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Uncle Tom's Cabin - Ch. 1 through 6

#149: Oct. - Dec. 2016 (Fiction)
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Chris OConnor

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Uncle Tom's Cabin - Ch. 1 through 6

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Uncle Tom's Cabin - Ch. 1 through 6

Please use this thread to discuss the above chapters of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
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Robert Tulip

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Re: Uncle Tom's Cabin - Ch. 1 through 6

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a core document in American race relations, illustrating how the evil sin of slavery continues to traumatise both white and black. Uncle Tom’s Cabin has the subtitle ‘Life Among the Lowly’. This subtitle has already introduced the Christian ideas that blessed are the meek and persecuted, foreshadowing the echo of Christ’s attack on hypocrisy which becomes a main theme of the book.

I have the view that a big reason the Ten Commandments are so popular among the descendants of slavers is that the tenth commandment provides an injunction from God not to covet your neighbour’s slave. This is part of the tradition that only men of property qualify as persons. The commandments also note that the sins of the parents cause problems for the children down to the third and fourth generation. I don’t think that the sins of the 1850s have yet worked their way out of the American political and social system, so it is valuable to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin to help us psychoanalyse the trauma of slavery. Analysing trauma against Christian values can enable us to explore precisely what and who still needs repentance and forgiveness. Some genuine sorrow might perform the task described by John the Baptist in Mark’s Gospel, providing the basis for forgiveness, reconciliation and restorative justice under the eye of grace.

There are six characters introduced in Chapter One, ‘In which the reader is introduced to a man of humanity’. The two gentlemen in Kentucky whose haggling over human chattels opens the book have an instinctive racist contempt for niggers, but Shelby, the supposed man of humanity, feigns genuine humane concern that he may have to sell Tom down the river to Haley the slave trader. Tom only appears offstage, as the whites haggle over whether to toss in a Michael-Jackson-style minstrel aged four as part of the sale price. This child, whose rather surprising name is given as ‘Jim Crow’, gives a show worthy of the Jackson Five in their early prime. Jim’s mother is then doing the hair of Shelby’s wife, and the slave mistress expresses her high ethical certainty that her husband’s morals would not allow him to sell the slave child, mentioning how another black mother went insane and died after her baby was ripped from her arms, and after all, slaves are human beings.

Shelby has so trusted Tom that he sent him to Ohio by himself on business, assuming his respect for rule of law would mean he would return meekly, “a good, sensible, steady, pious fellow”. Haley evinced doubt that any nigger can be a Christian, with a classic Trumpism: ‘some folks don’t believe there is pious niggers Shelby, but I do’. Rather like the recent conversion to belief in Obama’s birth, ‘many people are saying’ things which an individual can express with some doubt while still putting the dog whistle out there among les deplorables.
Last edited by Robert Tulip on Tue Sep 27, 2016 8:44 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Uncle Tom's Cabin - Ch. 1 through 6

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Really glad you're reading the book, Robert. It'll be interesting to track the author's particular limitations--from our point of view--regarding race. Already we see that she, like nearly every single one of her contemporaries, subscribed to racialism. Racism seems the wrong word to apply to Stowe, who had notions about 'the Negro mind' that included lower intellectualism. Racism implies to me belief in inferiority that justifies less humane treatment.

We'll see religion play out in interesting ways, too. I find that Tom's being 'Christianized' shows how high Stowe wished to raise him, as though his believing is proof positive that he is equal, or at least nearly so, to any white. Stowe herself said that it was her faith that compelled her to be anti-slavery, but a profession of faith obviously didn't generally turn believers against slavery, so the faithful failed crucially, something Stowe must know. We even see a hint of atheism in Eliza's husband, George. Stowe gives respect to his viewpoint that a just God could never condone an evil like slavery.

In the madcap antics of Sam, the lovably incompetent Machiavellian, we have the familiar vehicle of common relief. It's unlikely that Stowe will give us a white person clowning like this. It might have been her image of the Negro personality that made her reproduce what now seems like an offensive stereotype.
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Re: Uncle Tom's Cabin - Ch. 1 through 6

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Chapter Two, The Mother, is written with a cold moral fury, an indignation at the evil injustice of slavery.

