Saturday, April 16, 2011

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin was originally published as installments in an abolitionist newspaper of small circulation called the National Era based in Washington D.C. It was edited by a friend of Beecher Stowe's, Gamaliel Bailey. The original subtitle for the installments was "The Man that Was a Thing," but when the first installment appeared on June 5, 1851, the subtitle was changed to "Life Among the Lowly." Uncle Tom's Cabin was not slated to be more than three or four numbers spanning two or three weeks, Stowe having previously only written a few sketch-like pieces. It ended up being more than forty numbers, stretching over a period of a year, gaining a wide and loyal readership. The book edition met with considerable success on both sides of the Atlantic; during the first year of publication in America, over 300,000 copies were sold (though Stowe and her husband did not end up making much from the profits because they didn't have enough money to invest in the copyright at the time of the publishers approached them).

Stowe's arguments in Uncle Tom's Cabin became a rallying point for the abolitionists after the recent passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.

Mr. Shelby, a kind slave-owner in Kentucky, is indebted to a slave-trader, Mr. Haley and must sell his most loyal slave, Tom, and a young woman named Eliza's little boy. Eliza overhears that the transaction will happen, and decides to run away. Recently, Eliza has just heard from her husband George, who works under a cruel master and was no longer able to take it. George told Eliza that he would be running away to Canada and that he hoped to buy her and his son one day. With the help of Mrs. Shelby and the other slaves working for Mr. Shelby, Mr. Haley misses catching Eliza, who jumps into the frozen river and escapes to Ohio just in time. On the other side, she is directed by a friend to the house of the senator Mr. Bird and his wife, who have just been discussing the Fugitive Slave Law, which Mr. Bird supported but his wife did not. When Eliza arrives at their house, cut up and in need of help, Mr. Bird abandons his principles and agrees to help her, driving her in a carriage to safety at a man's house in the woods. This man used to be a slaveowner before his conscience led to his freeing all of them.

Tom takes leave of Aunt Chloe (his wife), who cooks him a final meal. Tom bears up against his fate. At a tavern in Kentucky, there is a notice out for George. George, who is white enough to pass as Spanish, disguises himself and runs into Mr. Wilson, a manufacturer whom he had worked with at some point. Mr. Wilson had taught George how to read, and taken a kind interest to him, so he does not blow George's cover. Meanwhile, Mr. Haley takes Tom on boat to the slave market. On the boat, a young woman drowns herself after her child is taken away from her and sold. The account flashes back to Eliza, who has arrived at a Quaker settlement. There, she has the great luck of being reunited with George, who has also taken refuge there. Traveling down Mississippi towards New Orleans, Tom makes the acquaintance of a little girl named Eva and her father Augustine St. Clare while on the boat. Eva is a kind and playful child who takes a liking to Tom. When she falls overboard, Tom saves her. Eva begs her father to buy Tom. St. Clare is an indulgent father, and trusting the good instincts of his rather exceptional little girl, he buys Tom to be their coachman. St. Clare lives in a mansion in New Orleans with his high-maintenance and vain wife Marie who imagines herself to have numerous sicknesses and is generally confined to bed. He had been in love with a woman before who ended up being forced to marry someone else. When he had found out that she still loved him and had been forced, it was too late and he had married Marie. St. Clare is kind and genial towards his slaves, and allows Eva to love them as her own family. Marie is of a very different opinion, and thinks that distinctions ought to be maintained between classes of people. In order to help out with raising Eva and managing other duties on the mansion, St. Clare brings his New England cousin Miss Ophelia to New Orleans: though the very opposite of St. Clare in terms of her strict, orderly, and industrious New England ethics, the two seem to appreciate each other and work well together in a kind of complementary way.

