Uncle Tom's Cabin


Harriet Beecher Stowe

I cannot say much about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin that James Baldwin did not say in his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” He writes:  


Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty. Uncle Tom’s Cabin—like its multitudinous, hard-boiled descendants—is a catalogue of violence. This is explained by the nature of Mrs. Stowe’s subject matter, her laudable determination to flinch from nothing in presenting the complete picture; an explanation which falters only if we pause to ask whether or not her picture is indeed complete; and what constriction or failure of perception forced her to so depend on the description of brutality—unmotivated, senseless—and to leave unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what it was, after all, that moved her people to such deeds.


Baldwin faults Stowe for creating a comfortable narrative for “her people.” The real work to which Baldwin calls me and “my people” is not sentimental or momentary. Rather, he asks us to investigate the deep causes of hatred that are communal and only accessible through honest thought and a willingness to admit fault. Even today, after all that has happened, Baldwin’s question about Stowe rings true for us in our outrage: “How is it that we are so loath to make a further journey than that made by Mrs. Stowe, to discover and reveal something a little closer to the truth?” We continue to play the same game of shock protest and self-righteousness. When shall we begin the artful work of changing our lives?


But there is one thing to say that Baldwin can only hint at. We now occupy a moment in which books no longer matter. Baldwin occupied a time in which literature mattered enough that the finer points were a matter of public debate. The aesthetic difference between a novel and a social pamphlet was important. And so Baldwin is compelled to comment about the issue with regards to Stowe’s legacy: “[T]he avowed aim of the American protest novel is to bring greater freedom to the oppressed. They are forgiven, on the strength of these good intentions, whatever violence they do to language, whatever excessive demands they make of credibility. It is, indeed, considered the sign of a frivolity so intense as to approach decadence to suggest that these books are both badly written and wildly improbable. One is told to put first things first, the good of society coming before niceties of style or characterization.” Today, a bookish distaste for bad form seems elitist, disconnected from the real demands of social change. For Baldwin it was the very need for beauty that humanizes, the hallmark of freedom. For us - “us” defined as any kind of collective consciousness however diverse - books convey neither beauty nor social urgency. Anyone trying to be “woke” will find herself trapped in the vortex of instant reactivity and correctly articulated outrage. There is not time enough for reading, thought, and feeling.


To enumerate slights is the comfortable choice because doing so relinquishes responsibility. For Baldwin, Uncle Tom’s Cabin scratched a moral itch in its shocking depictions of the brutalities of slavery. But his critique is of apiece with the type of critique necessary now. We need to go deeper, to see the causes of violence, more than the violence itself. This is scary, because when we really look for the causes of violence, it becomes increasingly difficult to point a finger at someone else. If we want change, we must change. We must do more than punish the punisher, scapegoat the scapegoater. We must change, from top to bottom. The real trick is this change does not bring discomfort but liberation. I perceive this in my own life. When I take small steps toward change, I feel freed from my anger and fear. I know that I can become the change I wish to see in the world. More than righteous satisfaction, these changes bring what we all want, whether we know it or not: peace.


Brian Chappell, Mouse Editor
December 2017

Mouse Podcast: 003 Stowe (special guest Dr. Beth Lueck)