Tuesday, May 22, 2007

What I Did this weekend

...was read Uncle Tom's Cabin. Well, finish it; I steamrolled through most of it this weekend, though (hi, blogless Lynne!). As one might expect from a nineteenth century bestseller, it’s a pretty zippy read.

I’d never read this before; my knowledge comes from talking points that I learned in elementary school and the loose adaptation within The King and I, “Small House of Uncle Thomas.” Well, golly, but that Tuptim sure got a lot of things wrong!

“Written by a Woooman Harriet Beecher Stowe!” – correct on this.
The stuff about Uncle Thomas living in his cabin with Topsy and Eva and Eliza having much of anything to do with it, well, that’s pretty mixed up. Tom is sold off from his cabin at the beginning of the book and never makes it back. Eliza never meets Topsy. Topsy drives the other characters nuts.
“Run, Eliza, run! Run from Simon!” – okay, that whole thing is totally wrong. Eliza jumps from teetering iceberg to teetering iceberg in the first 30 pages of the book, and it is most certainly not over water frozen hard enough to walk across—the river ice has broken up and she’s crossing anyway. Simon Legree doesn’t show up at all until the last 70 pages or so. The two don’t ever meet, let alone have a dramatic chase.
“Buddha make a miracle: snow!” It never snows. Not once.
I’m kinda fuzzy on whether “lover George” (husband, thank you) and baby son George die in the King & I version (you’d think I’d remember after being in a six week run of the thing). I do remember that Eliza or somebody or other ascends a staircase to heaven and union with Buddha, basically dying. This does not happen in the book, even transposing “Jesus” for “Buddha.” Eliza, her NOT baby but 7 year old son, and her husband all make it to safety in Canada.

Stowe is in all-out high Christian moral indignation throughout. The redeeming power of faith in Jesus is a huge part of the book. She appeals to the Christianity of her readers and begs them to abolish slavery, in the name of their professed faith. She takes on all the arguments I’ve ever heard justifying slavery, or even leaving it alone, and just knocks ‘em flat. Somehow at the end she manages to end up arguing that the biggest demonstrable evil of the whole system is that blacks could not testify in court proceedings against whites. It feels like she backed herself into a corner and couldn’t figure out how to extricate herself and get back to the basic theme: that slavery debases both slave and master. And there’s a kind of oddball “everybody move to Liberia” idea, which she then argues against anyway.

One point that I hadn’t seen mentioned before was to do with the complicity of northern businessmen. You’ve heard the Triangle Trade bit, of course (and I was in a production of 1776, too, so I can even sing the whole frigging story if you’re not careful about how much wine you give me). What I hadn’t realized was that traders in the Northeast, when doing business with concerns in the slave states, would take nominal ownership of slaves and re-sell them. All they saw was the paperwork, but tradable assets included slaves. Estates would be “liquidated,” meaning all assets were sold on death of owner if needed to pay debts (which tended for Southern gentlemen to be rather shockingly huge), and that included auctioning off slaves. Plenty of northern lawyers were involved in the slave trade this way, apparently.

She also writes, more than once, that sure there are kind, saintly people who don’t do awful things, but since when is the majority of the human race made up of mostly saints? As good an argument against the Patriot Act as I’ve heard, that one.

Crazed Weasel book report now over. Have a spiffy day, all!


Blogger Lucia said...

I never read UTC; apparently I've been remiss. I'm not too surprised about trading in "assets" on paper and probably telling yourself it wasn't the same as actually *working* slaves, and if you didn't do it someone else would.

Interestingly enough, absolutely nowhere in the Bible, OT or NT, does it say that slavery is wrong; in fact there are bits about the proper treatment of slaves and the proper attitude of a slave toward his master (slavish). Both sides of the slavery argument used the Bible and Christianity as moral support.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Carole Knits said...

I read Uncle Tom's Cabin years ago for a Civil War discussion group we sponsored at the library. I found it tiresome. ;-)

2:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Liz!

I love your insight into both UTC and 1776 – I must remember to keep your wine glass full next time as I would love a rousing rendition of Molasses to Rum or He Plays the Violin (Oh, how I yearned to be Blythe Danner in my youth).

What I found most fascinating about the book is the author’s constant reference to the slaves as a happy, gentle, people who cooked and sang well. She didn’t seem to understand that by constantly grouping them as “a people” rather than as individuals, even for complimentary purposes, she was reinforcing the same philosophy that allowed their continued enslavement.

I think the Christianity discussion is one for the book club and for the highlighters!

I’m glad I read it. If for no other reason than to set my King and I derived knowledge straight.


3:39 PM  
Blogger Mel said...

I tried to read it once. I fall into Carole's camp. Victorian era verbosity just leaves me cold.

6:41 PM  
Blogger Ruth said...

Long car rides bring out the musicalista in you, too.

I've never read UTC either. Perhaps I should.

9:47 AM  

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