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Uncle Tom's Cabin;
Life among the Lowly

by Harriet Beecher Stowe

First published in serial form in The National Era,
first published in book form in 1852

A very moving story. So powerful that it is considered to have been one of the contributing causes of the U.S. Civil War.[1] It is, in story form, a thorough examination of the evils of the institution of slavery. The author aserts that there is no episode in the book that is not representative of actual events. The fact is that slavery still exists in slightly altered forms here in this country and around the world, but what the Buddhist must do to make this relevant is to see that slavery is the general condition of all of man-kind. The slave is the slave of his master, but the master is the slave of the state (if you think you own anything here, try not paying your taxes; if you don't own anything here why are you working? If you are working because the alternative is death, then are you not a slave to death?), man is the slave of his desires. On the other side of the coin, punishment, the griefs one suffers, must not be seen (as in this work) 'God's Will', or incomprehensible punishments and cruelty, but (from the subjective point of view) as the consequence of one's own badly done deeds. The cruelties of others are to be seen with sympathy as misguided actions taken in blindness of the consequences; the sorts of things that have brought down sufferings on one's own self from our own similar behavior in the past. 'Judgment' does not come at the end of Time, but is born upon the doing of the deed. Punishment and reward are not eternal. With those adjustments made mentally while reading the book, turning it into an allegory of the condition of man in general as opposed to the black man in the U.S. at the time (and therefore a problem that has been 'corrected' and can be forgotten), it should prove to be a valuable simulus to starting to get down to the business of getting out of this 'du-k-kha' as swiftly as possible. The value of the book is it's portrayal of the multiplicity of points of view on the subject. In this light Uncle Tom (altering his Christian oriented thoughts to those of pure loving kindness) is a fair example of how to manage. Today there are those in the black community (urging — in stead of Uncle Tom's strong stand on kindness and his refusal to participate in any act of cruelty including yielding to the temptations of vengence — the blindness of an eye-for-an-eye angry response to injustice and the unpleasant) who ridicule the mode of behavior of Uncle Tom. The name is used as a disparaging epithet (though I seriously doubt these people have actually read the story; there is really no doubt that Uncle Tom could serve as is an admirable, heroic role model for any race). For the Buddhist this should just be seen as a continuation of the story. The danger of not seeing the larger picture (really a trap inadvertantly set by Ms. Stowe's own too narrow view — not seeing that there would come a time when the idea of being tested by a God and a 'Final Judgment' just no longer made any sense to thinking people) but she had no Buddha to guide her). The wrong direction. The wrong response. That ends in the continuation of the round of anger and violence, revenge, cruelty and suffering.


[1] Meanwhile the North, once largely indifferent to the fate of slaves, had been converted by the 1850’s to the cause of antislavery. For twenty years William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, had been carrying on from Boston a campaign of the utmost virulence against the institution of slavery. This public print was not very widely read, but its language enraged the South. At the same time the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York and other humanitarian bodies were issuing vigorous tracts and periodicals. They employed scores of agents to preach Abolition up and down the land. The result was a hardening of sentiment on both sides of the question. It was hardened still further in 1852, when Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her work was frankly propagandist; she used every weapon. In its pages the theoretical and religious arguments are bandied to and fro, but there was one method in which she excelled all other assailants of the evil. She presented to her readers a succession of simple, poignant incidents inseparable from a system of slavery: the breaking up of the Negro’s home and family, the parting of husband and wife, the sale of the baby from the breast of its mother; the indiscriminate auction of the slaves on the death of a good employer; the impotence of the virtuous slave-owner, the cruelties of the bad; the callous traffic of the slave-dealers, and the horrors of the remote plantations, the whipping establishments to which fine ladies sent their maids for chastisement for minor faults; the aggravated problem of the quadroon and the mulatto; the almost-white slave girl sold and resold for lust; the bringing into the world of slave children indistinguishable in their colour from the dominant race — all these features of the life of a civilised, educated, modern Christian community, occupying enormous fertile regions of the earth, were introduced with every trapping of art and appeal into her pages.

Such advocacy was devastating. By the end of the year hundreds of thousands of copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been sold in the United States. In September, it is said, ten thousand copies of it were being supplied every day to a single firm of English booksellers. By the end of 1852 more than a million copies had been sold in England, probably ten times as many as had ever been sold of any other work except the Bible and the Prayer Book. Uncle Tom’s Cabin rolled round the world in every language and was read with passion and emotion in every country. It was the herald of the storm.

A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Volume 4, pages 153-4, Winston S. Churchill, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1965.

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