Timeless

Book: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Audience: G-U

Genre: Fiction (Classic)

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One of the reasons I like to read classics is that while the stories may be timeless, the books themselves often are not. Styles in literature have their trends, just like clothing styles, and I find it fascinating to learn about the time period in which a book was written from the book itself. Mrs. Stowe’s book is an archetypal example of this.

The story itself it rather well known. Tom, a well-respected slave of the Kentucky Shelby family, is sold to a trader. Mrs. Shelby actually opposes slavery, but accepts that the “peculiar institution” is a part of her husband’s way of life—a teaching she has passed on to her son George. Mr. Shelby is a kind master, but he still believes in the owning of others and in the inferiority of the black race. He sells Tom and another slave, housemaid Eliza’s son Henry, as a last resort to pay off a debt. Mrs. Shelby, along with Tom’s wife Chloe, vows to get the money to buy Tom back.

Eliza, refusing to be separated from her son, runs away with Henry before the trader can claim him, meets up with her escaped husband George (whose owner is not Mr. Shelby), and dramatically crosses the river into Ohio where she and her family are sheltered by Quakers until they can complete their journey to Canada.

Tom, meanwhile, is bought by Augustine St. Clare, a Southerner from Louisiana but raised in the North. He owns slaves but does not particularly believe in slavery—or much of anything. He is kind, but lazy. His daughter Eva is angelic and his wife Marie is a stereotypical Southern belle who has no regard for the slaves in her possession. She truly sees them as possessions and behaves toward them accordingly. St. Clare has brought his spinster cousin Ophelia to his estate to run it, as Marie often fancies herself ill and is incapable of being the true mistress of her home. Ophelia is a dedicated abolitionist, but she does not see blacks as the equal of whites.

Tom, meanwhile, reads his Bible faithfully and truly tries to practice a Christian life. He and Eva form a tender bond and he is devastated by her early demise. In his own grief, St. Clare determines to free Tom, but is killed before the paperwork can be completed. Liquidating her home to return to her parents, Marie sells Tom to Simon Legree, an incredibly cruel master who is determined to break Tom of his high-minded ways and turn him into a mindless and soulless drone, capable of brutality to others. The beating Tom receives when he refuses to capitulate to Simon’s insistence that Tom beat another slave results in Tom’s death, days before young George Shelby finally arrives to purchase Tom’s freedom and reunite him with his family in Kentucky.

There can be no ambiguity about the main theme of this story—slavery is evil and is perpetrated by the (then) entire United States, whether northerner or southerner, abolitionist or slaveholder. Characters who found slavery repugnant still owned slaves. Abolitionists were repulsed by the very black people they wished to free. Slavery was kind to blacks because they would not know how to take care of themselves if freed. Slave family torn apart? No problem, they’ll just make a new family wherever they end up. Even characters we are supposed to like still subscribe to some of these offending positions.

Which leads me to believe that this was indeed Mrs. Stowe’s point all along. In pointing out the evil of the practice she was also pointing out that there is no one solution, no easy cure, no quick fix to remedy the national disease that was slavery. Rather than make all the slave owners evil and all the abolitionists kind and of upstanding moral character, she paints most of her characters (Simon Legree, the trader Haley, and Uncle Tom himself the exceptions to this) in shades of grey.

And this leads me to some thoughts on the character of Uncle Tom. A devout Christian, Tom, while longing for freedom, accepts his lot and is the most docile of men until charged by Legree to do the unthinkable. His willingness to please has made him a reviled character by some in the black community. Someone who is willingly submissive to whites is often called an “Uncle Tom.” I understand why, but I can’t help but think that people who are dismissive of Uncle Tom miss a point Mrs. Stowe was trying to make. Of course, I am saying this from my lofty position of white privilege, but I still think my argument has merit. Christ himself was submissive to the will of the leaders who were determined to kill him. He did not fight back, he did not lead a rebellion to free Israelites from Roman rule, and he did not exhort retaliation for wrongs done. Jesus had a duty to perform, he went about his business in peace, and he tried to get us all to love our friends and our enemies. Tom was actually emulating Christ. Eliza’s husband George is the firebrand, the rebel, and his efforts are rewarded with safety and freedom. Tom makes the ultimate sacrifice, but the way he lived his life touched all those around him. How very Christ-like.