George Harris, mulatto husband of the beautiful quadroon Eliza, is handsome and brilliant and inventive and productive, but is condemned to the drudgery of an “intelligent chattel … in the eyes of the law not a man but a thing, subject to the control of a vulgar, narrow-minded tyrannical master.” Out of sheer spite, malice, envy and jealousy at George’s intellectual prowess, his owner, also Mr Harris, takes control of his property, George Harris, removing him from productive factory invention and sending him to slave in the fields. Apparently the sole purpose of this cruelty is to prove that uppity niggers need to be put in their place, to show that the idea that “the man could not become a thing” could readily be controlled by the lash.

A further tragedy in this chapter is in how Eliza’s mistress, Mrs Shelby, persists in her belief that blacks are human beings, creating all sorts of ambitions around common humanity and equality.

When the manufacturer to whom George was hired seeks him back, Mr Harris says, in words dripping with ironic stupidity, “Its a free country, sir; the man’s mine, and I do what I please with him - that’s it!”
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Re: Uncle Tom's Cabin - Ch. 1 through 6

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I'm interested in Stowe's identifying Eliza as "quadroon," or a person with one mixed-race parent and the other white. With three-quarters of such a person's heritage being white, it is strange that the tainted quarter qualified that person as subject to ownership. The matter of racial accounting can seem complicated: what would Eliza'a son, with a black (but how black?) father be designated? It's obvious, I think, that the controlling factor here is really the shade of the person's skin or the texture of his or her hair, regardless of the perceived proportions of racial mix. You can be a slave with dark skin and kinky hair. But there is a lot to delve into regarding the political uses of this racial measuring.

Stowe says that quadroon women are often gorgeous, uniquely so. Her cultural myopia might prevent her from appraising a full-blooded African in the same way. None of us are likely to be free from such restricted views.

I forget how prominent George Harris is in the rest of the book. His refusal to be subdued can be seen as a welcome counterweight to Uncle Tom's acceptance of injustice.
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Re: Uncle Tom's Cabin - Ch. 1 through 6

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Chapter Three opens with the genius slave, George Harris, bitterly telling his wife Eliza that he wishes he and his son had never been born. Stowe subverts the moral basis of the master-slave relationship with a classic slave’s-eye view statement:
“My master! and who made him my master? That’s what I think of--what right has he to me? I’m a man as much as he is. I’m a better man than he is. I know more about business than he does; I am a better manager than he is; I can read better than he can; I can write a better hand,--and I’ve learned it all myself, and no thanks to him,--I’ve learned it in spite of him; and now what right has he to make a dray-horse of me?--to take me from things I can do, and do better than he can, and put me to work that any horse can do? He tries to do it; he says he’ll bring me down and humble me, and he puts me to just the hardest, meanest and dirtiest work, on purpose!”
The tragedy that law can institutionalise rank injustice in personal power relations based on color is explored. When people can do things, they will. And when an inferior talent owns a superior talent as a chattel, the result is mutual humiliation:
“I have been careful, and I have been patient, but it’s growing worse and worse; flesh and blood can’t bear it any longer;--every chance he can get to insult and torment me, he takes. I thought I could do my work well, and keep on quiet, and have some time to read and learn out of work hours; but the more he sees I can do, the more he loads on. He says that though I don’t say anything, he sees I’ve got the devil in me, and he means to bring it out; and one of these days it will come out in a way that he won’t like, or I’m mistaken!”
Arbitrary whipping follows, and drowning of a pet dog from sheer cruelty, malice and oppressiveness, leading the slave to the inability to believe God could ordain such evil.

Canada or death!
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Re: Uncle Tom's Cabin - Ch. 1 through 6

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Harriet Beecher Stowe is utterly brilliant at tugging the heart strings.
In Chapter Four, we are introduced to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the most homely, delightful, warm and friendly place you could imagine, where the poverty of the slaves is forgotten in a spirit of community togetherness and love.

