Baldwin's Attack of Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

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James Baldwin's Attack of Uncle Tom's Cabin

What Frederick Douglass was to the 19th century, it might be argued that James Baldwin was to the 20th century.

Baldwin was a leader of the Civil Rights Movement and an African American novelist, publishing many books and plays, including his most popular Go Tell It on the Mountain in 1953. However, he was also known as an essayist. One of his most famous essays, "Everybody's Protest Novel," attacks the concept of protest fiction and more specifically, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. This 20th century critical analysis discusses the novel's downfalls of sentimentality, grandiose violence, and racialist characterization.

Baldwin feels that the protest novel is almost always sentimental. He feels that sentimental fiction is inherently dishonest. He writes, "Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty" (1654). He explains that Uncle Tom's Cabin is a "very bad novel" with sentimentality similar to Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Baldwin also writes that Stowe includes an excess of violence in Uncle Tom's Cabin. He notes:

This [violence] is explained by the nature of Mrs. Stowe's subject matter, her laudable determination to flinch from nothing in presenting the complete picture; an explanation which falters only if we pause to ask whether or not her picture is indeed complete; and what construction . . . forced her to so depend on the description of brutality - unmotivated, senseless - and to leave unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what it was, after all, that moved her people to such deeds. (1654)

Baldwin sees the graphic violence in the story as a means to create reality; however, Stowe fails, creating only more sentimentality.

Baldwin suggests that the characterization in Uncle Tom's Cabin is racist in its development. He discusses the main characters of the novel as George, Eliza, and Uncle Tom. He writes, "Eliza is a beautiful, pious hybrid, light enough to pass . . . . George is darker, but makes up for it by being a mechanical genius, and is, moreover, sufficiently un-Negroid to pass through town .

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