Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Masterpiece or Racist Fluff?

Over at Slate, Stephen Metcalf deconstructs reactions to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, starting with how it affected 19th century readers to how it is loathed (or rehabilitated by more modern readers, including African-Americans and women.

James Baldwin, in a famous essay for The Partisan Review in 1949, saw the priority of Tom over Harris as anything but innocent and pious. Harris, Baldwin argued, is a “race apart” from the novel’s blackest characters the little girl Topsy, and Tom himself. Harris’ dignity is therefore tied, as Baldwin puts it, to his being “sufficiently un-Negroid to pass through town, a fugitive from his master, disguised as a Spanish gentleman, attracting no attention beyond admiration.” It is tied, in other words, to his whiteness. Tom is therefore Stowe’s “only black man,” whom she has “robbed of his humanity and divested of his sex.” Baldwin loathed the novel, which he felt yoked a terror of blackness to a “terror of damnation,” then “saved” Tom by rendering him an intellectual and sexual eunuch who gives himself over entirely to martyrdom. Baldwin finally sets his thermometer on roast: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin then, is activated by what might be called a theological terror, the terror of damnation; and the spirit that breathes in this book, hot, self-righteous, fearful, is not different from that terror that activates a lynch mob.”

Metcalf also cites Jane Smiley’s reactions to the work (she considers it passionate and insightful). I tend to agree more with Baldwin than Smiley on this one. Metcalf concludes by saying that “maybe we can delineate the understandable limits of its heroism and admit its manifest crudity as a work of literary art.”