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Uncle Tom’s Cabin

February 11, 2013

I recently returned from a trip to Switzerland where I spent a week babysitting my six year old niece while her mother was away on business. Perusing an English bookstore, just off of the upscale Bahnhofstrasse, I spotted a paperback of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and decided it would be a good read for my flight back from Zurich to Seattle. Quite frankly, it was the right size, well over 400 pages but compact enough to be easily accessible from the outside pocket of my carryon. I was familiar with the book (or at least I thought I was) but had somehow never read it in high school or college. Moreover, the title, or more specifically the expression, “Uncle Tom” has a special meaning to me because my name is Thomas and as an uncle five times over I have often witnessed a knowing smile from friends and strangers after being called “Uncle Tom!” by a niece or nephew. This has even happened to me while in Switzerland where the erudite locals get some special satisfaction in poking fun at Americans.

So, I decided to pick up the novel in order to answer two questions – is it worth reading and just what, exactly, is an “Uncle Tom”?

Is it worth reading?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (hereafter referred to as UTC) was the second best-selling book of the 19th century, after (you guessed it!) the Bible. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the novel to humanize the plight of the American slave system in a deliberate attempt to raise the profile of the abolitionist movement. Lincoln is reputed to have said upon meeting the author, “So this is the little lady who made this big war!” (That quote has been determined apocryphal by Lincoln scholars.) Given the novel’s historical importance I would say that it is indeed worth reading. It is also worth reading as a great work of progressive or reform literature – likely the most consequential reform movement in U.S. history (in those days the Republicans were the progressives!) A modern marketing communications professional might well ponder what today’s equivalent might be. Jason Russell’s KONY 2012 video campaign was a similar deliberate attempt at using modern popular media to fuel a movement. What would a contemporary Harriet Beecher Stowe do for the Gun Control efforts? If in the form of a novel, it would have to be as popular as Fifty Shades of Grey, while stirring readers to take action beyond simply downloading the next installment to their Kindles.

Harriet Beecher Stowe - Hulton Archive Getty Images

Harriet Beecher Stowe – Hulton Archive Getty Images

That said, UTC is not great literature. It is sentimental, preachy and often painfully long-winded. The novel seems disjointed at times, perhaps because it was originally a series published in an abolitionist newspaper. The stories don’t have a natural interplay and some of the resolutions seem forced. And because the author takes pains to address numerous variations on the theme (kind/evil masters, defiant/subservient slaves, prejudiced Northerners, neutral observers, bounty hunters, oblivious and arrogant southern belles, etc.) the reader can often hear the plot creaking as the author maneuvers it into place. The reader also gets a heavy dose of Bible quotes and references, from that other top-selling book from the 1800’s (and of all time, I believe, unless sales of Fifty Shades of Grey recently surpassed it).

What is an “Uncle Tom”?

In modern usage, an “Uncle Tom” is considered by most to be a derogatory epithet denoting a docile, submissive black man – a long suffering and dutiful servant who actually has sympathy for his suppressors. But here’s the amazing thing I learned from reading UTC from cover to cover– Uncle Tom is not an object of deprecation at all. In fact (spoiler alert!), Uncle Tom is the noblest of all characters found in the novel. He dies for (and as a result of) his sadistic slave owner’s sins. But he also dies for his fellow slaves as well as the kind-hearted slave owners and the Free State Northerners who mistakenly assume that they are innocent because they do not actively support the institution of slavery. In short, to a very devout Harriet Beecher Stowe (the daughter of a preacher, married to a preacher) Uncle Tom might be considered a kind of Jesus.

The connotation of the term “Uncle Tom” was turned around soon after the novel became popular because bolder voices in the abolitionist movement were calling for action. “Uncle Tom” became a convenient shorthand for a passive, submissive black man who would not join the movement for fear of upsetting the system (things could get worse!). And the novel itself gained a negative, racist reputation because of the stereotypes of black people that it helped popularize for the world: the fat, dark-skinned cook or “mammy”, the buffoonish Sambo, the pickaninny children of slaves, etc. The modern reader must acknowledge this, and then set it aside as they get into a 1852 mindset in order to recognize just what a powerful and ambitious piece of persuasive (i.e., political) writing this was at the time.

In Conclusion

If I haven’t convinced you to dedicate your next transatlantic flight to a 161-year-old bestseller, I can save you the time by summarizing the 400+ pages of the novel as follows:

  • From a MarComm point-of-view, one lesson here is to choose the right medium. The novel was just coming into its own in the 1800’s and UTC found a ready audience on both sides of the Mason–Dixon line. A growing literate population found itself with long nights at home and 100 years to wait before they could turn on the TV. But more importantly, whichever medium you choose to create a groundswell for your progressive movement, be sure to connect with your audience on an emotion level. Feelings, not facts, motivate people to take action. UTC was written expressly to tug at the heartstrings of all sensible citizens.
  • About three quarters through the novel a kindhearted master has an epiphany while reading the Bible to Uncle Tom. The passage is from Matthew 25, which I’ve provided below. From this reading the slave owner is shocked to realize that God also excludes those from heaven who do no good, not just those who refrain from doing evil. In other words he learns that, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men do nothing.”* or less dramatically, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”** This for me was the primary lesson – or should I say reminder – from Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

* “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” has been widely attributed to Edmund Burke, but has not been found verbatim in any of his writings (see Citing Sources). Edmund Burke was an Irish political philosopher, a Whig politician and statesman who is often regarded as the father of modern conservatism. He lived and wrote about 100 years before the publication of UTC, from 1729 to 1797.

** “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” has been attributed to Eldridge Cleaver from a 1968 speech. But Charles Rosner, a renowned advertiser and marketer (a MarComm Man!) wrote “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” for as a recruitment slogan for VISTA in 1967.

Matthew 25:31-46 – The Son of Man Will Judge the Nations (New King James)

“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’

“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’

“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’

“Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

From → Books, Other Writings

One Comment
  1. Sixty years after its publication UTC played a starring role in the burgeoning industry. There were at least ten silent film versions of the still very popular and recognizable story. Bret Wood provides a nice write-up on the Turner Classic Movies (http://tinyurl.com/d2qabhx) site if you are interested in learning more. Note that the most ambitious of these films was produced by Universal Pictures studio chief Carl Laemmle – a distant relative, I am told.

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