Celebrating Black History Month at the VCU Libraries
Reviewed by Kevin Farley, Collection Librarian for the Humanities
Perhaps no other novel from the nineteenth century -- and perhaps no other novel in the history of American literature -- is as controversial as Uncle Tom's Cabin, by anti-slavery activist and novelist, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Even in its own time, the novel was extraordinarily divisive -- though not for reasons that 21st Century readers would expect. When first published in 1852, Stowe's depiction of the general brutalities of slavery, and of the particular inhuman acts of slave-owners, was seen by many white readers across the nation as excessive and improbable. And as the historical moment that incited Stowe to write her novel receded (the growth of the abolition movement, the Civil War), critical focus shifted to the depiction of the title character, a slave whose fortitude -- or perhaps docility, as is often argued -- enables him to endure the gradually worsening conditions of slavery, as, through a series of bargains, he is sold to lesser and lesser beneficent masters. Yet Stowe's Uncle Tom -- a name that now represents passive acceptance of unspeakable injustices -- embodies all of the virtues -- profound Christian faith, stoic indifference to the misfortunes of fate, and especially unparalleled moral and physical courage to defend the weak -- that her white readers claimed to value above all others. In showing Uncle Tom's virtues, and cataloging the lack of them in most of the novel's white characters, Stowe holds an unflattering mirror up to her society, daring an unflinching self-examination of their consciences. Stowe's conflicted depiction of Uncle Tom, however, perfectly captures the inherent racism of her times, as well as the ongoing presence of this problem in contemporary America. This new edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin, illustrated profusely with original and recent portrayals of the novel's characters, and annotated with insightful commentary by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (an acclaimed scholar of African American Studies), provides extensive historical context for the novel and also its critical reception, debate, repudiation, and abiding controversy.