George and Eliza make their way towards Canada, but are stopped by Tom Loker and his gang hired by Haley to pursue them. George wounds Tom, and in the scuffle, the other men desert him. The injured Tom is taken to a Quaker settlement to recover, and George and Eliza continue on their way. Meanwhile, at the St. Clare's, a sad story is revealed about a slave in a neighboring estate, Prue, who gets drunk in order to alleviate her pain. Prue ends up whipped to death by her master; the story has a great effect on Eva. St. Clare and Ophelia engage in a lengthy debate on their beliefs, Ophelia berating him for being part of such an unjust system as slavery, and St. Clare showing up Ophelia as an unknowing and righteous northerner who doesn't know just how ingrained the system is. St. Clare feels that to keep his slaves happy and well-provided for is the best he can do. As a kind of challenge to Miss Ophelia, St. Clare mischievously buys a young, wild, and fiery girl named Topsy who has been mistreated, charging Ophelia with reforming her and essentially bringing her up. Topsy overwhelms Miss Ophelia, stealing things and asserting that she is just "bad" because she is black, something which she has had drummed into her. 

In the meanwhile, Chloe receives a letter from Tom, and decides to makes cakes to sell in order to earn money to go towards buying Tom back--Mrs. Shelby agrees to this plan. Back at the St. Clare's, Eva has contracted tuberculosis, and her health wears away. Even as she weakens, however, the child's goodness has a healing effect on those around her. For example, when the St. Clares summer at Lake Pontchartrain, Eva manages to soften her cousin Henrique towards his slave, Dodo. At Lake Pontchartrain, St. Clare and his brother Alfred argue over their views on slavery--Alfred takes the view that Africans are lower on the scale of human development and hence are rightfully subjugated. Back at home, Eva reforms Topsy by telling her that she loves her, and that Topsy must be good for her sake though she will soon be gone to heaven. Eva gives a lock of her hair to Topsy and also to all of the slaves on her father's estate, asking them to remember to be good to one another and to love one another when she has gone. Miss Ophelia overhears the conversation between Topsy and Eva and realizes she has not loved Topsy, and strives to be more like Eva. Eva dies, with a vision of heaven on her lips. After her death, St. Clare tries to come to the faith which has been so natural to his child, but try as he might, fails. Tom very nearly convinces him, and Tom promises him that he will not leave him until he comes to know God as well. Miss Ophelia, inspired to make Topsy her own, asks for legal custody of Topsy. Things seem to be going well as St. Clare prepares to free Tom (since it was Eva's wish), but unfortunately St. Clare is stabbed at a cafe while breaking up a fight. He dies, and true to Tom's word, he comes to God in his dying moment while Tom is around. St. Clare calls out to his mother in his dying breath, a woman with a Christ-like capacity to love, much like Eva.  

After St. Clare's death, Marie sends the slaves to a slave warehouse, despite Miss Ophelia's pleas. At the warehouse with Tom are two women named Susan and Emmeline, mother and daughter, who become separated in the auction. The tyrannical and cruel Simon Legree buys both Tom and Emmeline. Legree runs his place with an iron fist, brutalizing his slaves and teaching them to brutalize each other as well. He has two trained overseers, Sambo and Quimbo, whom he pits against each other in order to maximize his own power. Legree tries to make Tom into a brutal overseer as well, but Tom remains true to his faith. When he refuses to whip a woman named Lucy who hasn't filled her cotton sack quota for the day, Tom takes a brutal beating from the overseers, ordered by Legree. A half-black, half-white slave by the name of Cassy comes to make him feel better, bringing him water and nursing his wounds. Cassy is intensely cynical and doesn't believe in God because of what she has suffered--she was brought up well, only to marry a young lawyer who ditched her. Subsequently, she and her children were separately sold into slavery. She ended up at Legree's as kind of his mistress; Emmeline has come to replace Cassy since she is now older. Legree is revealed as not such a brave man, and highly superstitious: when the overseers bring to him Eva's golden lock (confiscated from Tom), he is deeply afraid because his pious mother once sent him a lock of hers upon her death, hoping that he would mend his evil ways.

