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Today, on what would be Stowe’s 205th birthday, we have an opportunity to reassess her contribution to American letters, and to American culture at large.As a professor of American literature, I face a challenge every time I teach Stowe’s famous book in the classroom.
Her approach, even a century and a half after slavery’s abolition, remains extremely relevant to us today, as we face our own array of moral and societal evils.
Stowe offers a fundamentally democratic approach to solving national problems: we must first change hearts if we want to change laws., all the arguments for and against slavery had already been made.
But as we read it, we find that inexplicable power surging between the lines of her prose.
“You’re going to hate it,” I tell my students, “and then you’re going to love it.”?
In the fourth chapter, titled “An Evening in Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” she even addresses us directly with this invitation: describing Tom’s home, a “small log building,” Stowe’s narrator says, “Let us enter into the dwelling.” Indeed, the title of the novel itself is This entrance leads to an encounter.
In an era noisy with abstract arguments for and against slavery, Stowe cuts through the debate to bring her readers directly into personal contact with the slaves in question.
Her stock characters, her melodramatic set pieces, and the moralizing of her narrator grate on 21st-century readers.
Yet this strange, sensational novel remains one of the most important works in our cultural heritage.
Is it, we might ask, just an artifact of our history?
Do we dutifully overlook Stowe’s imperfect artistry for the sake of the admirable (if dated) anti-slavery message of her book?