Sunday, March 29, 2009

Uncle Tom's Cabin revisited

The podcast Forgotten Classics reads books to the listener that are either in the public domain or can be read with permission. The idea is to choose those classic works that are more or less forgotten, that host Julie Davis has taken up reading and deemed valuable to present on the show. Her latest project is the entire reading of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Forgotten Classics is far more than giving you an audio-book version of the work. Although Davies is an outstanding reader and one can certainly choose to listen to the book only, there is an added value. Julie embarks in this project on a journey to re-evaluate Uncle Tom's Cabin. She marks the common criticism that the book has racist tendencies itself and is first of all a novel of ideology and less of literature and she tests this on the experience while rereading the book.

We become partial to her thoughts and to her thorough research. The research shows that at the time, the book had been exposed to former slaves and they had acknowledged the authenticity of the work. The fact that the novel is a novel with a political message, still allows plenty room for drama and description. Even though the style is tangibly unmodern, until chapter 9, where we are now, after the latest podcast, the work is coherent and has effectively built the drama. At least Julie and a good number of her listeners are excited.

I must say I am excited myself as well. Not in the least because I have read the book, albeit in Dutch translation (probably abridged), several times when I was very young (between the age 9 and 13). The book then made a huge impression and I was amazed, while listening to the podcast, it all came back to me so strong, to the level of specific sentences. And thus, by all standards this is a very worthy project, even if we will end up with the conclusion that it is a racist work and has not too much literary value, it was worth the exercise.

In chapter eight we run into a couple of sentences that are undeniably racist. It can't be denied Stowe believed in racial traits and her description of the blacks is literally as big children. This is a common perception that I can even remember was still tangible in my youth, hence, Stowe is by all means a product of her time. Davies's effort to downplay this aspect of the work, I find unconvincing. It may indeed be so that Stowe actually saw in the former slaves a people of higher qualities and in their spirituality something more genuine, but that is merely placing the common order on its head. She is doing that throughout anyway, as the white women come out better than white men also and also in this way of being more genuine, if childlike, in their spirituality. It smacks more of a turn around that is not uncommon for devout Christian people such as Stowe and it mimics the Gospels, specific the Mountain Sermon with the meek inheriting the earth and all that.

I see no problem in accepting the inevitable and tell it like it is, that Stowe was just as locked in the common way of thinking in her age as anybody else, anywhere else. This still leaves plenty of room, or maybe even more, for appreciating how she took the logic and the principles of her age and reconstructed them such that a revolutionary message came out: one that slavery is totally immoral. And that she succeeded in doing that so well, that it reached the millions and had a considerable effect. It begs the analysis of the composition of the book, rather than the examining the fine tuning and sophistication of its philosophy and world view.

Last but not least, Forgotten Classics does more than immerse itself in this great task of revisiting Uncle Tom's cabin. There is the occasional podcast with another subject and (nearly) every show has host Julie Davies relate to her audience which gives the kind of community feel that works so well for many other podcasts as well. And if that is not all, Julie also gives podcast reviews that deserve attention. I am hooked for the time to come.

More Forgotten Classics:
Cooking with Forgotten Classics,
Forgotten Classics - podcast review.

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