Uncle Tom's Cabin, page 1
Uncle Tom's Cabin
Uncle Tom's Cabin or Life Among the Lowly
Harriet Beecher Stowe
This edition published by Barnes & Noble, Inc.
Introduction copyright © 1995 by Barnes & Noble, Inc.
1995 Barnes & Noble Books
Uncle Tom's Cabin: An Historical and Personal Note
In Which the Reader is Introduced to a Man of Humanity
The Husband and Father>
An Evening in Uncle Tom's Cabin
Showing the Feelings of Living Property on Changing Owners
The Mother's Struggle
In Which it Appears that a Senator is but a Man
The Property is Carried Off
In Which Property Gets into an Improper State of Mind
Select Incident of Lawful Trade
The Quaker Settlement
Of Tom's New Master, and Various Other Matters
Tom's Mistress and Her Opinions
The Freeman's Defence>
Miss Ophelia's Experiences and Opinion
Miss Ophelia's Experiences and Opinions, Continued
"The Grass Withereth—The Flower Fadeth"
The Little Evangelist>
"This is the Last of Earth"
The Slave Warehouse
The Middle Passage
The Quadroon's Story
Emmeline and Cassy
The Young Master
An Authentic Ghost Story
About the Author
The scenes of this story, as its title indicates, lie among a race hitherto ignored by the associations of polite and refined society; an exotic race, whose ancestors, born beneath a tropic sun, brought with them, and perpetuated to their descendants, a character so essentially unlike the hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon race, as for many years to have won from it only misunderstanding and contempt.
But, another and better day is dawning; every influence of literature, of poetry and of art, in our times, is becoming more and more in unison with the great master chord of Christianity, "good will to man."
The poet, the painter, and the artist, now seek out and embellish the common and gentler humanities of life, and, under the allurements of fiction, breathe a humanizing and subduing influence, favorable to the development of the great principles of Christian brotherhood.
The hand of benevolence is everywhere stretched out, searching into abuses, righting wrongs, alleviating distresses, and bringing to the knowledge and sympathies of the world the lowly, the oppressed, and the forgotten.
In this general movement, unhappy Africa at last is remembered; Africa, who began the race of civilization and human progress in the dim, gray dawn of early time, but who, for centuries, has lain bound and bleeding at the foot of civilized and Christianized humanity, imploring compassion in vain.
But the heart of the dominant race, who have been her conquerors, her hard masters, has at length been turned towards her in mercy; and it has been seen how far nobler it is in nations to protect the feeble than to oppress them. Thanks be to God, the world has at last outlived the slave-trade!
The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system so necessarily cruel and unjust as to defeat and do away the good effects of all that can be attempted for them, by their best friends, under it.
In doing this, the author can sincerely disclaim any invidious feeling towards those individuals who, often without any fault of their own, are involved in the trials and embarrassments of the legal relations of slavery.
Experience has shown her that some of the noblest of minds and hearts are often thus involved; and no one knows better than they do, that what may be gathered of the evils of slavery from sketches like these, is not the half that could be told, of the unspeakable whole.
In the northern states, these representations may, perhaps, be thought caricatures; in the southern states are witnesses who know their fidelity. What personal knowledge the author has had, of the truth of incidents such as here are related, will appear in its time.
It is a comfort to hope, as so many of the world's sorrows and wrongs have, from age to age, been lived down, so a time shall come when sketches similar to these shall be valuable only as memorials of what has long ceased to be.
When an enlightened and Christianized community shall have, on the shores of Africa, laws, language and literature, drawn from among us, may then the scenes of the house of bondage be to them like the remembrance of Egypt to the Israelite,—a motive of thankfulness to Him who hath redeemed them!
For, while politicians contend, and men are swerved this way and that by conflicting tides of interest and passion, the great cause of human liberty is in the hands of one, of whom it is said:
"He shall not fail nor be discouraged
Till He have set judgment in the earth."
"He shall deliver the needy when he crieth,
The poor, and him that hath no helper."
"He shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence,
And precious shall their blood be in His sight."
| Go to Contents |
Uncle Tom's Cabin: An Historical and Personal Note
There are many books, particularly in the fields of history and literature, that are destined to be defined as "controversial," no matter how often they are reissued or how different the culture in which they happen to resurface appears from the one in which they were first written. Indeed, being labeled "controversial" can seem to be one of the prerequisites to a book's ultimately being designated a "classic" (whatever that term is supposed to mean). Though not every literary expert would call Uncle Tom's Cabin a classic, few would fail to call it controversial.
