SOUTHERN SLAVERY. A Glance at Uncle Tom's Cabin.
BY A SOUTHERNER.
The time has come for a calm review of Mrs. HARRIET BEECHER STOWE’s book,—a book which has attracted so much attention, both at home and abroad. It is quite clear that the review must come from the South. The book cannot be fairly judged anywhere else in all the world; in truth, it cannot be comprehended anywhere else. Its style may be admired the world over, its vivid sketches of the lights and shadows of life, its life-like creation—presenting at one moment the loveliest impersonation of virtue, and at the next the most revolting embodiment of course vice,—gives powerful interest to the book, independent of the particular class or race whose wrongs it is intended to depict.
The power of the book is not to be questioned. Its fidelity, its fairness, its morality we may venture to discuss; but it would be idle to deny that it is a powerful appeal to humanity; that it moves the soul in its very depths; and that it awakens the intensest interest in the fortunes of the humble hero of the story, and of all the personages in any way connected with him. A writer just beginning to be talked about, undertakes to show us that all popular superstitions are founded on some truth. In his argument, which is historical, he overlooks astrology, one of the most beautiful, fascinating, and commanding forms of speculative faith which the world has ever acknowledged, since the stars first glittered in the firmament.
Without going out of our way just now to see how much we might be able to concede to this entertaining theory, we are ready to admit that no book, no ballad, no wild song of love or war, has ever moved the hearts of men, unless it professed some great element which allied it to truth.
The heart, after all, even if it be not always loyal, yields its homage to the truth.
Mrs.STOWE’s book professes this element, not as consistently, but as unmistakably, as the Pilgrim’s Progress or Robinson Crusoe. It utters the voice of humanity, sometimes in its saddest tones, and it is not to be wondered at that the world should bend its ear to listen to it. We can comprehend the charm of the Ranz des Vaches, though we hear it not echoing among the glaciers of Switzerland. So we may the awakening sounds of the wild Marsellaise, though we do not tread at the moment the Boulevards of Paris. They both find an echo in the calling of sweet memories of home; the others,—heroic associations,—the mustering of armed hoses, and battle-fields, whose men strike for Liberty.
When in the Theatre at Rome, the noble sentiment was uttered—
"Homo sum, humanum nihil a me alienum puto,"
the vast building resounded with applause: and DUGALD STEWART thought that it would, if well uttered by an actor in the most corrupt capital of modern Europe, produce the same effect. It is because of the sentiment, that a man must feel an interest in all that concerns humanity, is recognized at once as a great and generous truth, that its utterance could not fail to elicit prompt and vehement applause.
There lies the secret power of Mrs. STOWE’s sketch of Life among the Lowly. It is not merely that it depicts the scenes in the life of a slave torn from his happy home, his family, his friends, and subjected to cruel treatment upon a Southern plantation; but it is because the glowing pages exhibit the chequered fortunes of a man displaying a character at every step of his eventful history, at once gentle and heroic. Through the darkening shadows of his later years, the beautiful lineaments of the Christian shine out clear, steady and strong; and we do not know whether the soul is most moved by admiration for the lofty courage and sublime faith of the expiring martyr, suffering, bleeding, sinking in the loneliness of a wretched hovel, without an eye to cheer, or a human voice to speak a word of sympathy; or with indignant detestation of the demon-like brutality of a wretch, without a single redeeming quality. Such a picture, drawn anywhere, would move us.
Mrs. STOWE has been pleased to sketch it with transcendent artistic skill, with a Southern plantation for the back ground. She might move the world to tears as well over a sketch of some Indian family, separated from their tribe, perishing under the stern infliction of pioneer vengeance. Or she might, as Miss EDGEWORTH has already done, call our attention to a group in the midst of Ireland, neglected, naked, starving amidst the teeming fertility of that island, so beautiful, so luxuriant, and so wretched. Her pencil would have thrown the tints as well upon the canvas if it had been spread in the midst of the verdure of Ireland, as it did when she chose the slave plantation of Louisiana as the locale of her creations. It might not have been as acceptable a picture to grace the saloons of Stafford House as that which she has furnished in Uncle Tom’s Cabin; but it would have been quite as life-like. It is barely possible, too, that Mrs. STOWE might have found something very interesting and very painful to delineate in the manufacturing districts of England.
