There are some books we read because they were important for their times. Others we read because they are important for our time. And there are still others we read because they are enjoyable. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in my opinion, is all three.
The book was published about 10 years before the Civil War broke out. Some say that upon meeting Stowe, President Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this Great War!” Whether Lincoln actually uttered those words can be disputed, but few books can claim to be instrumental in societal change, and this book can claim that with some credibility.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin follows the journey of two slaves, one to freedom and the other to increasingly cruel slavery. There is adventure, joy, sadness, and even laughter all mixed together.
Personally, my favorite parts of this book are the characters Stowe developed. Some have become icons of American literature. Simon Legree is a picture of cruelty and malice. Angelic Eva is his opposite. But even some of the lesser-known characters—Augustine St. Clare, the Shelbys, Aunt Chloe—are complex and interesting. Their interplay is full of thought-provoking dialogue and parallels.
While the book has come under fire in recent years for its depiction of racial stereotypes, it was groundbreaking for its time, especially in its unflinching portrayals of slaves as real people. This is especially true in how Stowe contrasts the slave characters with their free counterparts. It becomes increasingly clear, for instance, that Uncle Tom himself is much more of a man and a Christian than his temporary master St. Clare, because he is willing to live out his convictions even when it means sacrifice.
All in all, this book is an important read. And it wasn’t popular only because it was shocking at the time. It’s interesting, well-paced, touching, and heartbreaking. I would recommend it to anyone, especially those who are interested in understanding the social atmosphere in the lead up to the Civil War.