Uncle Tom's Shadow
Contemporary readers (white Southerners in particular) may be surprised that Uncle Tom's Cabin is not exclusively an attack on Southern society. Stowe was not oblivious to the racism of polite Northern society. Augustine St. Clare, the guilty Southern slave owner, convinces Miss Ophelia, who is visiting from New England, of the truth of his words: "You would not have them abused; but you don't want to have anything to do with them yourselves."
Nor is Uncle Tom an "Uncle Tom." He is a Christ symbol. This pivotal character needs to be understood both in the context of religious nineteenth-century America and Stowe's contrapuntal narrative. In the midst of this very violent book, the religious Uncle Tom is the calm at the eye of the storm: patient, tolerant, unwilling to use violence himself even when--a point conveniently overlooked--he approves of other slaves' decision to stage overt revolt. Uncle Tom encourages George and Eliza to flee. Knowing no other way of life, he chooses to resist the slave system by small acts of kindness and moral persuasion. The vast majority of American slaves would never flee their plantations. Stowe is contrasting two forms of resistance (which in many ways parallel the philosophical differences between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X): the Bible and the gun.
Yet Uncle Tom's Cabin has merits beyond that of a skillful piece of critical sociology. The real force of the book lies in its images. Many of Stowe's intellectualizations are easy to mock. Like most nineteenth-century writers--including white abolitionists--she habitually assigns her black characters "natural" abilities. She has no understanding that collective generalizations, however "positive," can be derogatory. Yet her images--her visualizations--are more complex than her intellectualizations.
There is a reason Uncle Tom's Cabin has fascinated illustrators. Stowe's abilities as an image-maker are priceless. This is also why in memory the novel easily fragments into isolated scenes: Eliza crossing the river of ice, Topsy's pranks, Uncle Tom's death.
Note the clever pairings of black and white imagery throughout Uncle Tom's Cabin. Many artists have been fascinated, in particular, by the friendship of the angelic Little Eva and her black mirror image, Topsy. Images like these--with their profound ambiguity--insinuate that blackness and whiteness are, in some sense that Stowe cannot quite grasp intellectually, dependent on each other. It may strike contemporary readers (it certainly struck me) that in her limited, faltering way Stowe hinted at what today we call the concept of race as a social construct.
Uncle Tom is also a remarkable image. He is the most overtly symbolic character in the novel--so much so that Stowe can never quite capture his physical reality. He is a kind of superman. Or, rather, a super-Christian. Stowe has overburdened Uncle Tom symbolically, but by the end of the novel her intentions are clear. Uncle Tom dies--Simon Legree whips him to death--for refusing to inform on the whereabouts of two escaped slaves. Uncle Tom is Stowe's black Christ.
Harriet Beecher Stowe's strength and weakness was that she wrote in broad strokes. Her universe consisted of representative characters who embodied the attitudes, politics and poetry of daily life in antebellum America. Because her archetypal images simultaneously fascinated and unnerved her audience--that is, because they struck home--the book became a staple of popular culture, and her archetypes were debased into stereotypes: the Good Slave, the Tragic Mulatto, the Cruel Slavemaster. Uncle Tom's Cabin is deeply flawed, but it transcends these caricatures. While its intellectual content creaks, its images continue to haunt.