Monday, June 5, 2017

Uncle Tom's Cabin: one of the best, one of the worst


First there is this from The Writer's Almanac, a brief snippet that pulled me out of my morning doldrums and motivated me to make this abbreviated posting:

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (books by this author) began its serial run in abolitionist newspaper the National Era on this date in 1851. It ran in weekly installments for 10 months. It generated some interest among opponents to slavery, but it didn't reach a larger audience until it was republished as a book in 1852.

Many critics dismissed the novel as sentimental, and several characters gave rise to persistent stereotypes of African-Americans. Even so, it attracted thousands of Northerners to the abolitionist cause. The book sold 300,000 copies in the United States in its first year in print.

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And there is this personal postscript:

I remember dragging myself through Stowe's over-blown novel years ago in graduate school, and I recall that I thought the novel was at once one of the best (for its time) and one of the worst (for all times) I ever encountered. If I were to succumb to this morning's impulse, one of many impulses that plague my day-to-day existence and befuddle my Swiss-cheese brain, I would download a public domain Kindle copy and attempt reading Stowe's epic again. On the other hand, life is far too short and Stowe's novel is far too long, so I will skip the rereading attempt because I can think of far better ways to spend my precious commodity: time.

Well, enough of my meandering stream of consciousness and unsubstantiated gripes about what I think is an over-rated "great American novel." So I close this brief posting with a few conversation provoking questions:

Have you read Uncle Tom's Cabin?
What do you think?
Is my superficial assessment fair and accurate?

Perhaps you can think of other so-called "great American novels," paradoxical renderings that are among the best and the worst.

Let's discuss the issues.




20 comments:

  1. Whatever its literary merits (or lack thereof), Tim, Uncle Tom's Cabin certainly had an impact. As to 'best and worst,' I think that one factor that bears taking into account is the way people read. Before the advent of radio and television, I wonder if it was more customary for people to read longer books (not that no-one does that now). I wonder if that impacts what we think of as 'too long.'

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    1. Yes, Margot, context matters a great deal. Readers in the mid-19th century are not the same as early-21st century readers. For me, though, Stowe's novel is a long, boring drag. I guess that says more about me than about the novel.

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  2. Tim,

    I first read it many years ago in grad school, and then I read it less than a year ago, as it was the selection for a book group I belong to.

    I reread it for two reasons: 1. it was a group selection, and 2. I wanted to see if my attitude had changed.

    It hadn't: it still is long-winded and overly sentimental, and still is filled with stereotyped characterizations. I don't plan on reading ti again, even if it's a selection by a book group.

    That being said: _Uncle Tom's Cabin_ is one of the most important US novels ever written, but its importance is political and social, and not literary, at least so it seems to me.

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    1. Fred, I wonder. What other American books were important and popular but literary failures. On the other side of the coin, I can think of THE novel that was important, literary, but not at all popular (i.e., a failure): _Moby-Dick_. There might be no other book quite like Melville's in those terms. What do you think? Are there others out there?

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    2. Tim,

      I can't think of any at this time. I believe that both UTC and Moby Dick are unique, unlike anything else in US lit.

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  3. whatisit: the Bay Psalm book, the first book printed in America... only a half dozen copies extant, and read by nobody, but unquestionably a very important book..
    according to some bloggers, E.A. Poe is an inferior writer, but his work is certainly well known and has been influential...
    Charles Brockden Brown: maybe the first, or one of the first, popular and money-making authors... sic: Wieland i tried reading it once; i can't say it was poorly written, but it was definitely not in the modern style...
    there are others, no doubt, but none that i'm familiar with... at the moment, anyhow...

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    1. Now there's a coincidence, Mudpuddle, because I've just downloaded a Poe collection and I'll be reading (and commenting upon?) some of his stuff. I have my own negative criticism of Poe, but how can I be right and millions of readers wrong. So I'm willing to be proven wrong. Any favorites by Poe, Mudpuddle?

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    2. "In the Mountains of Madness", was a personal favorite, although "The Maelstrom" and his other sea stories are also excellent... "Gordon Pym" etc.

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    3. Interesting that Lovecraft slipped in there!

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    4. In the Mountains of Madness was a logical if accidental leap beyond Poe. No problem.

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    5. Marly: haha. he said with some embarrassment... things tend to blend together in some older minds...

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  4. Well, I'm going to be unpopular and say I liked Uncle Tom's Cabin. The writing may come across as sentimental today, but I did not perceive any stereotype, but maybe I'm not that perceptive.

    I thought Stowe wrote with charm and wit and made some perspicacious points as to the evils of slavery. One, that people up north may be against slavery but if they do business with people in the South they are perpetuating the thing they say they are against.

    Also, that if every slave owner was as sadistic as Simon Legree, slavery would have been abolished sooner. I'm not so sure of that because there are horrific accounts of slave owners, enough to make it heinous.

    But I liked how she showed how even benevolent slave owners could be inadvertently cruel if they did not financially provide for their slaves in the case of unexpected death.

    12 Years a slave also showed this. You could be a "nice" slave owner but if you became financially bereft, your slaves could become totally lost.

    I am currently reading Puddin' Head Wilson to my parents. I find the problem of defining "black" to be as fascinating as it is insane.

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    1. Sharon, I think you make some good points. Your current reading of Twain intrigues me, especially in terms of Twain's representations of race in his work, and I hope to revisit Twain very soon. Perhaps we can compare notes.

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    2. Sharon: good points; truth is the best weapon against cruelty and avarice...

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  5. Yes. Was interested in it, particularly the set pieces (crossing the river ice, etc.) but not primarily because of its value as literature. It is important.

    I don't really know why we don't look at the writers you managed to pull literature out of the black hat of wilderness as quite successful magic-makers. We are still a young country, and back then, it was quite raw. The effort of somebody like Charles Brockden Brown, say, to be something we had never had, a professional writer--the difficulty and the cost.

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    1. Perhaps the notion of a national literature creates problems. Such a label might be superfluous. Mea culpa.

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    2. Marly: tx for correcting me; it's always good to discover one's errors...

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  6. Note to everyone: you persuade me that I should perhaps cease bloviating about literature because, as your corrections suggest, my Swiss cheese mind seems more and more incapable of cogent observations and sensible opinions. This is one of bad days.

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    1. you're not the only one... i'm not exactly batting on eight cylinders myself...

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