I’m more interested, however, in her non-fiction follow-up book, “A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” In it, Mrs. Stowe described the real-world influences on her made-up characters, and she expounded upon the religious ethics of chattel slavery.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was a gutsy woman. She appealed to the consciences of white people on behalf of black people, and it worked; “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is said to be the best-selling novel of the 19th Century.
But that doesn’t mean she had anything close to a present-day understanding of race differences and what we enlightened modern folk call “black cultural modes.”
For the sheer fun of looking into the past, I present a small piece of “A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Here, Mrs. Stowe stretches out on the passage in her novel where Uncle Tom has a vision of Jesus Christ. (“Suddenly everything around him seemed to fade, and a vision rose before him of one crowned with thorns, buffeted and bleeding. Tom gazed, in awe and wonder, at the majestic patience of the face; the deep, pathetic eyes thrilled him to his inmost heart; his soul woke as, with floods of emotion, he stretched out his hands and fell upon his knees…”)
HARRIET BEECHER STOWE: The vision attributed to Uncle Tom introduces quite a curious chapter of psychology with regard to the negro race, and indicates a peculiarity which goes far to show how very different they are from the white race.
They are possessed of a nervous organization peculiarly susceptible and impressible. Their sensations and impressions are very vivid, and their fancy and imagination lively. In this respect the race has an oriental character, and betrays its tropical origin. Like the Hebrews of old and the oriental nations of the present, they give vent to their emotions with the utmost vivacity of expression, and their whole bodily system sympathizes with the movements of their minds.
When in distress, they actually lift up their voices to weep, and “cry with an exceeding bitter cry.” When alarmed, they are often paralyzed, and rendered entirely helpless.
Their religious exercises are all colored by this sensitive and exceedingly vivacious temperament. Like oriental nations, they incline much to outward expressions, violent gesticulations, and agitating movements of the body. Sometimes, in their religious meetings, they will spring from the floor many times in succession, with a violence and rapidity which is perfectly astonishing.
They will laugh, weep, embrace each other convulsively, and sometimes become entirely paralyzed and cataleptic. A clergyman from the North once remonstrated with a Southern clergyman for permitting such extravagances among his flock. The reply of the Southern minister was, in effect, this:
“Sir, I am satisfied that the races are so essentially different that they cannot be regulated by the same rules. I at first felt as you do; and, though I saw that genuine conversions did take place, with all this outward manifestation, I was still so much annoyed by it as to forbid it among my negroes, till I was satisfied that the repression of it was a serious hindrance to real religious feeling; and then I became certain that all men cannot be regulated in their religious exercises by one model. I am assured that conversions produced with these accessories are quite as apt to be genuine, and to be as influential over the heart and life, as those produced in any other way.”
The fact is that the Anglo-Saxon race – cool, logical, and practical – have yet to learn the doctrine of toleration for the peculiarities of other races; and perhaps it was with a foresight of their peculiar character, and dominant position in the earth, that God gave the Bible to them in the fervent language and with the glowing imagery of the more susceptible and passionate oriental races.