think.

Brian Joseph said...

Sorry to say that In have not read this! This book is such an important part of American History that I really need to get to it.

As for the stereotyping, based on certain things that I have read about this book, Stowe may actually have created some stereotypes with its publication.

Thanks for the top on LibriVox. I sometimes read audiobooks and it looks like a great resource!

Sheri said...

I have Uncle Tom's Cabin on my list to read, but it's part of the overhaul theme of slavery. This year marks the 150th year of Emancipation Proclamation. If was teaching high school, I would make it require reading not in English, but in History because of its cultural significance that leads up to the Civil War. Stowe was an abolitionist and wrote the book after the death of her young son. Her father was minister who shared the view that slavery was evil, but didn't agree with the abolitionists has he believed them to be too radical. The characters may not be as stereotypical as may think as she is describing many of the inhumane practices of slavery, it isn't called the peculiar institution for nothing. Stowe strictly work the book to cause people to action. There is three-part series on PBS's American Experience entitled "The Abolitionist" that focuses on the five most influential abolitionists at the time and Stowe is one of them because of her book. The book did strike a cord in the country at the time and plays based on the book were performed all over the country.

The stereotypes are being re-examined by scholars and believe that the book is a central document in American race relations. However, I will make an assessment if this is the case upon reading it myself. Although, I do know that the book was influenced numerous movies including 1915's "Birth of a Nation". If you have not seen the movie, I suggest that you do.

I have to say that being a person who reads about history, I learned a lesson from one of my history professor that when reading the past, it is best to view from the context of the times. Lincoln was against slavery, but share the view of most of his contemporaries of the time with the belief that black people were inferior. Stowe also wrote a follow-up book "A Key Uncle Tom's Cabin published the following year with the subtitle "Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon Which the Story Is Founded, Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work". Her reason for writing the follow-up book was to dispel criticism from Southerners who accused her of misrepresenting slavery. It probably would make sense to read both books as I am going to do.

bibliophiliac said...

Like you, I've had this novel on my shelf for years, but hesitated to read it because of the sentimental style. Maybe I'll try listening to it on audio. Now if I can just get myself to run a 5K! (Forget the 10K....that will take some time to build up to).

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