by Harriet Beecher Stowe
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
Somewhere along the way I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but I don’t remember when; I recall little about it, and that is a shame because the book has a strong case for being the most important book ever written in the United States. It was the best-selling book of the 19th century, and it played a large role in catapulting the country into the Civil War in 1861. Late in 1862, Stowe visited the White House at the invitation of President Abraham Lincoln, who allegedly greeted her with these memorable words, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”
I picked up the book as a sequel to The Life of Josiah Henson and The Road to Dawn: Josiah Henson and the Story That Sparked the Civil War. The first is the brief, dictated 1848 autobiography of a slave in Daviess County, Kentucky, who fled to his freedom across the Ohio River in 1830. The second is a comprehensive biography of the same man published in 2018 drawing attention to his role both in the wider abolition movement and as the inspiration for the Stowe novel. I was interested, initially, in how the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin reflected the history of Josiah Henson, especially as it relates to Daviess County (Owensboro), Kentucky (where I was researching my own father’s history with a focus on matters of race).
The novel is set in Kentucky with one set of stories moving across the Ohio River through Ohio into Canada and another set of stories moving down the river to Louisiana and Arkansas. The cabin in question is the humble home in Kentucky that ties together these various slave narratives and thus gives title to the book.
The cabin is the home of Tom, affectionally called Uncle Tom. He is a slave: a strong, loyal, religious man, who fulfills his assignments as a slave, refuses to flee to his own freedom, and does both because of the way he understands his duty as a Christian man. Tom is sold by his Kentucky owner to an unscrupulous slave trader, but on the way down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers he rescues a small girl from drowning. She convinces her father to purchase Tom, and this lands Tom in the home of a wealthy, kind master in Louisiana. But that master, Augustine St. Clare, suddenly dies, and Tom is sold once again to an awful brute of a man, Simon Legree. In the end, Tom dies at the hands of his owner and is buried in an unmarked grave in Arkansas.
Both Tom and Simon have come down to us as stereotypes of the two extremes in antebellum culture: the obedient and uncomplaining black man living under the thumb of white power and the wicked and wasted white man abusing every black person who happened to fall into his possession.
The first of the secondary stories is that of George and Eliza, a married slave couple who escape from their owners in Kentucky, she in the famous episode of leaping from one chunk of ice to another across the Ohio River in the dead of winter. They are befriended by Quaker people active in the Underground Railroad and make their way successfully to Canada.
The second is of the remarkable girl Eve St. Clare whom Tom rescues from the river. She forms a fast friendship with Tom, learns from him to love and live the Christian life right under the thumb of her religious but bigoted mother and in the care of her kind but unbelieving father. The father’s cousin from Vermont, Ophelia, comes to live with family and takes a young black girl Topsy under her wing. Eve falls ill and dies, her father is wounded in a struggle and dies, and the mother sells all the slaves in the New Orleans market.
The overwhelming element of the book is the sharp contrast between true and false religion: between authentic Christian faith with its rejection of slavery, its kindness to all, and its reward for faithfulness and false Christian faith with its endorsement of slavery, its meanness to black and colored people, and its indifference to the promised judgment of God. Harriet Beecher Stowe writes as a devout Christian, the daughter of the famous preacher Lyman Beecher.
This is a powerful book, extremely well written with an impressive command of the English language and a wonderful inventiveness of the same. It does however indulge in the kind of moralistic commentary that is not tolerated in novels today. But this excess of editorial license does nothing to undermine the emotional power of this book. It is easy to understand how and why this serialized novel gripped the imaginations of millions and reformed their moral judgments. I’m glad I read it, for the second time (or perhaps the first).