There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Reflections on Uncle Tom's Cabin on its 161st Anniversary

On March 20th 1852 - 161 years ago today - Uncle Tom's Cabin was first published as a two-volume book. Like many Victorian-era novels, it had previously been printed in magazine installments, but now the public could treasure the complete work that was already stirring the nation.

Last week I finished what has so-far been my favorite read of the year: Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America by David S. Reynolds. I must confess that I kept this book out of the library almost a month past its "due-date" and paid a $5 fine for it; it was fully worth it. While some may find the minutiae on the novel's influences and spin-offs too much detail, this was precisely what made the book relevant for me. Raised in a denomination - Seventh-day Adventist - that developed in the Northern, Protestant culture Stowe also lived in, her concerns and influences felt familiar. From the connections of the temperance movement to popular eschatology, to the connections of the women's movement to spiritualism, these were issues effecting the pioneers of Adventism.

In fact, the connection between Harriet Beecher Stowe and my own faith and culture are so strong that I originally intended to call this post something like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ellen White, Fiction, Spiritualism, Feminism, and Me. I'm going to spare you the whole volume of navel gazing such a broad topic would invite, but still tell a little of my own relationship with Stowe's novel.

When I read UTC last year I had a specific purpose - to discover what was wrong with it. Not to discover what was wrong from an artistic stand-point, or to label its portrayal of blacks unacceptable from my liberal, (hopefully) resistant to stereotypes perspective. No, it was to discover what was wrong with the book spiritually; in fact, it was to be my experiment in examining conservative Adventists' views on novel reading. (They're against it.)

This is what Adventist founder, authoress, and prophetess, Ellen White, had to say about UTC:
There are many things in the work that would do no harm, and there are many things which have served a purpose in the exposure of slavery, but I would not want to recommend this book to our youth for their perusal. There are statements and pen-pictures which set the imagination upon a train of thought that has been deleterious and positively injurious. These highly-wrought pictures have taken hold of nervous, susceptible youth, and they have lived them over and over again in imagination. It has destroyed appetite for the Bible, and the desire to attend prayer-meetings; for everything was stale and without interest after feasting upon the diet found in this book.

As a young Adventist whose one form of "rebellion" has been my appetite for classic literature, I read the novel with eyes peeled for anything sensual, "highly-wrought", or otherwise suspect so that I could examine the above statement. I did, in fact, find some aspects that might fit with this description. First, there's the simple fact that Harriet Beecher Stowe was deeply attracted to the then-new and popular spiritualism movement and claimed, "I did not write that book... I only put down what I saw. It all came before me in visions, one after another, and I put them down in words.” The novel itself incorporates what Adventists consider a great error - the natural immortality of the soul.

There are several ways in which the novel might be considered "highly-wrought". The intersecting plots, especially the one dealing with the escape of the Harris family, are exciting, like the popular adventure novels of the day. We are even led just to the brink of sympathizing with violence (in self-defense) when George Harris shoots, but does not kill, slave-catcher Tom Loker. However, as Reynolds points out, Stowe does not actually condone violence in this novel, since "George Harris is relieved that Loker is not killed" and takes him to be nursed by the kindly Quakers.

Another feature that may have called forth White's objection (since it certainly did other reviewers' of the day) is the frank depiction of sexual slavery. Yet, as Reynolds again points out, “Stowe suggests [women's] sexual attractiveness without being tawdry.” The male gaze is present, but in loathsome characters, not ones the reader is to identify with, and sex acts occur “in a threatened future... in the past... or offstage...” While some characters are necessarily depicted as debased, we are led to sympathize with the oppressed (and pious) characters.

My own conclusion, especially after reading Reynolds' informative work, is that Stowe was able to refine elements of popular culture into a tool for righteousness. Her own concerns about the moral influences of literature and theater, coupled with her intelligence and deeply-personal faith, convince me that her work deserves respectful, though not-uncritical attention. Uncle Tom's Cabin helped launch the Civil War by appealing to the emotions and empathy of the public. Today, I try to read it critically and appreciate the context given by a book like Reynolds'. 

Yet, 161 years later, the emotional power of the novel still matters. It is still empathy that teaches us to acknowledge the rights of others, that bases (in Stowe's words) a "ladder to heaven in human affections." That's why, today this post is not merely about the questions about literature raised for me by the writings of Ellen White. It's also not merely about the things the novel - and especially its spin-off plays - got wrong in the area of racial stereotyping, even though talking about this matters. Instead, this post is about the power of literature to change hearts, start wars, and strike fear into the hearts of Equality's enemies (as evidenced by the free black man in the antebellum South sentenced to ten years in jail for owning a copy of UTC). This post is about the wonderful Harriet Beecher Stowe - a doubter, a believer, a wife, a mother, a sister, an author, an ally, an influence for a "great cause/God's new Messiah". This post is me saying that I can think critically about this novel in a variety of ways, and yet declare that I love it. It (and reading about the characters' real-life counterparts in Reynolds' book) has enlarged my sympathy for others and shown me a vision of Christ suffering in His people. This post is me declaring that all my questions aren't answered, and that's okay, because this novel did for me what it did for thousands 161 years ago - it made me think more critically, and it made me love more widely. Racism, sexual slavery, economic oppression and other evils addressed by Stowe still must be fought today, and therefore this novel still matters.


  1. Wow. What a brilliant post! I loved UTC and UTC and the Battle for America. I'm not familiar with the teachings of Seventh Day Adventist so you've enlightened me with some interesting facts.

    I agree too with your take-away: UTC "made me think more critically, and love more widely." Yes, absolutely.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Adriana! I rushed to get this post up on the 161st anniversary, and yet the subject seems a bit too heavy to garner comments. Also, I learned about "Mightier than the Sword" on your blog, so thanks for introducing me to a great book that I'll likely reread.

      Something I might not have made clear in the post (since I was trying to celebrate the book, rather than write a discursion on Adventism and fiction) is that most Adventists are not adverse to novels; most Adventist universities/colleges have good English departments. However, like every church, there are more "traditional" or "conservative" members who stick to the original teachings: that's the perspective with which I was raised.