The chapter ends, after the warming bonhomie of the cabin has created a beautiful glow of shared humanity, with the papers signed for Tom to be sold down the river, floating in chains from Kentucky down the Mississippi to Louisiana to be worked to death. His old owner is exposed as a monstrous selfish hypocrite, claiming to extol Christian virtues but willing to sell a slave to whom he has strong ties of friendship and familiarity, to a potentially ghastly fate of random suffering. When it comes to the crunch, the legal framework of slavery means Tom and Eliza’s young boy are treated as inanimate commodities, existing only in the cash nexus, with no spiritual value. This chapter provides an excellent illustration of how commodification traumatises the owner as much as the slave, producing a horrible alienated greed that cuts off essential human relationships and empathy.

There is a strong thread of authentic Christianity throughout this book, not the self serving faith based on fantasy and lies, but the integrity of saying that unless you are sorry for doing wrong, and understand why your mistake is wrong, you cannot be forgiven, the idea which opens Mark's Gospel. The implication is that American society, due to the indignant absence of sorrow, carries the weight of unredeemed sin as a source of psychological and social disconnection and trauma. Such practical ideas are a good way to analyse concepts like sin against real ethical problems, unlike the fake problems which many conservative churches focus on.
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Re: Uncle Tom's Cabin - Ch. 1 through 6

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As an external judgment, Robert, your sentence on Mr. Shelby is no doubt correct. Do you feel, though, that the author means to condemn him as strongly as you do? There is a laudable awareness on Stowe's part that the social acceptance of slavery does compromise even good people, entangling them in moral crime. I think this is a somewhat different phenomenon from the traumatizing of the slaveholders that you speak of.

But no question, it's painful to see the younger Mr. Shelby calling Tom "my boy," regardless of the genuine feeling he may have for Tom. Tom certainly extols Mr. Shelby as a humane master, with perfect Christian meekness. For Stowe, apparently, the Negro race excelled in the submissive and spiritual qualities that made one a perfect Christian, putting the Saxon-blooded ruling class to shame. Here we come up against the reasons for some of the anti-Tom sentiment that animated politically active African-Americans at the dawn of the civil rights era. Tom's refusal to curse his enslavement was anything but admirable.
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Re: Uncle Tom's Cabin - Ch. 1 through 6

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DWill wrote:As an external judgment, Robert, your sentence on Mr. Shelby is no doubt correct. Do you feel, though, that the author means to condemn him as strongly as you do?
”Monstrous selfish hypocrite” appears to me to be how Stowe views Shelby, which is a very painful judgment on those who would prefer to shift their own evil onto others. This becomes clearer once Tom has been shackled and dispatched, and the younger Shelby accosts the trader, in Chapter 10:

“Look here, now, Mister,” said George, with an air of great superiority, as he got out, “I shall let father and mother know how you treat Uncle Tom!” “You’re welcome,” said the trader. “I should think you’d be ashamed to spend all your life buying men and women, and chaining them, like cattle! I should think you’d feel mean!” said George. “So long as your grand folks wants to buy men and women, I’m as good as they is,” said Haley; “‘tan’t any meaner sellin’ on ‘em, that ‘t is buyin’!”


Stowe is here using the amoral trader to voice her view that the grand folks' who benefit from slavery are just as culpable as those who do their dirty work for them. This is a helpful insight into the actions of the senatorial imperial class going back to the Roman Empire, when Senators wore togas to prevent them from performing manual work, to indicate their moral superiority to those who lived by trade and toil. Meanwhile the Senators were making the decisions for their vast slave estates that cast multitudes into miserable hopeless drudgery, and washing their hands like Pilate.
DWill wrote: There is a laudable awareness on Stowe's part that the social acceptance of slavery does compromise even good people, entangling them in moral crime.
I think she is going further and asking if a person’s self-perception as good and noble can be justified when their actions betoken hypocrisy. This is a core theme in the Bible, where Jesus condemns the religious leaders of his day as hypocrites for using a good appearance to conceal moral corruption.
DWill wrote:I think this is a somewhat different phenomenon from the traumatizing of the slaveholders that you speak of.
I see hypocrisy as the core problem causing trauma among those who materially benefit from evil. Because in order to maintain a self-image as a good person, their evil action must somehow be rationalised, along the lines of Aristotle’s old view that slavery would exist until looms could spin themselves (which proved correct given the end of overt slavery due to the industrial revolution). Rationalising ones actions generally involves deception, and the construction of an imaginary fantasy self image, which serves to conceal the suffering caused by your decisions. Such delusion produces ideology which produces suffering and trauma.

