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Classes of Classics

Claire Ceriani's picture

In literature, a select number of novels have been chosen for a very specific classification: that of a “classic.”  A classic is typically considered to be a literary work of the highest artistic caliber, one that made an impact on literature as a whole.  The works of authors like Dickens, Twain, and Austen are seen as the finest examples of literature of their time, and are valued as novels that set a standard for other works.  Classics endure long after they are first written, and are often recognizable even to people who have not read them.  One novel that has certainly endured and is instantly recognizable is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  The novel often appears on lists of classics.  But many critics accuse it of being poorly written and overly sentimental.  From an artistic standpoint, the work does not seem worthy of the genre of “classic.”  It was, however, an immensely significant novel for creating social change, and for this reason, it becomes necessary to rethink the usual hierarchy of literature.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin shows that a novel that appears unremarkable in one classification may be viewed as significant if given a different classification; in this case, that classification is that of social classic.



If a “classic” of literature is considered to be a work of high artistic merit that sets a standard, then Uncle Tom’s Cabin is arguably not a literary classic.  Enduring classics usually have well-defined, believable characters, an evident mastery of prose, and a sophisticated plot structure.  Huckleberry Finn is an original character with believable periods of growth and regression.  Hemingway’s works are all touched by his unique and elegant style.  Dickens is remembered for rich storytelling that was at once entertainingly escapist and believably told.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin has rather flat characters that either experience no change, or change quickly without much explanation, and are morally unambiguous.  Stowe writes of Cassy, “in two or three days, such a change has passed over Cassy, that our readers would scarcely know her….Cassy yielded at once, and with her whole soul, to every good influence, and became a devout and tender Christian” (607).  Such a dramatic change in core beliefs would not occur in two days for an actual person.  This major character change is explained in one short paragraph with little insight into Cassy’s character.  It is clear that, since Christianity is a key part of this story, Cassy is now an entirely good person, though Stowe does not actually go on to show her as a changed woman.  This is another flaw in Stowe’s writing style.  She often speaks directly to the reader, explaining what her message is and how the reader is meant to view each character and their actions.  A more skilled writer would be able to make their point through their characters without resorting to explaining the message bluntly to the reader.  Part of the craft of writing fiction is using characters and plot devices to make a point; otherwise, a straightforward essay would suffice.  Stowe chose to write a novel, but she seemed unable to trust her reader to fully understand her meaning, and so she routinely pauses in her narration to explain why she has written what she has written.  She also uses an excessive amount of melodrama for the same reason.  Her writing style calls attention to itself and clearly points out the important parts to the reader.  Many would argue that ambiguity is the hallmark of great literature, and Stowe’s work is anything but ambiguous.



Looking at Uncle Tom’s Cabin from a purely artistic perspective does not explain why it has endured for so long as a classic, but reading it as a social classic turns its apparent flaws into merits.  Using only the lens of the literary classic to view this work creates a very poor image of it.  It does not appear to be of any value.  But if it is allowed recognition as a social classic, a novel intended to change society, not literature, it becomes apparent that an author’s purpose in writing a novel is actually an important factor in considering its classification.  The most obvious impact of this novel was the Civil War.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a driving force in the abolition movement, and was perhaps the most popular book of its time.  Stowe never claimed to have written this novel to demonstrate her skill as a writer.  She wanted to create social change, and she succeeded.    The tools she used to create this change are the very “flaws” already mentioned if the work is viewed from a literary perspective.  She writes of Eliza, “It is impossible to conceive of a human creature more wholly desolate and forlorn than Eliza, when she turned her footsteps from Uncle Tom’s cabin….But stronger than all was maternal love, wrought into a paroxysm of frenzy by the near approach of a fearful danger” (104).  This sentimental and unambiguous description of Eliza makes the character seem impossibly one-sided and unrealistic, but it also appeals to the emotions, particularly of mothers, black or white.  Stowe did not want to create a believable character, she wanted to create a character that would inspire sympathy in the reader.  The sometimes overwhelming religious overtone of the book with its heavy-handed symbolism is meant to appeal to the reason of Christians.  When Stowe addresses the reader directly with these straight-forward moral messages, it is because she wants it to be clear and unquestionable to the reader what is right and what is wrong.  The message cannot be missed.  And though the message is not delivered with great artistry, it is delivered with great clarity, which is important in a novel intending to change society rather than literature.