George Harris and Eliza reach Canada, and Tom Loker becomes a reformed man after being nursed back to health by the Quakers. At Legree's, Cassy wants to kill Legree but Tom prevents her, telling her that the Lord has enjoined them to love all fellow men. Cassy and Emmeline hatch a plan to escape instead, which capitalizes on Legree's fear of ghosts. Cassy installs a bottle hanging from a rope in the garret so that howling sounds are made when the wind blew through the garret. Cassy and Emmeline then run away conspicuously, returning to hide in the garret, where Legree will not venture. Legree sends all of his men on a wild goose chase, thinking Cassy and Emmeline have taken towards the swamp. Legree in his rage tries to get an answer out of Tom and failing to do so, essentially beats him to death. In his dying breath, however, Tom manages to make converts out of Sambo and Quimbo. The young George Shelby too, has finally managed to locate Tom, and manages to have a final exchange with Tom before he dies. George gives Tom a good burial, and leaves to go home. It turns out that he is on the same boat as Cassy and Emmeline and some important discoveries are made: Cassy is Eliza's mother, and another woman on the boat, Madame de Thoux, is George Harris's sister. The group hatches a plan for a reunion in Canada. The reunited family eventually decide to resettle in Liberia and Emmeline goes with them as well, having found a good husband. The narrative includes an eloquent appeal from George as to his reasons for resettling: he wants to be a free man who also has his own African nation to be loyal to. Back in America, George Shelby frees all of his slaves and has them work for him as freemen receiving wages. Topsy also does well, eventually becoming a missionary to Africa.  

The final chapter is a kind of epilogue in which Harriet Beecher Stowe affirms that the stories she has given are drawn from real life examples. She provides various testimonies of true events which parallel the stories which she has given. She ends with an appeal to both northerners and southerners to band together to eliminate the unjust, un-Christian institution of slavery. She also stresses the importance of giving a Christian education to the freed slaves in order that they may then return to Africa and establish their own free Christian nation.  

Uncle Tom's Cabin offers a really interesting case of how the periodical press shaped the content and purposes of the work as it was being published. As I mentioned above in the publication history section, Stowe's original ambitions for her text seemed much smaller. In terms of how the story unravels, the small-scale appeal of the work as a series of "sketches" (see Irving, an inaugural sketch-writer in America) is much more apparent in the earlier part of the work; the idea that a larger work of fiction might have weighty moral and political effects doesn't really crystallized until in the work. The earlier sections contain more addresses to the reader, and a sense that the narrator is taking the reader through the various scenes in order to show him/her the different aspects of slavery in the south. Later sections of the book contain fewer direct addresses to the reader since the work becomes markedly more novelistic, concentrating more on dialogue, characterization, and the unraveling of the plot, but the addresses that remain are markedly more bold in suggesting a correct Christian morality.
Stowe's preface for the first edition of the book publication interestingly tries to link together the small-scale beginnings as a series of "sketches" with its eventual large-scale impact. She writes directly that "The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race." Her decision to maintain that Uncle Tom's Cabin is a collection of mere sketches, I argue, importantly has to do with the sketch's closer connection to the "real life" element. Novels are the realm of romance and unreality, while journalistic sketches show a reader what happens in everyday life where s/he may not be able to experience it directly. Elsewhere in the preface, Stowe makes clear the importance of the connection between her fiction and real life: "The poet, the painter, and the artist now seek out and embellish the common and gentler humanities of life, and, under the allurements of fiction, breathe a humanizing and subduing influence, favorable to the development of the great principles of Christian brotherhood." In the final chapter, she offers testimonies of the real life characters including an "official" account from reformer Horace Mann and her husband's documentation of successfully educated blacks to stress the reality on which her fiction was based. In this final chapter, she calls fiction a "dramatization of reality" which would lead to healthful, moral effects--markedly distancing her fiction from anything romanticized or sensational.

No comments: