“Life Among the Lowly”
In the deepest and darkest nooks and crannies of the history of the American South lurks dark and heartbreaking secrets and stories. These tales were too dark that they were not topics of discussion but rather talked about in hushed tones in confined places. Slavery, or more specifically, black slavery is a subject we often encounter in history books. Over a century after its abolition, the concept sounds foreign but is a subject that has become synonymous with the history of the Deep South.
In the world of literature, Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin beacons as one of the most revered works dealing with the heavy and difficult subject. Alternatively titled “Life Among the Lowly”, this anti-slavery narrative relates the story of the titular Uncle Tom. Uncle Tom was a middle-aged black slave working in the Kentucky farm of Arthur Shelby. Uncle Tom was days away from being liberated but due to the burgeoning debts of his owner, he was sold together with Harry, the son of Emily Shelby’s maid, Eliza.
Before they could be sold to their new owners, Eliza was able to fled with Harry. Unfortunately, Uncle Tom opted not to escape and chose to embrace his fate. A devout Christian, he believed in the kindness of others. On a riverboat sailing down Mississippi River, he met his new master. Will Uncle Tom finally taste the bittersweet freedom he has longed for? Or will fate yet again intercede?
“There are in this world blessed souls, whose sorrows all spring up into joys for others; whose earthly hopes, laid in the grave with many tears, are the seed from which spring healing flowers and balm for the desolate and the distressed.” ~ Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Born and raised in one of the “free states” of Connecticut, Stowe’s immersion in abolitionist writings led her to the biographical work, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. Inspired by the harrowing conditions slaves experienced, Stowe resolved to make her case against slavery, its evils and immoralities. By channeling the mantra, “the pen is mightier than the sword”, she fashioned one of the most memorable and renowned literary characters in history, Uncle Tom.
Before the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, abolitionist sentiments in the free states were already starting to percolate. The testimonies of former slaves like Josiah Henson slowly trickled down into the general consciousness. The denizens of the free states, like Stowe were aghast with their discovery, thus starting a movement to call for the abolition of the slave trade. They took their protest to the printed form, hence, the birth of “protest literature” as we know it now. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is widely credited for the recognition of literature’s power to arouse sentiments and incite change.
Stowe’s depiction of slavery was chiefly influenced by her religious devotions and was further reinforced by her immersion in abolitionist writings. Her debut work was also greatly influenced by her interactions with former slaves while living in Cincinnati. Cincinnati was one of the key stops of the famed Underground Railroad, an intricate network of routes and trails that slaves use to escape to the free states and/or Canada.
The main characters were carefully conjured by Stowe to represent most, if not all, of her personal views. Uncle Tom’s religiosity is one manifestation of these views. From the onset, Christianity was the proverbial “second primary character” in the narrative. It has no physical manifestation but its presence and undercurrents were felt all through out. Uncle Tom’s religiosity is a beacon in the darkness, a hope in a sea of hopelessness.
“But, of old, there was One whose suffering changed an instrument of torture, degradation and shame, into a symbol of glory, honor, and immortal life; and, where His spirit is, neither degrading stripes, nor blood, nor insults, can make the Christian’s last struggle less than glorious.” ~ Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
The story also followed the progress of Eliza as she retreats to the north with her son, Harry. Hot on her tracks is a slave hunter but her maternal instinct was too powerful. But Eliza’s story is more than just a subplot. Through Eliza, Eva and the other key female characters, Stowe is channeling her view of the power to save females innately possess. There were palpable depictions in the story of how female characters saved male characters from injuries or from worse fates.
If there was a glaring disparity in the novel, it would be Uncle Tom’s resolve not to resort into any form of violence. Whilst most view it as a form of cowardice. Guided by his deep Christian faith and belief, he chose to suffer rather than compromise his beliefs. His moral compass is the epitome of integrity. It is yet another manifestation of Stowe’s pietistic views which were deeply embedded into the main theme. Stowe highlighting the incompatibility of slavery to Christianity.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written with a melodramatic tone to arouse the sentiments of the general public. Common in the 19th century sentimental novels, such form of style was used to evoke reader’s sympathy and emotion. Upon its publication, Uncle Tom’s Cabin effectively accomplished that. Stowe proved herself capable of influencing emotions through the printed form.
Apart from stirring sentiments, the novel also popularized several stereotypes about black people. From its revolutionary depiction, what rose is the term “Uncle Tom”, the biggest representation of these stereotypes. Although used to discriminate, it is an adjective used to describe a hardworking servant who remains loyal to the needs of his or her white master or mistress.
“Death! Strange that there should be such a word, and such a thing, and we ever forget it; that one should be living, warm and beautiful, full of hopes, desires and wants, one day, and the next be gone, utterly gone, and forever!” ~ Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Beyond its vivid depictions of the ills and errs of the slave trade, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an even more powerful instrument. In her memorable debut, Stowe reminded the readers of the power that the pen possesses. She reminded us its ability to arouse national sentiments, making other people feel what other people feel. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a fine example of turning the abstract into a reality, into quotidian terms that John Does and Juan dela Cruzes can easily relate to.
The novel’s impact still reverberate today. The first widely-read political novel in the United States, it played a significant role in the development of American literature. It is also a key figure in the growth of protest literature as many authors followed suit. Whilst the novel’s historical context was slowly overshadowed by negative connotations in recent years, its influence and impact in the world of literature is indisputable.
Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 27%
Writing (25%) – 19%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s acclaimed masterpiece has piqued my interest ever since I’ve learned about it in my high school history class. It was the inspiration for Philippine National Hero, Dr. Jose Rizal’s two seminal works, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, two novels that satirized the oppression of Filipinos by the Spanish conquistadors. The parallels are noticeable, both being propagandist works.
Whilst Uncle Tom’s Cabin was meant to awaken sentiments on slavery and, at times, it was brilliant. Uncle Tom, as a character is the epitome of moral ascendancy but it made him, at times, feel ephemeral. And the novel is can be very preachy, rather than sentimental. If there was one facet it succeeded on, it would be use of sentiments to create a bigger impact. Iit was a great reading experience. Imperfect but insightful.
Author: Harriet Beecher Stowe
Publisher: Barnes & Noble Classics
Publishing Date: 2003
Number of Pages: 515 pages
The narrative drive of Stowe’s classic novel is often overlooked in the heat of the controversies surrounding its anti-slavery sentiments. In fact, it is a compelling adventure story with richly drawn characters and has earned a place in both literary and American history. Stowe’s puritanical religious beliefs show up in the novel’s final, overarching theme—the exploration of the nature of Christianity and how Christian theology is fundamentally incompatible with slavery.
About the Author
(Portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe by Francis Holl, 1853) Harriet Elisabeth Beecher Stowe was born on June 14, 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut and was the sixth of eleven children.
Enrolled in the Hartford Female Seminary run by her older sister Catharine, Stowe was indoctrinated in the classics through traditional academic education that was usually reserved for males at that time. When she was 21 years-old, she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to join her father. She then joined Semi-Colon Club, a literary salon and social club where she met her husband, Rev. Calvin Ellis Stowe.
wasn’t until she reached the age of 40 that Stowe begun to make a career out of writing. After writing to Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the weekly anti-slavery journal The National Era, she begun the first installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was published in June 1851 and succeeding installments were published weekly. Her other works include Our Charley and What to do With Him (1858), The Minister’s Wooing (1859) and Pink and White Tyranny: A Society Novel (1871).
Stowe passed away on July 1, 1896 in Hartford, Connecticut where she helped found Hartford Art School. The school later became part of the University of Hartford.