The BEST: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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The BEST: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Reviewed by Yitzchak Blau

Summary: Aside from the Bible, no nineteenth-century book sold more copies than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (1852). It helped energize the abolitionist movement and instigate the Civil War. According to legend, upon meeting the author, Lincoln exclaimed, “So, you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War!” While there is no historical evidence that the great emancipator actually said this, the anecdote underscores the importance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in molding public opinion against slavery through its stark depiction of the “peculiar institution.”

The novel follows the lives of several slaves and their variously cruel or humane owners. When Eliza hears that her son Harry will be sold to another family, they flee for Canada along the underground railroad. A different slave, Tom, experiences the kindness of one owner, Augustine St. Clare, who intends to free him but dies before he can do so, and Tom is sold to Simon Legree, the novel’s main antagonist, whose name has become a byword for sadism.

Before explaining why this book belongs among the best, its faults must be acknowledged. Stowe’s long novel lacks subtlety. Even though the moral points are abundantly clear, the narrator points them out explicitly. It is nonetheless an impactful read. In an essay entitled “Good Bad Books,” George Orwell writes, “Perhaps the supreme example of the ‘good bad’ book is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous melodramatic incidents; it is also deeply moving and essentially true; it is hard to say which quality outweighs the other.” Orwell concludes, “I would back Uncle Tom’s Cabin to outlive the complete works of Virginia Woolf or George Moore, though I know of no strictly literary test which would show where the superiority lies.”He has already been proven right regarding George Moore; the jury is still out concerning Virginia Woolf. 

Why this is the BEST: The novel powerfully displays the evils of slavery, and how even benevolent owners could not salvage this inherently immoral institution. Arthur Shelby is a good man, but debt forces him to consider selling some slaves and breaking families apart. Augustine St. Clare is a kind owner, but following his death, his wife sells Tom to the brutal Legree. Beecher Stowe writes, “Talk of the abuses of slavery! Humbug! The thing itself is the essence of all abuse!” (Chapter 19). At one point, a gentleman on a ship holds the good owners responsible.

“In my opinion, it is you considerate, humane men, that are responsible for all the brutality and outrage wrought by these wretches; because, if it were not for your sanction and influence, the whole system could not keep foothold for an hour. If there were no planters except such as that one,” said he, pointing with his finger to Legree, who stood with his back to them, “the whole thing would go down like a millstone. It is your respectability and humanity that licenses and protects his brutality” (chapter 31).

While I find the passage potent, it may be unduly harsh.  Perhaps decent people trying their ethical best under the prevailing system should not suffer such overwhelming moral castigation, even if, ideally, they would seek to overturn the entire system.    

In addition to critiquing slavery, the novel articulates important thoughts about religion’s role in society’s morality. Stowe’s father was a Calvinist preacher and the book is suffused with religious references and a Puritanical commitment to slavery’s incompatibility with Christianity. Eight different chapter epigraphs are biblical verses. Here are a few significant passages regarding religion. Note the understandable assumption that religion should make people act more morally and the skepticism engendered when it does not do so.

Religion! Is what you hear at church religion? Is that which can bend and turn, and descend and ascend, to fit every crooked phase of selfish, worldly society, religion? Is that religion which is less scrupulous, less generous, less just, lessconsiderate for man, than even my own ungodly, worldly, blinded nature? No! When I look for religion, I must look for something above me, and not something beneath (chapter 16).

My view of Christianity is such, that I think no man can consistently profess it without throwing the whole weight of his being against the monstrous system of injustice that lies at the foundation of all our society… I have certainly had intercourse with a great many enlightened and Christian people who did no such thing, and I confess that the apathy of religious people on this subject, their want of perception of wrongs that filled me with horror, have engendered in me more scepticism than any other thing (chapter 28).

A powerful passage contrasts the immediate heroism of the martyr with that of a lifetime of servitude:

Have not many of us, in the weary way of life, felt, in some hours, how far easier it were to die than to live? The martyr, when faced even by a death of bodily anguish and horror, finds in the very terror of his doom a strong stimulant and tonic. There is a vivid excitement, a thrill and fervor, which may carry through any crisis of suffering that is the birth-hour of eternal glory and rest. But to live, to wear on, day after day, of mean, bitter, low, harassing servitude, every nerve damped and depressed, every power of feeling gradually smothered, this long and wasting heart-martyrdom, this slow, daily bleeding away of the inward life, drop by drop, hour after hour, this is the true searching test of what there may be in man or woman (chapter 38).

I would like to end with a question for which I lack a good answer. Halakha provides significant legal protection for the Jewish slave but not merely as much for the Canaanite slave. When confronted with this dilemma, I have always taken comfort in the moving words of Rambam:

It is permissible to work a Canaanite harshly. Although this is the law, the attribute of piety and the way of wisdom is for a person to be merciful and to pursue justice, not to make his slaves carry a heavy yoke, nor cause them distress. He should feed them from all the food and drink he eats. This was the practice of the early Sages who would give their slaves from every dish of which they themselves would partake…. Similarly, we should not degrade a slave with our hands or with words, for the Torah prescribed that they perform service, not that they be humiliated. Nor should one shout or vent anger upon them extensively. Instead, one should speak to them gently, and listen to their claims. This is explicitly stated with regard to the positive ways of Job for which he was praised: “Have I ever shunned justice for my slave and maid-servant when they quarreled with me…. Did not He who made me in the belly make him? Was it not the One who prepared us in the womb” (Job 31:13, 15)? (Hilkhot Avadim 9:8).

Job proves his goodness by emphasizing the compassion he shows his slaves. This verse was cited by R. Yohanan when he fed his slaves from his own repast (Yerushalmi Bava Kama 8:4) and by R. Yosi when he sided with a slave against his sister (Bereshit Rabba 48:3). Indeed, were all owners paragons of piety and decency, the Canaanite slave would remain safe. However, as Harriet Beecher Stowe argues, not every human owner will exhibit such a benevolent spirit.

This being the case, in responding to slavery’s abuses, how can halakha rely on midat hasidut?

Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, Associate Editor of TRADITION, is Rosh Yeshivat Orayta.

Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

[Published on April 30, 2020]


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