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Uncle Tom's Shadow | The Nation

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Uncle Tom's Shadow

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If Robbins's historical commentary is too cursory, Gates's analysis of the book is blithe--and difficult to pin down. He often seems less admiring than amused. His introduction and annotations are peppered with witticisms, particularly at the expense of Uncle Tom's friendship with Little Eva. "Tom and Little Eva 'meet cute,' as they say in Hollywood." Or: "Tom leaves his home and almost immediately becomes involved with a young blonde."

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Darryl Lorenzo Wellington
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a writer in Charleston, South Carolina. His work has appeared in the Washington Post Book...

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For 10,000 grassroots organizers at the first US Social Forum in Atlanta, the orations were secular and the pulpit was political.

This flippancy undermines his introduction. Throughout Uncle Tom's Cabin Stowe contrasts images of happy domesticity and images of broken slave families. In the sentimentalized portraits of the Victorian era, supreme happiness was embodied by the unity of father, mother and children. Slavery constantly threatened and too often severed this unity when slave wives, husbands and children were sold away and forcibly separated from one another. This strikes me as an accurate analysis. Gates wanders far afield by claiming that "the most important room in the novel is not the kitchen but the bedroom." Rereading the novel as an adult, he is surprised by its "polymorphous sexual energy."

Gates tries to interpret the novel on the basis of its sexual symbolism, but, frankly, I don't think he has discovered anything so impressive or surprising--certainly nothing that will not already seem evident to the average adult reader. "Slavery," he notes, "in part, was about unbridled, unregulated sex, always potentially available in the relation between master and slave." Stowe intuited this, and so did her audience. Gates's emphasis on sexual symbols seems like the amusement of a child who has been assigned Uncle Tom's Cabin and, between the lines, discovered Mandingo.

Gates, in fact, seems less interested in Stowe's literary accomplishment--or lack thereof--than in James Baldwin's 1949 essay. "Everybody's Protest Novel" remains an important piece of cultural analysis, although it perfunctorily dismisses Uncle Tom's Cabin. Baldwin's hostility to the novel has been shared by many twentieth-century black writers whose works make us appreciate the depth of the psychological scars of racial prejudice. Baldwin was unable to stomach the matriarchal zeal and (by today's standards) condescending tone of Stowe's case for black emancipation--really, her case for black humanity. Gates succinctly explains the reasoning by which Baldwin accuses Stowe, the ostensible abolitionist, of backhandedly rejecting the essence of freedom: "Tom, as a character, forebears impressively, but he does not create.... Forbearance, at least Tom's sort...precludes selfhood, just as slavery sought to do. For Baldwin, this is Uncle Tom's greatest crime."

Baldwin's "Everybody's Protest Novel" is less a careful reading of Stowe's work than a personal manifesto, a gesture toward self-liberation. Baldwin refuses to see a hint of irony in Uncle Tom's Cabin. He begins his essay by scoffing at the pomposity of a statement Augustine St. Clare utters midway through: "The whole [black] race are pretty generally understood to be turned over to the devil, for our benefit, in this world, however it may turn out in another!" Yet it's clear that Stowe wants readers to view this statement critically; it has a dual significance--both as a cryptic warning and as a trope that exposes Augustine's hypocrisy as a slave owner. In a later essay Baldwin would reminisce that as a child he "read Uncle Tom's Cabin compulsively.... I was trying to find out something, sensing something in the book of some immense import for me: which, however I knew I did not really understand." This is revealing. Uncle Tom's Cabin was a novel that scarred Baldwin personally; it also fascinated him deeply. One wonders, moreover, if before writing "Everybody's Protest Novel," he had reread Uncle Tom's Cabin as an adult.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is definitely not a children's book. Rather, it is a novel that's too often read too early, whether by critics like Gates who may later be too impressed by the novel's transparent sexual content or by those who may, like Baldwin, be less than reliable in their historical and literary assessment of the novel because they cannot distance themselves from their own issues with race and identity.

Uncle Tom's Cabin would not be memorable if it were the dainty book described in "Everybody's Protest Novel," so precious and shallow in its insistence that slavery is "perfectly horrible." Forget the buffoonish stage adaptations. Uncle Tom's Cabin is as violent as a Quentin Tarantino movie. A depressed slave mother jumps with her child into a river rather than return to bondage. George Shelby, the escaped slave, picks up a gun and shoots his pursuers. The novel is unflinching in its depiction of slave auctions, whippings and the arbitrarily cruel nature of master-slave relationships. It makes most contemporary treatments of the subject look relatively tepid.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is extremely politically astute. Gates concedes that Stowe's familiarity with the international class and abolitionist debates of her time allowed her to "get inside another's head and speak in ways that are simultaneously believable and horrible." Her contrapuntal narrative shrewdly exposes slavery in a variety of aspects. As we journey through the travails of Eliza, George and Uncle Tom, we encounter slave owners who beat their slaves as well as the kind who "spoil" them--Stowe's point being that in either case the relationship kills the slaves' spirit and dignity.

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