A few weeks ago, I sat down to read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antebellum novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the first time. My goal was to find its flaws. Uncle Tom has often been positioned as an alternative to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a book that I love and that I contend is relevant in any era of American history, including our own. Indeed, my first novel The Ballad of Huck & Miguel was a modern-day retelling of Huck Finn, set on the concrete ditch that is the Los Angeles River.
But there are those who disagree with me. Twenty years ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley famously took a hatchet to Twain’s story about a young boy and a fugitive slave fleeing down the Mississippi River. Huck Finn, Smiley wrote, has “little to offer in the way of greatness.” Naturally, she called the novel racist, but also implied that its canonization was sexist. She dismissed its indisputable influence with this:
Ernest Hemingway, thinking of himself, as always, once said that all American literature grew out of Huck Finn. It undoubtedly would have been better for American literature, and American culture, if our literature had grown out of one of the best-selling novels of all time, another American work of the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which for its portrayal of an array of thoughtful, autonomous, and passionate black characters leaves Huck Finn far behind.
Smiley went on to praise the “brilliant analysis” and “wisdom of feeling” of Stowe’s novel, which follows multiple characters, including several runaway slaves. This is the book, Smiley suggests, that Americans should look to if they want to understand the Civil War era. And this is the novel that our best writers should strive to emulate.
So I was eager to dive into Uncle Tom’s Cabin and gather some intelligence with which to refute Smiley’s view. I knew that the great African-American writer James Baldwin had dismissed Uncle Tom as “a very bad novel … having much in common with Little Women.” Surely it couldn’t be as important—or as morally complex—as Huck Finn, could it?
My mission didn’t go as planned. Within the first few pages, it became apparent that Uncle Tom is an astonishing work. It’s a page-turner, and I came to care deeply about the story’s many characters. Stowe was indeed brilliant and wise, just as Smiley reported, and I’m now embarrassed that it took me so long to pick up this book. But it’s wrong to read Uncle Tom as a rival of Huck Finn. That diminishes both books, and it diminishes all of us, as Americans, since both played an important role in the emergence of the American identity. They should be read together, for each illuminates a different part of the American character.
Twain scholar Laura Trombley (now the President of Southwestern University in Texas) once told me that Huck Finn isn’t about slavery. “It’s about an abused boy looking for a safe haven,” she said. It was daring for Twain to give a voice to the untutored, unwashed son of the town drunk.
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another…
Huck’s voice, often described as “realistic,” is actually a highly stylized literary device and a brilliant riff on how real boys talk. In these first few sentences, Twain inserts himself into the story and sets his protagonist up to be an unreliable narrator, as Huck admits that there will be “stretchers” of his own along the way.
Huck Finn is our national epic, much like The Odyssey is for Greece or the Nibelungenlied is for Germany. Like those older epics, Huck Finn can be read as version of a Jungian myth, in which the hero descends into the Underworld, undergoes trials and tribulations, and returns to us reborn. This story of two travelers on an epic journey is an archetype of our culture, which is why it is retold with such frequency. It’s possible to read every American road novel or movie as a reworking of Huck Finn.
Twain may not have written in verse, but Huck’s narration is beautiful and lyrical and so distinctively American that it has influenced generations of American writers, both popular and literary. That indelible voice, at once innocent and highly perceptive, is the fixed moral point from which Twain can then satirize so many different segments of his beloved country—preachers, con men, politicians, actors, and ordinary gullible Americans.
The book has been criticized as one of the first “white savior” narratives, but this gets it exactly backwards. Huck doesn’t save anyone in the novel. (One of Jane Smiley’s criticisms, in fact, is that Huck doesn’t “act” to save his friend.) It is actually Jim, the slave, who saves Huck—both literally and figuratively. It is Jim who provides Huck with a safe haven, and it is Jim who calls Huck to account when Huck treats him as less than human: “En all you wuz thinkin ’bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is trash, en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er de fren’s en makes ‘em ashamed.”
Huck eventually humbles himself before Jim and tells us, “I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way.” Huck may be the protagonist of this story, but the slave Jim is its moral hero. It is Jim who reveals himself to be a fugitive slave so that Tom Sawyer can get medical attention for his gunshot wound. And after he is freed from slavery, Jim heads home to assume his responsibilities as a husband and father.
