The passion of Uncle Tom

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a weekly Op-Ed columnist for The Times and a former staff writer for LA Weekly. She writes chiefly about race, politics and culture.

BEFORE starting work on this review, I had never read "Uncle Tom's Cabin." This was not initially by design. The book was simply never assigned to me in school. Of course, as the child of a big New Orleans family, I learned early on what Uncle Tom meant: a tragic, grinning, generally duplicitous post-slavery Negro who remained hopelessly subservient and wanted white approval above all else. Tom was an archetype, a creature of old movies and the shadowy saboteur of many a black power moment. So constant was his threat that I found myself repelled by the mere title of Harriet Beecher Stowe's book, as it was my sense that this 1852 novel was the source, however unwittingly, of all the iterations of Uncle Tom that followed, from minstrel shows straight into the modern age with TV characters like Jimmie Walker's J.J. in "Good Times."

After graduate school, I began to avoid the book consciously, much as I had avoided the movie "Gone With the Wind." Both were touted as significant pieces of American popular culture, but I couldn't get past the question: Whose culture? What did these white-authored fantasies about Southern black people, however well-meaning, have to do with me?

Now that I have finally read "Uncle Tom's Cabin," my answer is hardly shocking: not much. The authenticity of white takes on black people, especially in Stowe's time, remains inherently dubious, although their enormous influence is not. That blacks are still trying to counter that influence -- or, alas, succumbing to it -- is a given, and something I kept in mind as I read.

More surprising was how much I enjoyed the book. From the first pages, I fell into Stowe's Victorian excesses and her dear-reader contrivances as willingly as I had in books by Louisa May Alcott and Charles Dickens, who first fired my literary imagination as a preteen. I loved the exaggerated heroes and villains, even the diabolical Simon Legree, and the exaggerated language that ranged from high oratory to the roughest and least punctuated dialects. I must say that I was disappointed to find that Uncle Tom himself was not villainous or radioactive; indeed, he was not much of anything besides devoutly Christian, as was the abolitionist Stowe, along with most of her readers.

To be sure, I would have never come to these discoveries were it not for Henry Louis Gates Jr., the W.E.B. DuBois professor of the humanities at Harvard University, who has given his imprimatur to Stowe's novel with "The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin." The latest addition to W.W. Norton's annotated canon, the book (which comes with an array of vintage illustrations) is co-edited by Johns Hopkins University humanities professor Hollis Robbins, but make no mistake, this project is all Gates. It could hardly be otherwise. Here, we have one of America's premier black intellectuals -- and certainly the most multimedia-savvy -- weighing in on one of the definitive "black" books of all time.

Still, "The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin" begs a question: Why Uncle Tom, why now? According to Gates, it boils down to sex. In his introduction, he writes that he wants to debunk the belief, propagated at length by James Baldwin in a 1949 essay called "Everybody's Protest Novel," that Uncle Tom is asexual and, therefore, a crippling caricature rather than the flesh-and-blood black character Stowe presumably wanted to put forth.

Gates means to explore the many permutations of sex that bubble just beneath the novel's thick layer of Victorian sentiment, which Baldwin also criticized as dehumanizing to blacks. Contrary to its moralist image, Gates argues, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is brimming with sex chiefly because slavery itself brimmed with sex; the prominence and sensuality of the novel's many mixed-race characters, from George and Eliza to Cassy and Madame Thoud, is the clearest evidence of that. Indeed, Gates suggests, sex has a more restrained but no less potent role in the institutions of family and marriage, both of which Stowe promotes passionately, especially among her black characters. This was radical in her day, as slaves could not marry and their offspring were considered to constitute not the members of any particular family but so many head of cattle.

Of course, throughout "Uncle Tom's Cabin," light-skinned mulatto couples seem much more married -- even when separated -- than dark-skinned Uncle Tom and Aunt Chloe, who come off as no more intimate than brother and sister. Gates admits that Stowe indulges in this and other troublesome racial tropes. (Topsy, anyone?) But he maintains that Tom is a fount of strength and sexual power who is simply denied expression. This is why he is most full-hearted not with his wife but with Mas'r George, his subsequent master St. Clare and most memorably with the blond, saintly Little Eva. In Gates' view, Tom's strong feelings are compressed into almost superhuman forbearance, which essentially transforms him into a black Christ by novel's end. It's the best a virile man can do when saddled with the constraints of slavery and its transient relationships. Tom is not servile, only stoic.

That's an interesting argument, and I might buy it if Tom were the only black character here, or even the most significant one. But he's not. Despite their relative privilege, the mixed-blood characters are also slaves who find themselves in the same precarious position: They can be bought and sold at will, and they are. Yet they are as complex, aggressive and determined to wreak change as Tom is unquestioning and willing to bear his fate; in one of the story's boldest moments, the escaped slave George shoots and wounds a white pursuer -- and lives to tell the tale.

None of that would bother me if Gates' annotations were more illuminating. For the most part, though, they function best as information, highlighting criticism from Stowe contemporaries like Frederick Douglass, while elaborating on historical events like the Fugitive Slave Act, the Hungarian revolt and "The Communist Manifesto" to put the story and its antislavery propaganda into context. Some notes feel gratuitous. We don't need definitions of every term that is not instantly familiar, like "seed-cake" or "laudanum"; we don't need to be told why Stowe describes black hair as "woolly," or that George's master accuses him of being a layabout because "[a] common racist stereotype of the time considered the black man inherently lazy." There's also a lot of explication of the Scripture quoted by Stowe's characters that's worth knowing but not terribly germane to the story, and certainly not to Gates' theory about the book.

At times, Gates simply has fun, as when he calls the foppish house slave Adolph a metrosexual, or describes Stowe as the Oprah Winfrey of her time. But the majority of the notes explain allusions, analyze Stowe's technique and speculate on her motives.

This is all viable, although I'm not sure it reveals anything that hasn't been revealed already in the exhaustive scholarship that exists about this book. Nor does Gates drive home his argument about sex at what appear the obvious moments, such as the climactic death scene of Little Eva, in which a devoted Tom looks on almost rapturously. The novel's trademark religiosity is fraught with sexual energy that is in turn fraught with the particular and very forbidden energy of race, something Gates accuses Baldwin of ignoring. Yet Gates proves similarly guilty.

The real value of "The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin" may be that you, like me, will be persuaded to pick it up. The notes might be part of the incentive, but who needs guideposts to explain pre-Civil War racial sensibilities? Still, if new packaging brings readers to the age-old ambiguities, arguments and, yes, the unexpected pleasures of style and passion that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" offers, Gates will have accomplished his mission. And mission, after all, is what Stowe and her beloved but errant America were all about. *

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