This in fact brings me to my final and original point. Another undoubted theme of Mrs. Stowe’s book is Christianity. Considering that I just compared Uncle Tom to Jesus, I don’t think I need to go into that. What I will comment on is the style in which she chose to craft that theme. As was typical of the time, Mrs. Stowe chose not to be subtle in making her point. She is very heavy-handed (in the last chapter in particular) in her earnestness to convince her readers of Christian values. Her language is very Victorian and her writing moralistic and preachy. Often as I was reading I was reminded of the style of Louisa May Alcott, who began her own writing just after Mrs. Stowe published Uncle Tom. Miss Alcott, indeed, has commented on being influenced by Mrs. Stowe. However, I think Miss Alcott learned a bit from Mrs. Stowe about what not to do. Miss Alcott’s works are very moral and she falls into preachy-ness upon occasion (and pokes fun at herself for doing so), but she reins it in, making her work more accessible for modern readers. Both ladies wrote at a time when “good” writing often meant that it should also be instructive, and Uncle Tom certainly can be pedantic in tone. For all that, it is an astounding work, one that made a blazing indictment on the evils of the author’s society, one that got the country talking about an important issue, one that has made a lasting impression on the literary landscape of this country. No wonder it is a classic.

Having Fun Storming the Castle

 Book: As You Wish by Cary Elwes

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

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When I was a junior in college, my suitemate Polly and I attended a local math conference. It was held at an independent school about an hour away in Orange, VA. While there, we met one of the math teachers and struck up a conversation with him. A few weeks later the three of us met at the theater in our college town to see a new movie. While I don’t remember much else about the guy other than his name, I vividly remember the incredibly charming movie we saw—The Princess Bride.

It was amazing to Polly and me that this movie wasn’t more popular than it was. Thank goodness for videotape. When released on video it became a cult classic, and deservedly so. I remember seeing it multiple times at the dollar movie and often watching it when I visited my sister. One of her roommates had the video. In fact, he was so enamored with the film that one Halloween he and his girlfriend (now wife) dressed as Princess Buttercup and the Dread Pirate Roberts, the twist being that he was Buttercup and she was the pirate. It’s one of the many movies my friends and family love to quote from. So I was ever so pleased when my sister gave me this memoir of the filming of the movie, written by the Dread Pirate himself.

In very accessible prose, Mr. Elwes chronicles his entire Princess Bride experience, from his initial meeting with director Rob Reiner and Mr. Reiner’s producing partner Andy Scheinman to the film’s 25th anniversary celebration at the New York Film Festival. He recounts his meeting and working relationship with Robin Wright (Princess Buttercup), and the seemingly endless hours he and Mandy Patinkin (Inigo Montoya) trained, practiced and prepped for The Greatest Swordfight in Modern Times. He takes us on set to experience the fun, the exquisite takes, the mishaps, and the camaraderie. He introduces us to all his costars and their excited anticipations and trepidations about bringing William Goldman’s favorite of all his stories to life.

What is missing from Mr. Elwes’ narrative is onset drama and angst. Actually, I don’t think it’s missing at all—it is simply not present. I don’t think Mr. Elwes was seeing his Princess Bride episode through rose-colored hindsight. Rather, the cast and crew truly got along, truly had a wonderful time, truly enjoyed their time on set together. For someone who prefers to live her life in a drama-free zone, this was incredibly refreshing.

To bolster my claim that the Bride set was an harmonious one, I cite the many sidebars peppered throughout the book. These are comments from Mr. Reiner, Mr. Scheinman, Mr. Goldman, and several cast members. Some of these are funny, some are thoughtful, some are enlightening, and all add greatly to the reader’s enjoyment.