Probably no other novel written by an American in the nineteent
Of course, the opinions of then-contemporary black folk largely went unrecorded, since the great majority were in bondage, and had no knowledge of the book. And those who were not actually slaves had to use most of their meager income to eke out an existence. So the debate over Uncle Tom's Cabin was carried on among members of the white middle and upper classes in the North, for whom the book was written in the first place. In addition, once the book had become popular in the North, despite all efforts of the "culture bearers" to dismiss it, the Southern slavocracy engaged in all-out efforts—legal and otherwise—to prevent its distribution. Extralegal means such as threats, intimidation, book burning, and physical violence were used whenever deemed necessary to prevent the book from being read.
From the beginning of the 1820s, the decade of the Missouri Compromise, crisis after crisis centering on slavery—but usually disguised as having other, less disturbing, causes—arose in sensitive areas of the nation. These crises were either ignored, watered down, or swept under the carpet. Thomas Jefferson, speaking of slavery after a lifetime of considering the subject, said, "We are holding a wolf by the ears—we can not continue to hold him—but we dare not let him go!" But no one of any national importance was listening either to Jefferson or to any of the other voices advocating a dismantling of the slave system.
So the plot thickened: The Nullification Crisis in South Carolina, the founding of the Colored Convention Movement, the start of the abolitionist societies—all these events took place in the 1830s. The 1840s gave rise to a host of political factions all clamoring for a role in determining the political, social, and economic destiny of the nation. And the next three or four decades produced the largest and, arguably, most outstanding group of black leaders and activists ever seen in the American arena.
It was these activists, principal among them Frederick Douglass, who first permitted white women reformers such as Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Beecher Stowe to speak publically from their rostra, at a time when even white male abolitionists refused to allow women access to public speaking. These black leaders were also among the first males not only to endorse but to carry on the struggle for women's right to vote and, by extension, their own.
Douglass and Mrs. Stowe worked closely together in the abolitionist movement and became good friends. In fact, it was to Douglass that Stowe turned for information about slave life on the cotton plantations while Uncle Tom's Cabin was being serialized in National Era magazine in 1851, one year before its publication in book form. In his autobiography, Douglass is unreserved in his praise for the book, commenting on both its literary quality and its political impact, not only in America but throughout the Western world. Black leaders William B. Brown, Martin Delany, James McSmith, and Samuel R. Ward all found exceptional merit in the work.
None of these men, however, saw the publication of the book as the crucial moment in the struggle against slavery and racism in America. They viewed the book—rightly so in my opinion—as a catalyst in raising awareness of the slavery issue and in widening the debate among concerned whites either in power or in positions to influence the powerful. While grateful for such assistance as Mrs. Stowe's book provided, their main task lay in keeping up the pressure on the system. Not one of them is on record as saying that once slavery was ended their work would be finished.
The 1850s were the watershed decade, the most critical period prior to what later became known as the "Irrepressible Conflict." Beginning with the passage of the draconian Fugitive Slave Law in 1850; the Wilmot Proviso, which barred slavery in any territory taken from Mexico; the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which came out of the struggle between free-soilers and pro-slavery settlers in "Bleeding Kansas"; the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision of 1857; and, finally, John Brown's abortive raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859, each succeeding crisis made compromise on the major issues less likely, and brought open conflict between North and South a little nearer. Black activists saw this outcome clearly, and looked on the coming conflict as a sacred crusade against the moral evil of slavery. To them there was no Union worth saving!
And what of the history of the novel itself? Uncle Tom's Cabin continues in our own time to be almost as controversial as it was in 1852. Each generation seems to find something within the book's pages to justify its own attitudes toward race. Many African-Americans see in Mrs. Stowe's main character, Uncle Tom, the epitome of the obsequious, toadying, head-scratching stereotype that they have been laboring so long to put to rest. There are many whites, on the other hand, who visualize Tom as the essence of the patient, long-suffering, loyal hero. Whichever way the book is read, obvious chasms exist among the many ways of understanding the true nature of its principal protagonist. Black opinions and black interpretations of the book's main character come into play relatively late, I might add, and with a great deal of understandable bitterness.
