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The Left Hand of Stowe

Jessica Rosenberg

There are many ways in which how we read a text today, and how it was read at the time of its publication in any other generation. Be it a month or millennia, it is psychologically impossible to erase all the knowledge, ideas, thought processes, and history that has happened between the writing of a book, and when it falls into your hands. A reading done at the time of publication has no more intrinsic literary worth than a reading from a later period of criticism. But to fully understand how a work of literature was received in its time is to also understand what contexts the author made it in, and helps us better comprehend the literary cultural history we are reading it with today.

At first, the most striking, and seemingly most noteworthy, difference between the 1851 readers of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and readers today is the understanding of slavery, feelings towards race relations, and reactions to profoundly systematic oppression. In "Big Books of American Literature," taught the spring semester of 2006 at Bryn Mawr College, the initial responses from the class centered around the uncomfortable feeling produced in the students as this novel, ostensibly about freedom and equality for African Americans, appears to be so racist.

But as classroom and online discussion continued, it another level of discomfort was illuminated. Uncle Tom's Cabin is an unapologetically religious text. The novel was written as anti-slavery propaganda for the abolitionist movement of the 1850's, and Stowe displayed no trepidation in utilizing religious sentiment to make her point. She blends religion and politics until there is just barely a preposition keeping them apart: Nothing of tragedy can be written, can be spoken, can be conceived, that equals the frightful reality of scenes daily and hourly acting on our shores, beneath the shadow of American law, and the shadow of the cross of Christ. (Stowe, 514)

Stowe knew her audience, and aggressively, that is, often unsubtly, prayed upon the emotions generated by their strict religious belief to get under their skin; she created characters and situations that would read easily as Christian allegories, and used the sympathy and pity created therein to change minds.

This is not to say that the novel is without solid persuasive arguments; there are many places where characters, black and white, are allowed to speak on the evils of slavery, appeal to the blatant wrongness of enslaving a part of humanity, and even explain how slavery hurts white people. Meanwhile, Stowe's heroes and heroines are easy to love, and upsetting to watch danger befall. For a Northern audience with potentially little interaction with the Southern institution of slavery, even less likely to know a slave intimately as a human being rather than a piece of property, Uncle Tom's Cabin gave readers the chance to get to know enslaved characters, hear how they might speak to their husbands, wives, children and parents, and get a glimpse inside their emotional life.

But more and more as the novel goes on, when it seems Stowe can see herself running out of story space and time, she loads on the old time religion with an earnest fervor. It is unlikely that, at the time of Uncle Tom's Cabin's publication, there could have been very much outcry from secular Americans that the novel's religious content was inappropriate, distracting, or actively dissuading. Readers that come to the book today, however, have a very different experience of religion.

Notably, not everyone reading Uncle Tom's Cabin today are practicing Christians. Plenty of readers actively practice the other monolithic religions, some may be of an Eastern religious decent, and even more, most likely, are non-practicing atheists or agnostics, born into Christian families. But more than personal religious beliefs, many readers today have a very different idea of what kind of role religion should play in politics. It is arguably only within the years of the current administration that the country has become, or revealed itself to be, as divided over religion. As the center of the political spectrum has appeared to move rightwards (for a myriad of reasons inconsiderable in a paper of this length), voices from the "religious right" became louder and more frequently heard, and religious belief became even less of a taboo topic in political debate. And the louder the religious right became, the further away from religion the liberal left seemed to move.

This move, how counterproductive it has been towards achieving political success, and what the left can do to change this, is the focus of Rabbi Michael Lerner's new book The Left Hand of God. In it, he explains what he sees as the spiritual, emotional, and personal reasons people respond to the rhetoric of the right. there are many very decent Americans who get attracted to the Religious Right because it is the only voice that they encounter that is willing to challenge the despiritualization of daily life, to call for a life that is driven by higher purpose than money, and to provide actual experiences of supportive community for those whose daily life is suffused with alienation and spiritual loneliness. (Lerner)

Unfortunately, as Lerner points out, these humanist desires have been politicized to run down a party line. It's up to the left now, he writes, to demonstrate how the "loving connection, kindness, generosity, awe and wonder, and joyous celebration of the universe," (Lerner) are part of the left's plan for the country.

It is with this modern day fear of religion intruding on politics that non-religious, liberal (not that they are always the same thing) readers today come to Uncle Tom's Cabin. This mindset leads to a misreading, to a weakened understanding of how Stowe is using her audience. In the online public forum for the "Big Books" class this spring, response to the religious content of the novel displayed the dismissal of religion that seems inexorably linked to voting liberal or progressive these days. As one student wrote, "I agree with... the fact that UTC is way too Christian to be effective in sending out any sort of message." (Marina, 18388) When students recognized Stowe's audience as not themselves, there was a tendency to demean the supposed readers: "I just have to remind myself, little Christian ladies." (Emily, 18304)

But Stowe's religion, born of a Reverend father and later, brother, was, as much as another other than her can tell, a genuine expression of faith, and in how belief can create good people who make positive change. Her audience's, and her own, Christianity is not a blind weakness, but a conviction that leads them to question authority and themselves, to be a force in the world of politics and national life. Stowe knows her audience's religion, and how rarely the beliefs actually gel with political opinions. She points out hypocrisies, and calls her readers to question their status quo:

See, then, to your sympathies in this matter! Are they in harmony with the sympathies of Christ? Or are they swayed and perverted by the sophistries of worldly policy? (Stowe, 515)

Modern readers and voters would benefit from the self-awareness and self-judgment that comes from the kind of religious interrogation that Stowe calls for. Instead of "Christ," substitute whatever your story of faith is, and give your self the hard look Stowe makes her readers take. What you believe and the change you actually get up and make; how much space is there between the two?


Lerner, Michael. The Left Hand of God. Excerpt from February 10th, 2006

Stowe, Harriet Beecher, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Vintage Books. New York: 1991.

"Big Books of American Literature," Bryn Mawr College: Spring Semester, 2006. Forum Five: "What does 'Feeling' Uncle Tom's Cabin get us?"

"Harriet Beecher Stowe's Life and Times," The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. March 17, 2006

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