Anywhere in all the world she might have found subjects for sketches of equal interest with that which has attracted so much attention; for, alas, human life abounds with scenes of wrong, of oppression, and of suffering. And Mrs. STOWE would invest any object with interest which she undertook to touch with her magic pencil. She would have made more of the story of BELISARIUS than Lord MAHON has done, who undertook the task of biography, attracted by so fine a subject. The blind, wandering old man—the story of a degenerate age—the hero who had led the Roman legions to victories which rivaled in splendor those of the best days of the Republic—suffering under the royal ingratitude—led through the streets of a capital which had resounded with shouts of triumph, as the tidings of his brilliant achievements had reached it, by the hand of his own son, with his cry of Date obolum Belisario, would make a fine subject for her pen. The semi-fabulous part of the story would adapt it to her genius, and afford scope for the exercise of her fine imagination. We commend this subject to Mrs. STOWE. The Life of Belisarius by her would be charming. It must be admitted that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a book which no one can read with indifference; not only in the non-slaveholding States of our own country has it found favor; not only have twenty thousand copies been distributed within a few weeks through the North; not only has it received in England such a welcome as an American book never met before; not only has it been dramatized in France, and translated into the wide German tongue; but in the South it has it has been eagerly sought for; and planters—large slave-owners have, been moved to tears while reading its pages, or roused to indignation by its graphic sketches of wrong and cruelty. There can be no higher proof of the merits of the book as an artistic performance; for it is well understood to be an appeal to the civilized world against the social system of the Southern States.
Let us see how this effect has been produced. In the sketches which Mrs. STOWE has presented of Southern slavery, she has adopted the rules which give to poetry its effective power. The commonplace relations of the subject are left out of view; all the quiet natural, every-day scenes are overlooked, or sedulously shut out; while the exaggerated, the startling, the extreme points, are disclosed under the intensest light which can be thrown upon them.
The book is to the actual state of Slavery what poetry is to the real life of a people. Nothing is exhibited under the sober light of truth.
The hero of the story is not a type of class but is a rare impersonation of the higher qualities which are found in a human being, under the most favorable circumstances which this world of ours ever affords; if, indeed, the sketch not be wholly ideal.
No hero of antiquity—no man of modern times—viewed under the golden light which history, or even poetry, sheds upon him, surpasses Uncle Tom in all the characteristics which constitutes what we call the heroic, if he equals him. This man, with his African lineage, born and bred upon a plantation, without enjoying so far as we can see, advantages at all superior to those which are open to slaves about him, appears upon the canvas in colors which glow with unearthly beauty, and we turn from the ordinary and gross hero worship of the world to survey, with blended wonder and veneration, a dusky form, combining the noble fortitude of ULYSSES, with the patient dignity of SOCRATES; or rather, displaying the highest traits of Christian heroism, with which the race has been favored since its first great exemplars.
Uncle Tom is a man of extraordinary intellectual powers, generous nature, quick sensibility, large and noble views of every subject; he discovers promptly and beautifully a lofty, spiritual philosophy, which throws upon all the surrounding objects of human life a golden haze, and which lights up the portals of the grave in the steady splendor of Immortal Hope.
Patient under wrong, meek and forgiving, pleading with tones of earnest eloquence the cause of the oppressed, he displays a self-sacrificing and heroic spirit under appalling circumstances, almost without a parallel in the dark chronicles of human suffering.
This is the slave: now let us look upon the picture of the master. Mr. Shelby is a gentleman somewhat embarrassed in his affairs, and is compelled to settle a claim which a trader—Haley—holds against him. The money not being at hand, Mr. Shelby decides to relieve himself from the pressure of debt by selling his very best servant to an unscrupulous trader—a servant more trusted than all the others, and in all things faithful. He sells him away from his wife, his children, his home, his all; sends him to a climate regarded as fatal to many, even of the black race, who are exposed to its burning son; and this, too, he does when he has other slaves about him who might be sold, but who could not bring quite so high a price as Uncle Tom. To heighten the indignation which the reader feels kindling within him at this revolting traffic, a child of extraordinary attraction is thrown in to complete the bargain. This child, brought up in the family of Mr. Shelby with as much tenderness as one of his own children—the only child of his mother, a woman of refinement and cultivation—is embraced in the bill of sale, delivered to Haley, and it is stipulated that he shall be borne away to any market, and sold to any bidder.
