Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The hidden opinions of Harriet Beecher Stowe

A kind of dialog has evolved between Julie Davies of Forgotten Classics and myself. As Julie is reading Uncle Tom's Cabin on her show, we are exchanging thoughts on the issue of racism in this famous novel.

Until chapter 16 both Julie and myself have been struck by sentences that were sticking out of the text that made generalist remarks about blacks and that were quite demeaning. Julie has sort of taken on the position that Stowe, as a woman of her time, could not help herself from thinking along the lines of theories on racial traits and was not intentionally racist. In my previous review I have opposed this idea on account that these generalities neither fit in the story nor in the message of Uncle Tom and therefore take on a nagging racist motif.

Chapter 16 however, decidedly makes this much more complicated. Stowe lets loose a monologue by Marie St. Clare that expresses all the racism you could accuse her of and while this goes on it is so clear the writer makes a mockery of the speaker. In case this had escaped you, she closes off the chapter with explicitly stating her opinion. She positions herself, not just against slavery, but also explicitly against racism. This makes a strong point for Julie's view on the matter that the book is not racist. It makes however the ideas on racial traits rather problematic and especially Stowe's opinion on the issue remains hidden.

Together with great drama and sophisticated character positioning (with Marie, Ophelia and St. Clare) Stowe's novel takes us in and on the subject of race and equality she forces us to think. Even if her own answers are not so clear. Julie's choice to pick this book for her show turns out to be a fantastic one.

Picture: Title-page illustration by Hammatt Billings (wikimedia commons)

More Forgotten Classics:
The racism of Uncle Tom's Cabin,
Uncle Tom's Cabin revisited,
Cooking with Forgotten Classics,
Forgotten Classics - podcast review.
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