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Uncle Tom's Cabin

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Uncle Tom's Cabin is one of those books that everybody has heard of, but few people have actually read. It deserves to be read - not just because it is one of the bestselling books of all time, nor the case that its vivid dramatization of slavery’s cruelties so aroused readers, that Abraham Lincoln told Stowe her work had been a catalyst for the Civil War. This is a book that changed history.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was appalled by slavery, and she took one of the few options open to nineteenth century women who wanted to affect public opinion: she wrote a novel, a huge, enthralling narrative that claimed the heart, soul, and politics of pre-Civil War Americans. In a time when many whites claimed slavery had "good effects" on blacks, Uncle Tom's Cabin paints pictures of three plantations, each worse than the other, where even the best plantation leaves a slave at the mercy of fate or debt.

Though “Uncle Tom” has become a synonym for a submissive black yes-man, Stowe’s Tom is actually American literature’s first black hero, a man who suffers for refusing to obey his white oppressors. Yet her questions remain penetrating even today: "Is man ever a creature to be trusted with wholly irresponsible power?" Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a living, relevant story, passionate in its vivid depiction of the cruelest forms of injustice and inhumanity—and the courage it takes to fight against them.

Price: $2.95

Explains a Great Deal

I read Uncle Tom's Cabin a few years ago, and was genuinely touched. I saw immediately why it became one of the most influential books in the history of our country, and possibly the world. The story of Uncle Tom is sure to leave you changed, whether you are black or white, racist or humanitarian. It really explains how different people viewed the institution of slavery. After reading this book, many die-hard proponents of slavery gave up defending it. And abollitionists were fired up more than ever before. If you read only 5 books this year, let Uncle Tom's Cabin be one of them. You'll never look at slavery, US history, or the plight of black people the same!

- J. jones "Book fiend"

Great Classic

Our book club decided to read some old classics and we were all surprised to find that none of our members had read Uncle Tom's Cabin, except a French woman who had read it in school in French! A little hard to get into with the style of writing and the dialog, it soon became a real page-turner for me as I got caught up in the story and the characters. Stowe paints a very interesting picture of the times, and it provoked one of the best discussions that our book club has had. No wonder this book was a best seller, both in the US and Europe. Highly recommend this book!
- J. Stark

Despite its flaws, a towering literary landmark

"Uncle Tom's Cabin," the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is one of the most important literary works ever to deal with the disturbing issue of African-American slavery. First published in serial form in 1851 and 1852, UTC is, to a large degree, a book of its time. But it has a compelling power that makes it, in my opinion, an authentic classic that deserves the attention of today's readers, and of future generations.

Yes, there are many valid criticisms that can be leveled against Stowe and her book. Is it sentimental? Emotionally manipulative? Is Uncle Tom a problematic character? "Yes" to all these questions. But Stowe also achieves a remarkable sense of balance in the book as a whole. The too-good-to-be-true, long-suffering Tom is complemented by the more militant George. And Stowe achieves some truly incisive cultural criticism. Particularly resonant is her analysis (often through the dialogue of her characters) of the use of both Christianity and the law as tools by which the oppressive slave system was supported.

Stowe is up front with her anti-slavery beliefs. UTC is notable for Stowe's many asides to her readers; her omniscient narrator seems to be maintaining a continual "conversation" with the reader. Despite the book's flaws, I found it to be a gripping read, filled with some truly memorable characters. Despite its length, the novel is a very fluid read.

I fear that UTC is regarded by many as more of a cultural monument -- a literary "museum piece," if you will -- then as living literature that one would actually read. That's a pity; I think that Stowe's compassion, keen intelligence, and remarkable writerly skill make UTC a classic that is actually worth reading.

Like James Fenimore Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans," UTC is a flawed but monumental novel that represents a serious and thoughtful attempt to portray non-white American characters. And as with Cooper's book, I think that UTC should be read in connection with 18th and 19th century books by ethnic Americans themselves: as companion texts to UTC, I particularly recommend "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" and Harriet Jacobs' "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl."

One other note: a number of authors adapted UTC for the stage in the 19th century. One such adaptation, by George L. Aiken, can be found in the excellent anthology "Early American Drama," edited by Jeffrey H. Richards. My final comment: If you haven't read this novel, toss away any preconceptions you may have, and read it with an open mind. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is an extraordinary achievement.

Read it and judge for yourself

Uncle Tom's cabin is frequently criticized by people who have never read the work, myself included. I decided I finally needed to read it and judge it for myself. And I have to say, that for all its shortcomings (and it does have them), it is really a remarkable book. The standout characteristics of this book are the narrative drive (it's a very exciting, hard to put down book), the vivid characters (I don't know what other reviewers were reading, but I found the characters extremely vivid and mostly believable - exceptions to follow), the sprawling cast, the several completely different worlds that were masterfully portrayed, and the strong female characters in the book. The portrayal of slavery and its effects on families and on individuals is gut-wrenching - when Uncle Tom has to leave his family, and when Eliza may lose little Harry, one feels utterly desolate.

As for flaws, yes, Mrs. Stowe does sermonize a fair bit, and her sentences and pronouncements can be smug. Yes, if you're not a Christian, you may find all her Christian references a bit much. (But the majority of her readers claimed to be Christian, and it was her appeal to the spirit of Christ that was her most powerful tug at the emotions of her readers). Yes, she still had some stereotypical views of African-Americans (frankly, I think most people have stereotypical views of races other than their own, they just don't state them as clearly today). But in her time, she went far beyond the efforts of most of her contemporaries to both see and portray her African-American brothers and sisters are equal to her. The best way she did this was in her multi-dimensional portrayal of her Negro characters -- they are, in fact, more believable and more diverse than her white characters. Yes, at times her portrayal of Little Eva and Uncle Tom is overdone at times -- they are a little cardboard in places -- but both, Uncle Tom especially, are overall believable, and very inspiring. The rest of the Negro characters - George Harris, Eliza, Topsy, Cassie, Emmeline, Chloe, Jane and Sara, Mammy, Alphonse, Prue, and others, span the whole spectrum of humanity -- they are vivid and real.

The comments of a previous reviewer that the book actually justifies slavery (because "it says it's no worse than capitalism") and that it shows that Christianity defends slavery are due to sloppy reading of the book. No one reading the book could possibly come to the conclusion that it does anything but condemn slavery in the strongest and most indubitable terms. This was the point of the book. The aside about capitalism was just that, an aside on the evils of capitalism. It did not and does not negate the attack on slavery. Secondly, another major point of the book is that TRUE Christianity does not and could not ever support slavery. Stowe points out the Biblical references used to claim that Christianity defended slavery merely to show how the Bible can be misused by those who wish to defend their own indefensible viewpoint. It's ridiculous to say that the book "shows that Christianity supported slavery". It shows that some misguided preachers abused certain Bible passages and ignored other ones to support their view of slavery.

There is an overlay of the tired "Victorian women's novel" to this piece - that must be granted. For literary perfection, it will never take its place beside Tolstoy, Dickens and Austen. But it is a piece entirely of its own category. Nothing before or after it has been anything like it, and it IS a great, if flawed, novel. I highly recommend it. I give it 5 stars despite its flaws because it's utterly unique, and its greatness is in some ways is related to its flaws.

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