In contrast to Jim, Huck yearns for adventure and escape. Forced to live with the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson at the start of the book, he resents their attempts to “sivilize” him. He feels “all cramped up” by the clothes they make him wear, and he dismisses their Biblical teaching because he “don’t take no stock in dead people.” Instead of returning home with Jim, Huck tells us that he intends to “light out for the territory.” He represents one aspect of the American spirit—ironic, secular, individualistic.
Written 33 years before Huck Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin isn’t ironic, but earnest. It isn’t secular, but Christian. It isn’t individualistic, but communitarian. And unlike Huck Finn, Stowe’s novel really is about slavery. A committed abolitionist, Stowe wrote the book in response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required northern citizens to cooperate with efforts to return escaped slaves to their owners in the south. Much like Huck Finn, Uncle Tom starts with a slave, the young mother Eliza, running away to avoid being sold down the river. But in many ways, Stowe’s work is braver and more honest than Twain’s, for she depicts the violence and the moral corruption of slavery with much greater frankness, unleavened by boyish hijinks and slapstick humor.
Stowe finds her fixed moral point in Christ. While often mischaracterized as weak and submissive, the character of Uncle Tom is explicitly depicted as Christ-like, withstanding horrific torture (and ultimately giving his life) to protect his fellow slaves. For someone like myself, who has been slowly making his way back to the Christian faith, Stowe’s novel is terrifying, for it paints an unusually vivid picture of what Christianity requires of a person in a moral crisis.
Uncle Tom is also a morally complex work. Stowe was a northerner, and she depicts the north as fully complicit in slavery and racism. A devout Protestant, she offers us the character of Augustine St. Clare, a fallen Roman Catholic who is one of the most appealing—and also morally conflicted—characters in the story. In an argument with his abolitionist cousin from the north, the reluctant slaveholder Augustine offers us a cynical riff on our Declaration of Independence: “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for a fellow to hold two or three dozen of his fellow-worms in captivity, a decent regard to the opinions of society requires—"
Stowe’s work has a deep and moving moral authority, and she and Twain both had a gift for exposing hypocrisy. Here she is, describing a slave trader’s reaction after he sells a woman’s child away from her:
The trader had arrived at that stage of Christian and political perfection which has been recommended by some preachers and politicians of the north, lately, in which he had completely overcome every humane weakness and prejudice. His heart was exactly where yours, sir, and mine could be brought, with proper effort and cultivation. The wild look of anguish and utter despair that the woman cast on him might have disturbed one less practised; but he was used to it. He had seen that same look hundreds of times. You can get used to such things, too, my friend; and it is the great object of recent efforts to make our whole northern community used to them, for the glory of the Union.
Like Huck Finn, Stowe’s work offers a devastating critique of American society, written by someone who truly loved her country. It’s no wonder that Abraham Lincoln, upon meeting Stowe, supposedly said, “So you’re the little lady who started this great war.”
Stowe and Twain, so different from each other, have illuminated distinct parts of our nation’s character that have been there since its inception. The Founding Fathers were a fascinating mix of devout Christians (men like Samuel Adams, John Jay, and Patrick Henry) and free-thinking, Enlightenment-inspired deists and secularists who, like Huck, rejected Christian orthodoxy (men like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine). At different times and in different ways, we’ve found fortitude and moral authority in both of these traditions.
Why, then, do so many people feel uncomfortable with these novels? Perhaps it’s because they have so much moral authority. Modern Americans are skeptical of moral authority. And we’re especially dismissive of voices from the past—unlike us, those people were blind to their prejudices. Jane Smiley invokes race and sex in order to knock Huck Finn down a peg. James Baldwin scornfully compares Uncle Tom to Little Women. In the New Yorker, John Updike praises the power of Stowe’s writing but also calls it “unintentionally ludicrous.” In the same magazine, Annette Gordon-Reed characterizes Uncle Tom as “cringe-inducing.”
I also cringe when I read parts of Uncle Tom or Huck Finn. But I fear that says more about me—and the prejudices of our own age—than it says about the moral failings of Mark Twain or Harriet Beecher Stowe. These two popular works, one a boyhood adventure and the other a protest novel, never aimed to be high literary fiction. But they are indeed great works of literature, and they deserve their place at the top of the American canon. In their different ways, they both deal with a shameful episode of American history, but they are full of high ideals and heart. They are ours, and they are us.