The word “classic” is an accurate description of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but the phrase “social classic” allows the novel a more appropriate place in the hierarchy of literature.  It does not make sense to attempt to place all classic novels into one category, because they may have been written with (and achieved) different goals.  As Ann Douglas writes in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, Stowe made “what had been the protest of only a small minority of abolitionists the concern, even the preoccupation, of hundreds of thousands of Americans” (13).  This is the reason the novel has remained so well recognized in today’s society.  It is remembered as an instrument of social change unlike anything ever seen before.  Other novels fit this category as well, such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle which, though a best-seller and still studied, is really more muck-raking than anything else.  When these novels are classified with novels like Great Expectations and then all subjected to the same scrutiny, novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin appear to come out at the bottom.  But when literary classics and social classics are recognized as two very different classes of novels with different qualities and criteria, Stowe’s novel gains a new level of merit.


Uncle Tom’s Cabin, so often called a classic, does not withstand literary scrutiny.  This indicates a flaw in the way it is classified.  Many critics argue that it does not deserve to be considered a classic because of its many artistic faults.  But when a different hierarchy is used to evaluate the novel, it becomes clear that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is simply a different kind of classic, perhaps even the ideal standard of social classics.



Work Cited

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Penguin Group: New York, 1981.


Anne Dalke's picture

Classic Criticism


I appreciate the clarity with which you lay out your claim, here, that there are (at least) two classes of classics: the artistic and the social, those distinguished by their aesthetic dimension, and those distinguished by the work they do (or intend to do?) in the world.

My first question for you is about this latter distinction: does intention earn one a place in this category, or does that ambition have to be realized? (In other words, is it enough to WANT to change the world with one's text, or does one actually have to bring about the change? What if Uncle Tom's Cabin had not actually had the effect that Stowe wished for it?)

My second, and much larger question, is about why you want to preserve the category ("genre"?) of "classic," and (relatedly) whether your new category ("genre"?) of "social classic" actually revises the meaning of the term "classic"--since it brings into question not only the hierarchy built on a single form of excellence, but perhaps also the notion of the timeless conventionally built into the definition.

I also found myself wondering whose perspective you are trying to correct with this essay. You use the passive voice to start (novels "have been chosen," "are seen," are "often recognizable," "often appear") but you don't say who actually makes these claims for classically classic status, or give any data to support the claims (where, for instance, have you seen published the list of classics that includes Uncle Tom's Cabin?)

This becomes important when you lay out the counterclaim for a social classic, which I think is a strong one, but which we have already covered in some detail in class, in the words of Jane Tompkins:

literature is by definition a form of discourse that has no design on the world. It does not attempt to change things, but merely to represent them, and it does so in a specifically literary language whose claim to value lies in its whose stated purpose is to influence the course of history...which therefore employ a language that is...common and not qualify as works of art. Literary texts such as a sentimental novel, which make continual and obvious appeals to the reader's emotions and use technical devices that that are distinguished by their utter conventionality, epitomize the opposite of everything that good literature is supposed to be....

So: what is the relationship of your argument to Tompkins'? Are you advancing or complexifing her position in some way, or merely reiterating it?

The other bit that intrigued me in your paper was your observation that the clarity of Stowe's argument is a signal that she was "unable to trust her reader." This fits quite nicely, of course, with the exercise we conducted in class last week, when--following D.H. Lawrence's advice to "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale"--we tried to tease out the text and sub-text, intentional moral from implied moral, in The Scarlet Letter. Do you think a similar division--and the critical work of "saving the tale from the artist who created it" could be worked out for Uncle Tom's Cabin? Or is it the absence of such a tension which makes this only a social, not also a literary classic?