For hundreds of years, slavery was accepted as a way of life. To see people beaten for working too slowly, sold to pay off debt, or killed in fits of anger was the ugly but unquestioned norm. Today, with slavery almost gone, it is something to speak of in somber tones and with grim faces. But if slavery is so hard to speak of now, imagine how hard it would be to discuss back when it was at its peak. Who would take up the task and tell of something so awful, so horrifying, and so real?
Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly is an anti-slavery novel written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. It tells the story of pious, long-suffering Uncle Tom. Tom and a slave child, Harry, are sold to get their master out of debt. But while Tom allows himself to be taken away peacefully, Harry’s mother, Eliza, escapes from the plantation with Harry in her arms. Soon, the slaves find themselves abused and hunted. They drift from house to house, slaveholder to slaveholder. Who will come through in the end?
Stowe was an active abolitionist, and this is apparent in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. At the beginning of the book, Stowe makes subtle, sarcastic comments about slavery being right and true; by the end, she openly defies all slaveholders and the slave trade. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not written in a brash and loud tone, however; its style is quiet and sentimental. Although a little stilted, the writing is powerful, and perhaps that is partly why it remains a fiery topic of discussion today.
When it was first written, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was accused of exaggerating the truth. Southerners were horrified and offended; one Southern writer even wrote an “anti-Tom” novel which she named Aunt Phillis’s Cabin; or, Southern Life As It Is. Others have accused Uncle Tom’s Cabin of endorsing stereotypes, such as the “pickaninny” in Topsy, or the lazy trickster in Sam. This is true, but the use of stereotypes does not seem to be conscious. Did Stowe even realize they were stereotypes?
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an impressive work under much debate even today. While it did embrace stereotypes that are degrading to African-American society, it was—and is—a courageous work that turned many to the abolitionist cause.
High-school historical fiction, ages 13 and up.
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