Is Mr. Shelby a fair type of the slaveholders of the Southern States? Or is it not the exaggeration as great in his case, as it is in that of Uncle Tom? The colors which make up the picture, are not the colors of this world of ours; they are in the one instance borrowed from Heaven, and in the other from Hell. A man like Uncle Tom is a Christian, fully prepared to enter at once into the society of just men made perfect; a man like Mr. Shelby, exhibits a selfishness, which finds its real and intense concentration nowhere this side of "the infernal pit." The same exaggerated style is employed in delineating the character and person of Eliza, and of her husband, George. Eliza’s "rich, full, dark eye, with its long lashes," her hair falling in "ripples of silky black," her complexion giving "way on the cheek, to a perceptible flush, which deepened as she saw the gaze of the strange man fixed upon her in bold, and undisguised admiration," bespeak a sensibility and beauty altogether attractive; while her taste and refinement may be inferred from her dress, which "was of the neatest possible fit, and set off to advantage her finely-moulded shape; a delicately formed hand, and a trim foot and ankle," are also brought to view, so that the person presented to us possesses an indescribable charm.
This engaging person is "married to a bright and talented young mulatto man," who was also a slave, and bore the name of George Harris.
The talented young mulatto was employed in a bagging factory, and had actually invented a machine for cleaning hemp, which displayed as much genius as WHITNEY’s Cotton Gin. This, of course, greatly increased his value as a slave, but unfortunately it also increased his consideration; his master became fixed with jealousy at the increased consequence of his "chattel," and forthwith removed him to a plantation, subjected him to cruel treatment, refused the most advantageous offers for him, and actually compelled him to run away. Seen afterwards in a small country hotel, in the disguise of a gentleman, the fugitive slave, George, is described as "very tall, with a dark Spanish complexion, fine, expressive black eyes, and close curling hair, also of a glossy blackness. His well-formed aquiline nose, straight think lips, and the admirable contour of his finely-formed limbs, impressed the whole company with the idea of something uncommon."
Such are some of the dramatis personae who figure in Mrs. STOWE’s book. Whatever can give a charm to the human form—or elevation to human character—is found in the slaves who are objects of our regard, and for whom the sympathies of the civilized world are invoked. Whatever can lessen our respects for a slaveholder is attributed to Mrs. Shelby,—whatever can rouse our detestation of the race of traders—in their most malignant depraved state is shown to us in the person of Haley. Even Mrs. Shelby and Eva, the beautiful, unearthly, angelic Eva, are exhibited in the dwellings of the South, to make their associates the more hateful, upon the principle that like Hamlet, we compare Hyperion with a satyr. The only really natural person in the book is Augustine St. Clare; he is natural. Many such men do we know; noble, generous, humane, and good men; indulgent to the last degree in the management of their slaves; comprehending the evils which belong to slavery, and at the same time comprehending equally the visionary and heartless school of self-complacent moralists, who baptise themselves philanthropists.
It is quite clear that whatever may be the demerits of the slave system, they are not fairly exhibited in Mrs. STOWE’s Book; a book which we do not misconceive or undervalue.
We have already said that it possesses extraordinary attractions. It has fixed in the eyes of the civilized world on the Slaveholding States. Its "still, sad music" has reached the ear of mankind. It is altogether impossible that it should pass away without working great results; indeed we trust that its results will be seen in all the future fortunes of the African race. It ought to be read by every Slaveholder; it is far more important that he should read it, than the Abolitionist of America, or of Europe, should find in its pages fresh fuel for his passions. All this we freely say. But we say something more than this; and it is—that the sympathy of the civilized world has been roused, not by an exhibition of the true relations between master and slave, but by a splendid picture;—an elaborate and successful performance, in which the imagination prevails to so high a degree, that the scene should have been laid in some Oriental region, rather than amidst the sober and commonplace realities of the Plantation States.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin stands at the head of that entertaining class of books known as "Tales Founded on Facts."