Uncle Tom’s Cabin has long been in the running for the title of Most Famous American Novel That No One Reads Anymore. My mom read it in high school, but by the time I took my courses in American literature it was typically dismissed as a racist relic and boring to boot.
I picked it up out a sense of obligation as part of my research on The immigrants’ Civil War. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s dad, the execrable Lyman Beecher, was an abolitionist but also an anti-immigrant bigot. In the decades before the Civil war he had set off anti-Irish pogroms in Boston that terrorized newcomer communities and created a permanent rift between immigrants and abolitionists in that city.
Believe me, I was quite prepared to hate Lyman’s daughter’s book.
The reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin defeated my prejudices. This is a wonderful work of empathy both for enslaved blacks and Southern whites. While there are passages that descend into Puritan cant, there are also whole chapters that provide honest depictions of life under slavery. I cried at least twice while reading the novel, something I rarely allow authors to make me do.
Where readers during the 1960s were put off by the racist assumptions of the author, today’s reader is likely to find them guides to the prevalence of race in the American consciousness reflected in even the most advanced white thinkers. Stowe is not a race hater, but she writes in a racist environment that was inescapable for nearly all whites, with the exception of John Brown and a few of his contemporaries.
This novel deserves to be read by all Americans and should inform high school discussions of race as much as To Kill a Mockingbird does.