As for my own personal enjoyment, I think my favorite anecdote was one involving Mandy Patinkin. I have been in awe of Mr. Patinkin’s talent ever since I first heard the Evita soundtrack (when I was in middle school, I think) and he put his indelible mark on the role of Che Guevara. And as a supremely talented person he has gained a reputation (I have no idea if it is deserved or not) of a somewhat temperamental artist. However, according to Mr. Elwes, Mr. Patinkin has shared that he is asked to recite his most famous Bride line (“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”) on nearly a daily basis, and that he does. Hardly the actions of a temperamental artist, but rather actions that immediately gain my respect. It shows that Mr. Patinkin is grateful for such a career boosting opportunity, as, it indeed seems, are all the people involved in this classic movie. It was wonderful to learn that a movie that is an incredible experience to watch was also an incredible experience to make. Anything else would have been inconceivable.

Green Acres, British Style

Book: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Audience: G-U

Genre: Fiction (Classic #7)

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After the debacle of June’s classic, I was looking forward to a light, British, comedic turn for July. I did indeed get that, but it wasn’t quite the frothy, feathery, funny experience I was hoping for.

Flora Poste, nineteen and recently orphaned, has only 100 pounds a year to live on. Deciding she has no interest in working for a living, she duly writes to all her relatives, asking to live with them. A cousin of her mother’s, Judith Starkadder of Cold Comfort Farm, Sussex, writes that her husband wronged Flora’s father, so it is only proper that they try to make amends by sheltering Flora. Flora is intrigued by the oddity of the family and curious as to how they wronged her father, so she chooses to live with them.

They are indeed an odd bunch.

Judith is a meek and mild thing who has no idea how to manage her unusual family. She is married to Amos, who takes great delight in going to the village on Sundays to preach fire and damnation to Church of the Quivering Brethren. They are parents to Reuben, soft-spoken and longs to truly run the farm, and Seth, handsome and libertine who fathered several children with the hired girl. Old Adam works at the farm, where he is best known for washing the dishes with a twig, and cousin Elfine is a young sprite of a girl who is fated to marry one of the many disheveled distant cousins or farm hands (I couldn’t keep track of who was who). Matriarch to them all is Aunt Ada Doom, who keeps her state above stairs, is set in her unrealistic ways, and cries, “saw something nasty in the woodshed” whenever someone tries to assert himself and change the way she runs things.

Into this motley crew Flora descends, confident in the notion that she can improve their lives and the general situation at the farm. And indeed she does. She establishes Amos as a traveling evangelist, which means he turns the running of the farm over to a grateful Reuben. Flora makes a connection with a movie producer who in turn discovers Seth and carts him and his libidinous ways to Hollywood. She marries Elfine off to a member of the local gentry and pairs Elfine’s would-be husband to the hired girl Seth left behind. And in her most impressive coup, she secures Aunt Ada’s blessing for all these changes by conducting a long interview with her which results in the older woman taking off on a world trip.

Yes, the Starkadders and their workers are eccentric personalities, which can make for fun and interesting reading (see the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society). Yet I did not find them to be so. They were dirty, coarse, and downright disgusting. The only thing amusing I found about them came from Mrs. Beetle, mother of Meriam the hired girl. Meriam has four small children (heavily implied but not stated that they were fathered by Seth), and her mother calls them “a ready-made jazz band.” At the end of the story at Elfine’s wedding, the children make an appearance, and the author simply refers to them as The Jazz Band. I admit that made me smile, but it’s just about the only thing.

Flora herself took some getting used to. I acknowledge that I did not care for her at first, but she grew on me. She initially comes off as smug and superior, and I suppose she is, but honestly, she has a right to be. Ultimately, though, she meddles in everyone’s business for the better and with a genuine interest in improving their lives. It may come from a place of duty rather than love, but there is no malice, and she is successful. That has to count for something.

So overall Flora and her stratagems were interesting and on some level I enjoyed them. We never do find out what Amos did to wrong Flora’s father or just what Aunt Ada saw in the woodshed. I don’t know if that was to set up for further adventures of the Starkadders (which I don’t care to follow up on) or just kind of cop-out storytelling. Either way, I wish those issues had been resolved. It could have made this mildly interesting country tale more of a tale worth telling.