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Why Did James Baldwin Hate Uncle Tom?: A Clever Critic Gets it Wrong

Novelist and critic James Baldwin had very little use for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, dismissing it as “a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. If Baldwin means that Stowe’s book, like Alcott’s, continues to attract readers a century and a half after its publication, demonstrating far greater staying power than the much more recent Go Tell It On the Mountain, then I can’t argue too strongly, but that, of course, is not what Baldwin means.

His criticisms of the ¬†artistic merit of Uncle Tom are probably justified. Despite her amazing sales, Stowe is clearly no Hawthorne or Melville. In fact, she’s a far less gifted stylist or plotter than Louisa May Alcott. However, Stowe is not quite as poor a writer as people have been apt to believe in the wake of Baldwin’s attacks. Certainly her plotting has more implausible coincidence than we would want to see and her characterization is rather flat, but Stowe did not set out to create art for its own sake. Given the polemical nature of her novel, she created a readable story. Given that her intention was to use fiction in order to shine a bright light on slavery’s most horrible facets, her success cannot be questioned. When she creates sympathy for the enslaved women, raped by their owners, forced to bear children who will never be acknowledged by their fathers, Stowe reaches a place in the reader’s mind that a tall stack of William Lloyd Garrison diatribes could approach.

At the heart of Baldwin’s attack on Uncle Tom (the novel and the man) is his assertion that the philosophy on which Stowe built her book is a bankrupt one. Early on in “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” he criticizes two of Stowe’s white characters: “Neither of them questions the medieval morality from which their dialogue springs: black, white, the devil, the next world.” The character of Uncle Tom hinges upon the efficacy of that very medieval morality. If Tom is right to cling to his Christian values, then Baldwin’s attacks fall utterly flat. If Tom is simply adhering to the proscriptions of the master’s creed, a religious dogma intended to cow the slave into obedience and surrender, then he is every bit as much a fool as Baldwin suggests.

The problem with Baldwin’s criticism of this novel–like many contemporary critics of Anne Bradstreet–lies in his refusal to actually prove the validity of his argument against Tom’s “medieval morality.” Baldwin perceives matters about race that many readers of his time could not see without his assistance, but his vision seems limited to matters racial. Once race enters into the question, Baldwin can see no further. He fails to recognize that, in Stowe’s view, Eliza and George seem white because they, at heart, are human beings. He fails to grant Uncle Tom any latitude for following a loyalty higher than that of race.

Where Baldwin sees racism in Stowe’s frequent use of mixed-race characters, his limited sight prevents him from recognizing her higher purpose. When a reader identifies in some way with a character, sympathy will follow much more easily. And the extreme Negro-ness of Uncle Tom is similarly intentional. Like Jesus’ careful choice of a Samaritan in his story answering the question “Who is my neighbor?” Stowe wants the reader to see Jesus in the blackest slave. This isn’t racism but rather a clever rhetorical move.

While we cannot expect Baldwin and others to adhere to Stowe’s Christian vision, he does violence to both her art and her freedom of conscience by condemning her for writing a book in which she truly believed.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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