Thursday, October 22, 2009

Entering Uncle Tom’s Cabin

I wonder what my good friend The English Teacher thinks of requiring high school students to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Would he like to see it as part of the core English curriculum, or an AP course? Would he introduce students to the work of Hawthorne’s “scribbling women” and offer a feminist critique of the academy’s rejection of 19th-century sentimental literature? To understand the novel, would students need more than half the class time devoted to Antebellum history? Wouldn’t Uncle Tom’s Cabin better be offered as a segment of the school’s American history course?

These questions came to mind as I read Jane Smiley’s introduction to Stowe’s novel. Uncle Tom’s Cabin “is not only a compelling, readable, wise, and well-constructed novel, but also the most important American literary document of the nineteenth century,” she writes. (Important because it “educated” northerners about the evils of slavery. But more likely, Stowe intensified northern feelings about a condition most northerners understood, yet had conveniently stowed in the backs of their minds.) The novel is “hot property…uncomfortable to read, hard to teach, controversial….It refuses to lie down and become a historical artifact…but continues to intrigue and offend and demand partisanship on the part of every reader.”

The first of my six adult class sessions on Uncle Tom’s Cabin made clear how hot the novel is. The class opened with a discussion of Sam and Andy’s antics that delay the slave trader Haley’s pursuit of Eliza as she flees north to Canada.

“Why have you been loitering so, Sam? [asks Mrs. Shelby] I sent Andy to tell you to hurry.”

“Lord bless you, Missis!” said Sam, “horses won’t be cotched all in a minit; they’d done clared out way down to the south pasture, and the Lord knows whar!”

“Sam, how often must I tell you not to say ‘Lord bless you, and the Lord knows,’ and such things? It’s wicked.”

"Oh Lord bless my soul; I done forgot..."

”Why, Sam, you just have said it again.”

“….Be careful of the horses, Sam;… don’t let them ride too fast.”

“Let dis child alone for dat! said Sam, rolling up his eyes with a volume of meaning.”

“I understand what Stowe is doing,” remarked one of the class, “but still…” Her reaction carries through the novel. But still… Because the world Stowe depicts offends us, we struggle to understand her achievement with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, hiding the novel’s cover in paper so bus riders won’t confront us, laughing uncomfortably at Stowe’s humor, feeling queasy about reading the novel at all. There is no other novel like it. The private musings of Leopold Bloom, the sexual obsessions of Proust’s Marcel, even the scatological world of a Houllebecq novel don’t hold a candle to the power of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to make us squirm.

Stowe’s novel is hot property, and the sweat brings with it aspects of our past that we had put out of mind. An ancestor of one of the class was a slaveholder in Missouri, having settled there after the Compromise of 1820, which allowed slavery in that state. Another was raised by a mammy, a common practice in the Texas region where his family lived. A young child in the fifties, I was in a tap dance recital, costumed in black face and white gloves. If we entered Uncle Tom’s Cabin thinking it a historical document of a time far removed from us, we’ve found that the distance between the world the novel depicts and us is not quite as great as we would like.

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