For some reason, I never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Maybe it was the reports of bathos, hand-wringing, and tear-filled emotions, or maybe it was when I convinced myself that I didn’t like nineteenth-century American fiction (spoiler: I do. I just don’t like Emerson all that much), but somehow, that part of my education got skipped. I’ve read several nonfiction accounts of slavery as experienced by the enslaved, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs (who initially published as Linda Brent), and Solomon Northup. My students and I read excerpts from several accounts this semester as examples of persuasion through rhetoric. Now, I really, really wish I’d read Uncle Tom’s Cabin then, because we so would have included a chapter.
Let’s get the stereotypes out of the way, shall we? Yes, it is pathos-driven. Yes, it is emotionally wrought. But it’s so DAMNED EFFECTIVE. Slavery is awful. It tears you apart, body and soul. It breaks families, and it turns people into animals. All of them. And what’s most powerful is how Harriet Beecher Stowe pulls apart Bible-based arguments supporting slavery through her use of rhetoric. It’s some awesome mic-dropping that shows this kind of selective literalism is crazy and unethical and unbiblical.
In fact, if you read it now and substitute “gay” for “black,” you will find a highly uncomfortable similarity. The people who use the Bible to support a narrow and limited position are missing the point of the Bible entirely. And I’m saying this as an ardent church-going Christian. Stowe wrote a highly emotional book to drive a point home. And I was crying by the end. Is it heavy-handed? Sure. But it’s unforgettable for its explicit depiction of families torn apart, escaping from bounty hunters, and the kind of abuse men and women endured for the sake of their skin color. I highly recommend you reading a nonfiction account first (especially Northup’s) and then read this book.