Why I Teach Uncle Tom’s Cabin
In its first year of publication, Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold more copies in America than the Bible did.
The novel catapulted Harriet Beecher Stowe onto the world stage, and by 1854, only two years after publication, the novel had been translated into 37 different languages. Attacking the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which forced free states to assist in recovering escaped slaves, Stowe ignited the powder keg of popular sentiments surrounding the tragedy of American slavery. She gave us the memorable figures of Uncle Tom and Little Eva, and the daring escape of Eliza Harris across the floating ice of the Ohio River. Today, on what would be Stowe’s 205th birthday, we have an opportunity to reassess her contribution to American letters, and to American culture at large.
As a professor of American literature, I face a challenge every time I teach Stowe’s famous book in the classroom. Her stock characters, her melodramatic set pieces, and the moralizing of her narrator grate on 21st-century readers. Yet this strange, sensational novel remains one of the most important works in our cultural heritage.
Is it, we might ask, just an artifact of our history? Do we dutifully overlook Stowe’s imperfect artistry for the sake of the admirable (if dated) anti-slavery message of her book? But as we read it, we find that inexplicable power surging between the lines of her prose. “You’re going to hate it,” I tell my students, “and then you’re going to love it.”
So why do I teach Uncle Tom’s Cabin? I teach it not only because of its anti-slavery message, but just as importantly because of the way that Stowe delivers it. That is, I think Stowe’s great contribution to American culture lies not merely in rejecting slavery, but in the amazing narrative technique that deeply moved millions of readers. Stowe’s powerful novel works not so much by arguing against the evils of slavery (although it does), but rather by bringing readers face-to-face with a suffering fellow human being. In that encounter, she creates dramatic moments of empathy that—for Stowe—serve as the necessary foundation for any future social or legal action. Her approach, even a century and a half after slavery’s abolition, remains extremely relevant to us today, as we face our own array of moral and societal evils. Stowe offers a fundamentally democratic approach to solving national problems: we must first change hearts if we want to change laws.
By the time Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, all the arguments for and against slavery had already been made. Legislators and thinkers on both sides of this divisive issue had used philosophy, economics, science, law, and even the Bible to make their case. But in Stowe’s mind, both argument and law had failed the American people, and the United States needed an approach that appealed instead to the human heart. Even for many Americans opposed to slavery, the issue remained somewhat abstract; but Stowe’s novel brings her readers into a fictional encounter with an individual slave, where human empathy—the power of shared feeling—does the work that other forms of persuasion had failed to do.
To bring about this encounter, Stowe consciously draws readers into the world of her novel. In the fourth chapter, titled “An Evening in Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” she even addresses us directly with this invitation: describing Tom’s home, a “small log building,” Stowe’s narrator says, “Let us enter into the dwelling.” Indeed, the title of the novel itself is Uncle Tom’s Cabin so that when we begin to read, we enter the book itself, as if we were entering the cabin.
This entrance leads to an encounter. In an era noisy with abstract arguments for and against slavery, Stowe cuts through the debate to bring her readers directly into personal contact with the slaves in question. No longer simply a national “issue,” or “problem,” the slaves now have names, faces, stories, and recognizable human sufferings: Eliza, Harry, Uncle Tom, and Aunt Chloe, within the cozy space of Uncle Tom’s cabin.
What this personal encounter creates, Stowe believes, is conversion—a necessary first step to any kind of social or legal action. In the ninth chapter of her novel, titled “In Which It Appears that a Senator Is But a Man,” Stowe takes readers into another home, that of the fictional Ohio senator John Bird, who is personally opposed to slavery but a vocal advocate of the Fugitive Slave Act. The senator defends this contradiction to his wife, protesting, “Mary! Mary! My dear, let me reason with you.” We can hear Stowe’s own frustration in Mrs. Bird’s response: “I hate reasoning, John,—especially reasoning on such subjects. There’s a way you political folks have of coming round and round a plain right thing.” For Stowe, American reasoning can no longer be trusted, because politicians have sacrificed the good and the true upon the altar of the pragmatic.
But when the escaped slave Eliza Harris, fleeing the Kentucky master who tried to sell her child, arrives on Senator Bird’s doorstep in distress, Stowe creates an encounter that changes the heart of the legislator. The abstract issues of law and property collide with the physical presence of a suffering woman and her child. The senator, struck by Eliza’s real sorrow, and by her fierce love for her child—for he, too, is a father—rejects the Fugitive Slave Act and breaks the law. Stowe’s narrator tells us that, before this encounter,
his idea of a fugitive was only an idea of the letters that spell the word,—or , at the most, the image of a little newspaper picture of a man with a stick and bundle, with “Ran away from the subscriber” under it. The magic of the real presence of distress,—the imploring human eye, the frail, trembling human hand, the despairing appeal of helpless agony,—these he had never tried.
Here it is the vaguely Eucharistic “real presence” of an actual escaped slave (Stowe claimed to have conceived the novel during a communion service) that converts Senator Bird. Empathy—the compassionate experience of another’s suffering—rather than logic or debate, has won. Senator Bird himself helps Eliza escape, driving her by carriage at night to a safe location. Empathy has turned into real charitable action, for as Mrs. Bird says to her husband, “Your heart is better than your head.”
Stowe does more than change the hearts of her characters; she acts out this life-changing encounter for her readers in hopes that we will respond in kind. To move us in this way, she leaves one tragedy unanswered by the resolution of the novel: the brutal murder of Uncle Tom at the hands of Simon Legree. Tom’s death, for all its melodrama and heavy-handed Christian allegory, retains real dramatic power and clinches Stowe’s appeal to empathy. The characters in the novel cannot save Tom. Now it is we whose hearts must change to end the horror of human slavery. Stowe leaves it to us to decide what comes next.
Harriet Beecher Stowe made her mark on American culture, and she remains one of our most powerful literary advocates for human dignity and equality. To celebrate Stowe’s birthday, why not find a copy of her novel and pay another visit to Uncle Tom’s Cabin?
Kelly Scott Franklin is an assistant professor of English at Hillsdale College, where he teaches American literature and the great books.