24 Jan 2013

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Bible & America #1

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Black History, Contemporary Ethics, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hermeneutics, Kingdom, Race Relations, Slavery, Uncle Tom's Cabin
I hate to admit that in 1990 if some one had mentioned “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to me, the only reference to come to my mind would have been the hair band Warrant.  To be sure it was a different sort of song for a metal band – no drugs and no sex. The song was something of an allegory. To this day I can still sing the lyrics.  The song opens …

Just for the record let’s get the story straight.
Me and Uncle Tom were fishing it was getting pretty late.
Out on a cypress limb above the “Wishin’ Well.”
Where they say it got no bottom, say it take you down to hell!

Over in the bushes and off to the right.
Come two men talkin’ in the pale moon light.
Sheriff John Brady and Deputy Hedge,
Haulin’ two limp bodies down to the water’s edge.

I know a secret down at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, oh yeah.
I know a secret that I just can’t tell.”

Three years out of high school, and nearly the same number of college years under my belt, I was stunningly ignorant of not just “American” history but black American history. I knew nothing of the stories of Mickey Schwerner, James Chancey and Andy Goodman, [1] and many more Civil Rights works and Freedom Riders that were murdered either by, or with the help of, law enforcement.  But back in 1990 Uncle Tom’s Cabin was simply a great rock song to jam to on the way down the highway.

In 1995, I learned there was a book by Harriet Beecher Stowe by this title and read it for the first time in response to a black friend who told me my world was to white. Since then I revisited the book in 2001 and again at the end of 2012.  Being far more mature and knowledgeable in 2012 my reading was considerably richer.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly is possibly the quintessential American novel and without a doubt the most influential book outside the Bible to ever hit the shelves in America. Historian David Reynolds states baldly in his history of the lives and after lives of UTC, Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America, “No book in American history molded public opinion more powerfully than Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (p.xi). It was by far the runaway best seller of the 19th century but unlike the contemporary Da Vinci Code it changed the world.

When  Abraham Lincoln met Stowe in December 1862 he is quoted as having said “Is this the little woman who made this great war?” [2]. Harriet was born into what became a large, prominent and reforming family in America.  Some one said of Lyman Beecher, Harriet’s father, on his seventy-ninth birthday that he was “The father of more brains than any man in America” [3]. Among her famous siblings were Henry Ward Beecher.  Unlike some other famous families the Beechers were not fabulously rich (Harriet lived in poverty until after Uncle Tom was published) rather they were famous because they rocked the American boat.

Harriet married Calvin Stowe in 1836.  Calvin, whose first wife died of cholera, was Professor of Greek at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati.  Calvin was fluent in seven languages, had a good sense of humor and encouraged his wife’s writing abilities.

Stowe embraced an abolitionist position over time.  Her father, Lyman Beecher, was anti-slavery but considered abolitionism to be extreme.  Before Lyman moved to Cincinnati one of his parishioners was William Loyd Garrison who emerged as a radical abolitionist. Garrison and the elder Beecher had a falling out over what Lyman believed was the former’s extremism. The elder preacher focused upon what he thought were the real sins of the day “rum, Sabbath-breaking, Catholicism, and gambling.” [4] He exhorted Garrison on slavery, “you can’t reason that way! You must take into account what is expedient as well as what is right.” For his part the editor of the Liberator became convinced that the Christian church, the American government and the Constitution had been corrupted to the core by the slave interest.  Harriet moved far beyond her father on slavery and the issue of race period.  She met with Garrison, and though reticent about his heretical reputation came to appreciate him greatly as an ally and friend.  She said that no one could “know him and not love him–love him personally, love him for his earnestness and his faithfulness.”  But she did ask him “Mr. Garrison, are you a Christian?” [5]

What pushed Stowe beyond her father and into the abolitionist fold? Scholars point to a number of reasons.  The underground railroad passed, almost literally, by her front door step.  She and her husband Calvin were confronted with the reality of fugitive slaves when they learned that a girl in their employ was in fact a runaway slave.  Her husband Calvin, and her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, helped the girl escape via the Underground Railroad through a friend John Van Zandt (who shows up in UTC as John Van Trompe).

Second major source of antipathy for slavery as a system per se in Stowe was the pervasive sexual exploitation of female slaves by white “masters.” This exploitation was common in two ways: 1) the sexual gratification of white males and 2) forcing females to become “breeders.”  Many female slaves were forced to have sexual relations with various men in order to “breed” a fresh crop of slaves to work or sell.  Eliza Buck, a young “mulatto girl” and fugitive slave, came to the Stowe household in Cincinnati. She was the offspring of an illicit encounter between her former master and her slave mother.  She too became the victim of repeated rapes by the same man. Eliza told Stowe of being sold down in Louisiana and then to Kentucky.  Harriet had also met Lewis Garrard Clarke, an escaped slave so light he could pass for white. Clarke’s family had been broken apart and variously sold, his sister being sent to New Orleans as a sex slave. Clarke’s sister was befriended by a Frenchman who purchased her freedom. Harriet brings this secret “privilege” of the white slave owner out in full view in UTC. She was disgusted by it. The havoc of slavery on families … indeed in most southern states marriage was illegal for blacks … was an abomination to God. Stowe illuminates powerfully the family bond among slaves whether legal or not.

