Was Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by a feminine hand?
No, it was written by Harriet Beecher’s toe.
For years, pretty much all I knew about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the novel, was that it existed. Important in the social history of the United States, sure. Important in American literature, sure. But the plot? Nope. All I knew of the plot was what I’d gleaned from watching The King and I. So, recently, I decided to correct that lack.
Over the course of a couple of trips to Boston and to Burlington I listened to an audio recording of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The first surprising thing (to me, anyway) was that the scene of Eliza crossing the Ohio on the ice floes wasn’t the climax of the book. It was an incident in Chapter Seven (out of forty-five chapters).
I hadn’t looked at Uncle Tom criticism beforehand (I don’t read reviews of anything I plan to read or watch, to avoid spoilers), so I was surprised afterward to find that the character Sam on the Shelby farm, early on, was supposed to be a stereotype of the Happy, Lazy Darkie. I’d taken him to be engaged in a long-running campaign of passive resistance. But never mind that. The main thing that caught my attention was the theme of escape, literal escape, and that I haven’t seen commented on in any of the sources I’ve looked at.
When one is engaged in Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, there are two main strategies for the Evasion and Escape part of the mix. Either get ahead of pursuit and stay ahead of it, or hole up somewhere in the search area until the searchers get tired of looking for you (or assume that you’ve already gotten out of the area, see strategy one above). We see examples of both of those strategies in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
First, we have Eliza. She uses the first strategy. Having learned that her master intends to sell her young son down the river (he’s chosen to sell because as a Pretty Young Boy he’ll get a good price; Stowe several times hints as strongly as you can in a 19th century novel that the Basest and Vilest of Men will buy Pretty Young Boys and Girls in order to do Unspeakable Things with them), she puts together a few things and does a midnight flit. She grabs some clothes, some food, and her child and scrams out of there. She does pause along the way to tell Uncle Tom what she’s doing, partly to see if he’ll come along (since he too is scheduled to be sold). He declines, both for thematic reasons and because if he’d gone this would have been a pretty short novel. It also serves the purpose of letting Stowe clue in the readers about things both Eliza and Tom know perfectly well. [NOTE: One of the things that got Representative Preston Brooks to cane Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of Congress in 1856 was Sumner’s claim that the South would never give up slavery since (among other things) slavery provided an unending supply of pussy for ol’ Massa.]
So far, so good: Eliza’s got an escape kit, even if it’s a hasty one. She has a plan: head for Canada. She does make some mistakes along the way, starting with telling anyone what she’s doing. Nobody who isn’t traveling with her has a need to know her plans. (What folks don’t know they can’t betray due to malice, accident, threat, or entreaty.) She also sticks to the road, and she heads for an easily-guessed primary destination: the closest crossing of the Ohio River.
One of the rules of escape (or strong guidelines, anyway) is avoid tactically-significant terrain. That’s roads, crossroads, bridges, hilltops, towns, houses, dams (I’m looking at you, Dr. Richard Kimble), peel towers (yeah, Flynn from Tangled, you should have paid attention in SERE school) and pretty much everything Owen Wilson does in Behind Enemy Lines).
More through good luck than good judgment she reaches the Ohio ahead of the pursuit launched by her buyer, and makes that famous (and thematically significant Leap of Faith) escape across the ice floes.
After that she falls into the hands of an escape organization that gets her to a steamer across Lake Erie to Canada.
The use of resistance organizations can be fraught. Remember: their goals and your goals may not coincide. A word of advice to you, Eliza if (once again due more to good luck than good judgment) you learn of the plans of the slave catcher (confusingly also named “Tom”) who is after you, to take you on a particular piece of road at a particular time on a particular day, make it your business to be elsewhere. This may save you from a desperate gunfight on a wild crag (although it will also prevent slave-catcher Tom’s Fall and ultimate Conversion and Redemption). At this point in your career you’re interested in reaching friendly territory, not in redeeming the Cossacks who are after you. Yes, I know that Harriet Beecher Stowe was interested in talking about the Fugitive Slave Act in this part, but hey, Eliza? You aren’t interested in it, other than getting out from its jurisdiction as fast as you can.
Any contact with the bad guys will give them a definite time/place mark on you, and reset the pursuit to zero, only with you more worn down and with fewer resources than when you started. (Yeah, Tears of the Sun, you got that wrong too.)
(Also, note for the guy who wrote The Pervading Influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Pop Culture, the minstrel show goes back way farther than the “Tom Shows.” See half the songs in the 1844 Whig song book.)
At this point I’ll move to the other strategy: hold in place. Cassie, the former sex-slave (literally) on Simon Legree’s plantation, carries this out when Simon brings home his newer, younger, prettier replacement and she can see how things are going to go for her from that point on.
She takes some time and expends quite a bit of ingenuity in creating a place that everyone knows she would never go, and makes it a place that Simon would never go either (a garret room in the big house that she convincingly makes haunted by ghosts). She puts together escape kits (one for her, one for the new sex-slave, Emmeline) choses her time, makes it look like she’s gone off into the swamp and instead doubles back to the house, where she stays for months before finally just walking out the front door and down the road one night.
One essential part of her escape kit, and one that should be part of your escape kit, was cash money. When the time came she went down to the river, got on a steamer, and sailed to the Free States. She got away a lot easier than almost anyone (aside from having a history full of horrors, that is). She can’t resist talking, though, before she gets to Canada, which is a mistake. She should not assume that a white southern slave-owner is her friend. Even if the author needs it in order to get to the climax (a series of coincidences that would make Charles Dickens blush).
There are a couple of other escapees: George Harris (Eliza’s husband), who finds that a) cash and b) boldness work (although he can’t resist talking and Telling All to a former employer of his along the way, which is a remarkably stupid idea, even if the author does need the dialog to make moral points and tell the reader what happened. Stay quiet! Oversharing can be fatal if the guy you told all to decides to repeat it as a funny story over brandy to his friends the next town over. George (who is quite light-skinned) is traveling disguised as a Spanish gentleman, accompanied by a darker “servant,” Jim. The latter had made it to Canada once, and had returned to the south in order to find and rescue his mother.
They do well, and all get away. Cash helps.