Jane Austen discussed this problem in Mansfield Park, exploring how the genteel classes of England acquired their money for leisure through the mechanism of the whip on the sugar estates of Antigua, discussed at
https://consideringausten.wordpress.com ... -her-time/ “Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?” “I did – and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.” “I longed to do it – but there was such a dead silence!” –
Image
DWill wrote:But no question, it's painful to see the younger Mr. Shelby calling Tom "my boy," regardless of the genuine feeling he may have for Tom.
Perhaps the “painful” aspect here is the disjunction between modern values of equality and slave-era values where any assertion of equality between races was rank treason, social subversion, reckless indifference to law and order.
DWill wrote:Tom certainly extols Mr. Shelby as a humane master, with perfect Christian meekness.
You would recall DWill in our recent discussion of the autobiography of Booker T Washington, Up from Slavery, the problem of Uncle Tom’s submissiveness came up as a major critique of blacks who accept the existing social order of the south. Again it illustrates a core problem of morality, the dilemma of evolution and revolution.

Is the position of integrity found in the effort to improve and reform existing systems, such as Tom’s deference to the young white master, or in the revolutionary action to abolish an evil system? Clearly with slavery, abolition had a momentum before the civil war, partly thanks to Uncle Tom's Cabin and its stark presentation of the moral dilemmas involved.

Lincoln’s revolutionary demand for abolition came to make all previous efforts to improve the lot of slaves without abolition appear as craven appeasement. But that is a stark extreme, and the unfortunate thing is that before a revolution it can be impossible for those living within an older system to imagine its abolition.
DWill wrote: For Stowe, apparently, the Negro race excelled in the submissive and spiritual qualities that made one a perfect Christian, putting the Saxon-blooded ruling class to shame.
Except that submission is a very ambiguous moral quality. Islam means submission, indicating the need to subordinate our rational faculties before the high eternal alleged wisdom of the Koran. But that has produced the squalor of Islamic backwardness.

There is a strong conflict in Christian interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, with the old ‘lord in castle and beggar at the gate’ theology of stability reading Jesus as commanding Christians to be meek. But liberation theologians note that the first slap is a backhander, an expression of disrespect by the noble to the commoner, and turning the other cheek is an act of defiance, not submission.
DWill wrote: Here we come up against the reasons for some of the anti-Tom sentiment that animated politically active African-Americans at the dawn of the civil rights era. Tom's refusal to curse his enslavement was anything but admirable.
Those are the central moral dilemmas that are still alive within Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I am particularly struck by the messages that relate to illegal immigration and the rights of refugees. These are not simple problems to be solved by indignation, and it is instructive to see Stowe’s effort to hold her own moral integrity in a way that can retain respect for the Saxon world while revolutionising its reliance on chattel labor.
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Re: Uncle Tom's Cabin - Ch. 1 through 6

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Just got through the first six chapters of UTC. I've never read this book before but was aware of its importance in the abolitionist movement in US history. My modern sensibilitles were definitely shocked by this book and I can see why it is not read in middle and high schools anymore. While progressive for the 1850s, the black characters with the exception of George are simple, docile "creatures" who meekly depend on the generosity of their "upright" and "kindly" owners. I can certainly see why black Americans in the post-civil rights era are not fans of this work and took up the term 'Uncle Tom' as an insult amongst their communities. I have to say I found reading the description of the happily performing 'quadroon' boy, Jim Crow (is this where that term originated? I have no clue), painful.

My jarred modern feelings aside, I definitely see how this work was controversial at the time. In particluar, the author's pointed asides to the reader in Chapter's 1 and 2, such as: "So long as the law considers all these human beings, with beating hearts and living affections, only as so many things belonging to a master--...--so long it is impossible to make anything beautiful or desirable in the best regulated administration of slavery" or "A very humane jurist once said, The worst you can put a man to is to hang him. No; there is another use that a man can be put to that is WORSE!". It's not lost on me that at the time of its publishing a fair proportion of American whites didn't consider blacks to be human beings or men.

As I make my way through the rest of this book I'm going to be keeping my eye on how the author seeks to further humanize her black characters.
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