Another source of Stowe’s growing hatred of slavery was the violence used by those who protected the system.  James Birney a family friend was a former slave owner who emancipated his slaves. He began what he believed was a mild and moderate voice for the emancipation cause, The Philanthropist. But on July 30, 1836 a mob estimated to be about 4000 strong, surrounded Birney’s Cincinnati office, smashed his press and threw it in the Ohio. The mob then proceeded to pillage streets with the houses of free blacks.  Birney just escaped with his life.[6] The next year however, Elijah P. Lovejoy, a special friend, was attacked and murdered by a mob of proslavery advocates.

Finally Stowe became a reader of slave narratives. The stories of Josiah Henson, Henry Bibb, Lewis Clarke, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and others. These heroic tales revealed to her people, not animals, with a thirst for liberty, capacity for learning and critical thinking, and above all the capability of pride in being God’s creation. Stowe came to embrace the humanity of the African slave.

Harriet Beecher Stowe became convinced that Christianity and slavery was absolutely incompatible. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin she unsparingly exposed the toll that slavery took upon both blacks and whites who, surprisingly, are bound by a common humanity.  For her the responsibility of slavery lie with both Southerners and Northerners who made economic profit off it. Slavery was more than a personal evil but a systemic evil that must be atoned for.  Indeed slavery was America’s Calvary … the beaten and dying slave was the American Christ.  That was Tom!

Harvard Professor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr, has produced a marvelous annotated edition of UTC. He considers the book far more profound and different than degenerate stereotypes in the 20th century. Most of those come from the “after lives” of the book.

Wrapping up Part One … Factoids to Whet the Appetite

Two of the most frequent responses to Uncle Tom’s Cabin are:  1) the surprise that Tom was no “Uncle Tom” and 2) just how profoundly “religious” the work is.  The stereotype of “uncle Tom” as weak, servile, and passive is the work of a massive subversion of the book. Not only is Tom incredibly strong but George Harris (another major character) is a Malcolm X kind of man. When I think of Tom now I think of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr … brave and willing to suffer on behalf of others. This is no trait of a weak and cowardly person.

Stowe was an inspiration to both Leo Tolstoy (who thought UTC was a brilliant novel and I would say he was a qualified critic) and Vladimir Lenin who held UTC was his favorite novel from childhood [7]. Translated into 37 languages, used as a Sunday School text, adapted into countless “Tom” plays … UTC remained a powerful and subversive force even when it was forgotten by many.

More to come …


1] See the classic by  William Bradford Huie, 3 Lives for Mississippi with an Intro by Martin Luther King, Jr (New American Library, 1964, reprinted several times)

2] Daniel Vallaro discusses this remark and its authenticity at length in “Lincoln, Stowe, and the ‘Little Woman/Great War’ Story: The Making and Breaking of a Great American Anecdote,” in Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association (Winter 2009) at www.historycooperative.org/journals/jala/30.1/vollaro.html#FOOT54

3] Quoted in Debby Applegate’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (Three Leaves Press 2006), 264.

4] David Walker, free black and fellow Bostonian, castigates white Christian preachers for condemning these very evils and yet turning a blind eye to slavery.  “The preachers and people of the United States form societies against Free Masonry, Sabbath breaking, Sabbath mails, Infidelity, &c. &c. But the fountain head [i.e. slavery] compared with which, all those other evils are comparatively nothing, and from the bloody and murderous head of which they receive no trifling support, is hardly noticed by Americans.” David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, ed. Peter P. Hinks, (Penn State Press 2000), 44.  Walker and his Appeal had a profound impact upon Garrison.

5] Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Loyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (St. Martins Press 1998), 417-424, quotes from p. 421.

6] David S. Reynolds, Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America (W. W. Norton 2011), 93-94.

7] ibid., 175

3 Responses to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Bible & America #1”

  1. Randall Says:

    thank you. i need to read this book!

  2. Steve Wolfgang Says:

    Bobby, visitors to Washington, KY – just south of the Ohio River and the site of Alexander Campbell’s debate with W.L. McCalla – can see the landmark Marshall Key house, where HB Stowe witnessed a slave auction which in part motivated her to write, and became a feature of, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. An S-C factoid! — Steve Wolfgang

  3. David Brent Says:

    I’m really glad you held this book in front of my face. I have never read the book, but I did see the movie back when I was in elementary school…about years ago… it was very moving.

    I have put this book on top of my list as a must read. Thanks for the reminder.

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