Saturday, September 29, 2018

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin


Opening Passage:

Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of P——, in Kentucky. There were no servants present, and the gentlemen, with chairs closely approaching, seemed to be discussing some subject with great earnestness.

For convenience sake, we have said, hitherto, two gentlemen. One of the parties, however, when critically examined, did not seem, strictly speaking, to come under the species. He was a short, thick-set man, with coarse, commonplace features, and that swaggering air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world. He was much over-dressed, in a gaudy vest of many colors, a blue neckerchief, bedropped gayly with yellow spots, and arranged with a flaunting tie, quite in keeping with the general air of the man. His hands, large and coarse, were plentifully bedecked with rings; and he wore a heavy gold watch-chain, with a bundle of seals of portentous size, and a great variety of colors, attached to it,—which, in the ardor of conversation, he was in the habit of flourishing and jingling with evident satisfaction. His conversation was in free and easy defiance of Murray’s Grammar, and was garnished at convenient intervals with various profane expressions, which not even the desire to be graphic in our account shall induce us to transcribe.

Summary: Uncle Tom's Cabin is intended to show slavery "in a living dramatic reality", on the principle that there are many who would be more likely to oppose slavery, or to oppose it more vehemently, if they could somehow see the real character of it. Because of this, Stowe is very careful not to load the deck in her favor; her people are each of a type, and she tries to show that kind of person in the best light that she can -- even, it should be noted, the wicked Simon Legree, with his lost daughter and the obvious fact that some of his cruelty is obviously his attempting to counterbalance a conscience that, though not guilty, is quite clearly unsettled. Legree is evil, but humanly so, hard as it sometimes is to read what he does. Most of the rest are often decent and at worst selfish or vulgar. And this is, I think, effective for Stowe's purposes, since it makes vivid the running theme of the work: that slavery runs against every impulse of nature and grace. It tears mother from child, husband from wife, sibling from sibling; it leaves rational beings uneducated and gives human beings corrupting power; defenses of it are purely abstract rationalizations that require reason to be divorced from human sympathy; it treats physical matters as more important than matters of virtue; it sits poorly with a vivid recognition that Christ died for all alike; it is clear and obvious that it sometimes puts the holy entirely in the power of the wicked; it batters faith and leaves souls unsaved.

There is another running theme of the work, I think, and one closely associated with Stowe's desire to present slavery "in a living dramatic reality": that the overcoming of slavery is something that can only happen by the influence of person on person. There are many decent people in the book who do nothing, or who are actively complicit, not because they see nothing wrong but because they see themselves essentially as powerless. They don't know what to do, or they don't see how they could survive the sacrifice it would take to do something, or they rationalize that their complicity is itself a kind of sacrifice for a greater good, or they (like Miss Ophelia, and, indeed, like many of Stowe's readers) know but don't realize what is going on. What is necessary for those people is good example that shows that they are not, in fact, so powerless; the Quakers, or Eva, or Uncle Tom do good not just in their own right but by example, showing what can be done. To be sure, not everyone can be moved to good by example; some are too locked in their own patterns of thought to see it, and some, like Legree, are outraged by it.

Moral luck is a concept much discussed in recent philosophical work, and it's a matter of interest to Stowe, as well. Much of the stability of slavery is due to the inertia of custom and education in the South; the people of New England are not inherently better -- they have better ideas, but they don't have better temperaments and often not even better characters. People who would never have to worry much about complicity in slavery elsewhere can hardly avoid it in the South -- but they were born and raised in the South, and so have been entangled in it all their lives, while people elsewhere never had that problem. It seems very much a matter of luck -- luck of birth, luck of education, luck of whom they have met in their lives. But this does not make the moral judgment against slavery vanish; it involves things that are wrong in themselves, whatever explains one's being involved in it, and whatever one's precise level of complicity and culpability. And we are responsible regardless. As Tom says to Cassy, "If I get to be as hard-hearted as that ar’ Sambo, and as wicked, it won’t make much odds to me how I come so; it’s the bein’ so,—that ar’s what I’m a dreadin’." Moral luck tends to be a puzzle if we are only talking about one's personal guilt; but guilt is not the primary issue in moral responsibility -- right and wrong are.

I'm always struck, reading this work, by how reminiscent of Platonic ideas are its general themes. It might be a little strong to apply the Platonic notion that nothing bad happens to the just person here, but in fact Uncle Tom's victory is precisely that while Legree can harm his body, his soul is entirely out of reach because it is virtuous, and Tom who, like the Neoplatonists said of Socrates, has the victory of an unjust death, is not lessened by it. And when he pities the wicked people around him, it is not a sign of weakness but the ultimate defiance, in exactly the way a Platonist would say: the wicked are more to be pitied than the oppressed, because the former have the life that is objectively worse. Any other view of the situation in the end concedes that might makes right. It is, I think, a line of reasoning that people do not like to hear today; but this does not make the Platonic arguments less cogent, nor does it make the literary depiction of it "in living dramatic reality" a less powerful and magnetic example.

Favorite Passage:

Tom’s Methodist hymn-book, which, in his hurry, he had forgotten, he now held up and turned over.

"Humph! pious, to be sure. So, what’s yer name,—you belong to the church, eh?”

“Yes, Mas’r,” said Tom, firmly.

“Well, I’ll soon have that out of you. I have none o’ yer bawling, praying, singing niggers on my place; so remember. Now, mind yourself,” he said, with a stamp and a fierce glance of his gray eye, directed at Tom, “I’m your church now! You understand,—you’ve got to be as I say.”

Something within the silent black man answered No! and, as if repeated by an invisible voice, came the words of an old prophetic scroll, as Eva had often read them to him,—“Fear not! for I have redeemed thee. I have called thee by name. Thou art MINE!”

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

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