What is often forgotten, ironically, in the midst of all these debates about a fictional character is the fact that the novel is based upon the life of Josiah Henson, an escaped slave who, with his wife and children, fled to Canada in the 1830s. Risking recapture, and the loss of life and limb, Henson returned to the South many times to help other slaves escape. By 1840 he had led over two hundred people to freedom. During this time, he met Mrs. Stowe and told her his life story. The result was Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Yet, for most of the latter part of the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom's Cabin was culturally and dramatically the exclusive property of white people. Which is to say that discussions concerning its merits were conducted mainly among whites, who also determined its value as political propaganda. The critic Edmund Wilson once estimated that more than 1,000 dramatic productions of the book, both amateur and professional, were staged annually between 1852 and 1900! Virtually all of them featured all-white casts with black characters performed in blackface by Caucasians. During this same period, countless parodies of the novel were staged in scores of minstrel shows, using the same techniques. Stowe's novel, then, had a regrettable, long-term effect on the dramatic depiction of blacks that the author herself could have neither anticipated nor foreclosed.
Rereading the book recently, in preparation for writing this introduction, has forced me to reevaluate once again a work that I read for the first time as a teenager over fifty years ago for a classroom assignment in a small two-room country school in southeast Georgia. That school was the setting for my own introduction to the controversy that still surrounded the novel some eighty years after its publication. Four new copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin had been donated to our school by a former black resident who had migrated to New York and "made good." Like many of the town's residents, who put a high premium on education for themselves and those who followed them, she had wanted to do something for her former school.
Shortly after I checked out my copy, the white superintendent paid one of his infrequent visits to the school. Spotting the shiny new books in the dilapidated cabinet that served as our library (twenty-five volumes—mostly outdated textbooks), he proceeded to yell at our teacher, Ms. Eliza Gowen, demanding to know where in hell she got those "goddamn pieces of Yankee trash" reposing in his library.
Without waiting for a reply, he reached into the cabinet and scattered all the books onto the floor. After threatening Ms. Gowen with dismissal if he should ever see a copy of that book on the premises again, he stormed out of the school and drove off at top speed. We children sat stunned in our seats, too scared to move. Ms. Eliza instructed one
As far as African slavery was concerned, such efforts to conceal the brutal truth, even in its fictional form, seemed to black folk growing up in the South during the first half of this century absurd in the extreme. Our surroundings were a constant reminder to us that the past was not yet The Past. One should remember that over ninety-five percent of the grandparents of southern blacks born between 1900 and 1930 not only came into the world as slaves, many of them had reached adulthood before 1865! My maternal grandmother, Harriet (Sibley) Weston, who reared me from the age of three, was born in a slave cabin on a rice plantation in Georgia in 1854. Her first eleven years were spent, as those of her generation would say, "under the gun." She was living proof of the casual brutality of slavery—not only with the physical punishments her body had suffered, but also with her stories about the cruelty of many slaveholders who made Simon Legree seem almost saintly in comparison.
When one takes into consideration the fact that, during the first half of this century, the white South was still doing its worst to keep blacks as close to their previous condition of servitude as possible, it is not surprising that the majority of them saw little difference between the treatment meted out to the slaves in the "fictional" world of Uncle Tom's Cabin and the treatment contemporary blacks were receiving in reality every day. Therefore, for those of us who read the book or, as was often the case, had it read to us, the dramatic content of the lives of its characters had an immediacy that transcended any concerns about structure, narrative, or the acccuracy of geographic or floral and faunal references. To our minds, the characters were real people—so they still are to me.
Over the years my grandmother had me read Uncle Tom's Cabin to her at least six times; she got to know the characters as if they were personal acquaintances. Thanks to her, my appreciation and understanding of the book deepened with each reading. As the man said: As I got older, it got better! And it's still a great read. As for its continued relevance for our time—please consult the latest newscasts and/or headlines.
Other author's books:
- Uncle Tom's CabinThe Ghost in the MillThe Education of Freedmen, part 1The Christian Slave: A DramaThe Mayflower, Or, Sketches of Scenes and Characters Among the Descendants of the Pilgrims.Key to Uncle Tom's CabinLady Byron VindicatedMr. And Mrs. Woodbridge
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