I’ve always found Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be pretty awful, at least as a work of literature. As a cultural icon, and a harbinger of change, it was quite successful — but reading it today is rather painful. James Baldwin, in a 1949 essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” berated Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its “self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality,” a critique I agree with wholeheartedly.
So it was interesting to read, in this weekend’s New York Times, two related considerations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. First, there’s an essay by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who thinks Baldwin’s “canonical critique [is] ripe for reassessment.” He makes a decent case, but doesn’t effectively address the novel’s crippling sentimentality, and doesn’t mention the poor quality of Stowe’s writing — I suppose he either takes it for granted, as something to be overcome, or doesn’t think it’s poor.
In a review of the The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which is edited by Professor Gates), critic Edward Rothstein summarizes past and present critical responses to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Again, his conclusion is less than satisfactory — he even makes a sentimental plea of his own.
It’s very interesting to me is that fact that one of the most popular influential novels in the history of the English language is so poorly written. We know that popularity and quality are not necessarily, or even often, bedfellows, and it’s worth remembering that influence and quality have a similar relationship.