Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The racism of Uncle Tom's Cabin

Forgotten Classics' Julie Davies persistently goes on reading Uncle Tom's Cabin to us and consistently does so with an excellent voice. As pointed out before, this is more than just an audiobook, Davies adds footnotes where needed, for example to clarify references to Scripture, to explain uncommon word use and by the end there is always a short literary expose triggered by the latest section.

Chapters twelve to fifteen, that were read in the last two installments, raised the issue of racism again. Davies continues to play down the severity of this aspect of the work, though she will not deny it is a point for serious criticism. I am personally having a hard time putting myself over the condescending generalizations about black people Stowe throws every other chapter into her text. They stick out too naggingly to be ignored and even if they evoke what is considered generally accepted knowledge in the nineteenth century US of Stowe, it fits so badly with the rest of the book, it needs much further analysis than just the commonplace apology that Stowe is a woman of her time.

For example, in chapter fifteen, Tom arrives at the St. Clare estate, which contains an abundant mansion of Moorish style. Davies' literature lesson after the reading explains that this southern extravagance is symbolic in Stowe's novel for the moral depravity of the Slavery realm. It is therefore not terribly expectable that the paramount of moral virtue Uncle Tom himself, should approve of these looks, however, Stowe writes that blacks naturally love decorative abundance and glamor and thus explains why Tom appreciates the architecture. And so, the idea of racial traits overrules the intrinsic, specific logic of the book in which Tom is such a sober, devout person in character and behavior as well as preferences that should fit with the puritanic style of the North, where Stowe has stored the quality of the moral high ground.

Not only is there, I think, inconsistency with the narrative logic here, there is also inconsistency with the message. If slavery is such an abomination that should be abolished, why is that so? The whole effort of the book is to humanize the victims, to show they are people. And indeed the black characters are as varied, as mature and as good as the white ones in the story, if not better. On the human level Stowe drives the point home that we are all God's children and there can be no justification that one should enslave the other. This collides with the racial generalities she throws around, which reduce the blacks to children, to those who like beads and mirrors, have simple pleasures and ambitions in life and so on. This is just implicitly saying they are inferior and this is just one step away from allowing their enslavement by the 'better' whites. And if, if still, Stowe were to insist that slavery is bad, bad for the suffering it causes then it is no argument of human equality but one of mercy towards the weak. Which makes abolition an act of condescending benevolence and not of moral obligation.

Once you see this terrible bad fit with the novel, it can be attempted to simply skip those sentences and then to find nothing is lost. St. Clare asks Tom if he likes the place and Tom replies: "Yes master, it is just fine." Nothing is missing here. The inserted generalization of the blacks preferences for ornament is completely superfluous and as stated, inconsistent. It is only right it bothers the reader. But hasn't it bothered Stowe? Why did she have to throw these statements around when she absolutely did not need them?

If this is what she sincerely believed then her abolition is one of condescending benevolence towards the lowly. Isn't Life Among the Lowly the subtitle of the book? If she really did think of the black as lowly, if more pure on virtue like children, then this is racism. However, it could also be that her use of the word 'lowly' in the subtitle is sarcastic. You can read the book such that she vehemently objects to categorizing the blacks as lowly. If so, then all the more the question is: what are these sentences doing here?

As a writer I know what that kind of sentences indicate. If you are squeezing remarks in your text that do not belong there and barely fit, you act out of obligation. Then the question is, what obliged Stowe to wreck her human drama with pompous, quasi-scientific generalities? I can think of only one reason: these sentences of established science, of common sense of the time gave her some justification. She needed this for her audience.

What was her audience? I am convinced her audience are exactly those whites that she describes so well in her book, those that make up the best characters of the tale: The Shelbys, the St. Clares, Haley and so on: white middle class. That middle class that was not particularly charmed by slavery but had not translated their uncomfortable feelings yet into outright rejection. Lest she be seen as a hysterical woman (hysteria is a typical affliction the nineteenth century liked to ascribe to middle class women) who only had an eye for the individual human drama and showed no general sense like political and scientific sense, she would not be taken seriously. You could take that white middle-class with its racism and turn it against slavery more easily than uproot the racism out of them.

It is only afterward, until very recently, the sensible middle class has come to see racism for what it is and does. And so Stowe was right to not attack those racial tenets, but since she was of that white middle class herself, she may not have seen it so clearly herself and her own thinking was half way abolition and racism and her book stands exactly there, where she has come to understand slavery is wrong but not yet fully understood the underlying causes.

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

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

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