Book notes: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

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I’ve had this book for a long time. It’s an old copy, published 1963. I picked it up at a thrift store years ago.

I’ve been putting off reading it because I was scared. I’ve resisted it the same way I resisted Man’s Search for Meaning and the same way I’m still resisting The Diary of Anne Frank.

I know it will cut me wide open.

I read a book, Little Bee, some time ago that did the same thing. Only I didn’t know what I was getting into. So I didn’t resist. I started reading. No resistance. And just like that: I was cut wide open.

Of course, it seems silly to resist temporary, lightweight emotional pain. Whether the book is fictional or not, the stories are long over by now. The people aren’t still in pain.

But now I am, reading about their pain.

Somehow I feel like it’s the only gift I can give, to feel a tiny portion of their pain. And even though I want to be a good and kind and empathetic person, I don’t like giving this gift. It hurts. The logical part of my mind wants to say, You don’t need to know this. You don’t need to feel this. It doesn’t help them now.

And that logical part is right: my pain now doesn’t remove their pain. It doesn’t change anything in the story that’s being told.

But it could change things in the stories that are, right now, being written.

This is the most important thing that reading does for us. Beyond learning, increasing your vocabulary, gaining perspective, understanding the world, so on, books do this: they cultivate empathy in those who read.

I don’t like being cut wide open by a book.

But when I am, I learn how to feel someone else’s pain. I learn how to see them as part of me. I learn how to weep with those who weep.

This is why reading matters so much.

People who are afraid of refugees need to read stories of refugees.
People who hate other races need to read the stories of those other races.
People who despise the poor rural whites who voted for Trump need to read stories of those poor rural whites.
People who can’t stand Trump need to read stories of… Well, you know what, there might be a limit to what stories can do.

People who don’t get me need to read my stories.

Haha, see what I did there? BOOM. Snuck in some self-promotion.

And people who think African-Americans need to just get over slavery, already, geez, we haven’t had slavery for so many years need to 1. Read Uncle Tom’s Cabin(()) and 2. Watch the documentary 13.

Now, some specific things about Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852. It was a hit. A controversial bestseller. From the front matter of my copy:

The first edition sold out in forty-eight hours, and in the following two years the presses never caught up with the demand.

Southern readers were not happy:

…by late 1853 it had been suppressed in nearly all the slave states.

The impact of this book was enormous:

Lincoln’s remark to Mrs. Stowe, at a White House reception during the Civil War: ‘So this is the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war,’ was only half in jest.

So if anybody wants to tell you that books don’t matter, throat punch ’em and give ’em a copy of this book. Ok, no punching. Just the book. Just the book.

Here’s an important thing to remember:

The tone and style of Uncle Tom’s Cabin reflected Harriet’s education and temperament….The languishing women, pious children, saintly heroines, gushing tears and drawn-out deaths—all the sentimental superlatives of the book-show more than a slight acquaintance with the popular novels of the period. …Uncle Tom’s Cabin suffers from an excess of sentiment and melodrama.

It also suffers from many racial and gender stereotypes, language we wouldn’t use today, generalizations, emotional exposition, and ‘poor writing’ tactics that I wouldn’t accept in a modern work.

This isn’t a modern work. It’s a part of our history.

A few quotes:

Of course, in a novel, people’s hearts break, and they die, and that is the end of it; and in a story this is very convenient. But in real life we do not die when all that makes life bright dies to us. There is a most busy and important round of eating, drinking, dressing, walking, visiting, buying, selling, talking, reading, and all that makes up what is commonly called *living*, yet to be gone through…

Her standard of right was so high, so all-embracing, so minute, and making so few concessions to human frailty, that, though she strove with heroic ardor to reach it, she never actually did so, and of course was burdened with a constant and often harassing sense of deficiency;—this gave a severe and somewhat gloomy cast to her religious character.

After pushing the music aside, he rose up, and said, gayly, “Well, now, cousin, you’ve given us a good talk, and done your duty; on the whole, I think the better of you for it. I make no manner of doubt that you threw a very diamond of truth at me, though you see it hit me so directly in the face that it wasn’t exactly appreciated, at first.

Read it. And read a first-hand account of slavery. Here’s a list to get you started.





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