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Yet another surprised reader
am 27. Juli 2000
I too was surprised by "Uncle Tom's Cabin." I'd expected a poorly written melodrama with (at best) a tepid commitment to abolition and a strong undercurrent of racism. I was wrong. As a novel, I consider it to be better than many of its rough contemporaries (including "A Tale of Two Cities," "Vanity Fair," and "Sartor Resartus"). As an attack on slavery, it is uncompromising, well informed, logically sophisticated, and morally unassailable. It's also exciting, educational, and often funny.
The book has flaws, of course. The quality of the writing is variable, as it is in the works of many greater talents than Stowe. Herman Melville is one of my favorite writers, but I'd be hard-pressed to defend some of his sentences--or even some of his books--on purely literary grounds! There are indeed sentimental passages in "UTC." So what? There are plenty in Hawthorne, Dickens, Ruskin, and the Brontes, too...and lord knows our age has its own garish pieties. There are also a couple (only a couple!) of unfortunate remarks on the "childlike" character of slaves, but nothing so offensive as to render suspect Stowe's passionate belief that blacks are equal to whites in the eyes of God and must not be enslaved. (She also says that differences between blacks and whites do not result from a difference in innate ability, and argues that a white person raised to be a slave would show all the characteristics of one). By contrast, Plato wrote reams in defense of slavery and racialism, and yet people who point this out are considered spoilsports, if not philistines.
The reviewer who claimed to have learned from Stowe that "slavery is no worse than capitalism" has totally misunderstood Stowe, who says that slavery is AS terrible as capitalism. To be precise, Stowe equates the horrors of wage slavery under Victorian Britain's capitalist system of production with those of chattel slavery in the American South. Her definition of capitalism agrees perfectly with that of Karl Marx, who was a pro-abolitionist correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune (and was familiar enough with Stowe to have written a piece on her). Marx said that true capitalism is defined by "the annihilation of self-earned private property; in other words, the expropriation of the labourer." Marx did not consider America a capitalist state, because American workers had at least theoretical upward mobility and could acquire property. This was not at all true of the British working class when "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was written, as Stowe well knew. And there was nothing idiosyncratic about her opinion; contemporaneous books such as "The White Slaves of England" made the same connection between American chattel slavery and British wage slavery. The cruelty of both systems is what led Stowe to claim in an essay that the Civil War was not merely a war against slavery, but "a war for the rights of the working class of society as against the usurpation of privileged aristocracies."
As for the claim that Stowe says Christianity justifies slavery, this is either willful misreading or wishful thinking...she says the opposite so many times, and at such length, that to remove every expression of it would probably shorten the book by half (to the delight, apparently, of most of our nation's English students).
Not sure who to believe? If you're interested enough in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to have slogged through this meandering review, why not read it and see for yourself what Stowe does, and doesn't, say?