Why we read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’

By Daniel J. Bauer

University professors offer students carefully honed syllabi for courses at the start of each semester. These syllabi list boring details such as the instructor’s contact information, goals of the course (not so boring, I hope), instructional methods, rules and policies, weekly assignments, and other cool items. A few months ago, one of my dear students in my survey of American Literature course read the syllabus and raised a question. ��Why do we have to read a section of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’? We read that book already a long time ago.�� The question, not to mention the spirit of objection, rattled my chain. I knew darn well that Taiwan pre-college education does not require students to read a 19th century novel several hundred pages long, and in English at that. A bit of probing among colleagues led to the information that the student almost certainly had read a sanitized and shortened version ��for young readers,�� and, hmm, in Chinese, of course. I would bet that if I asked my students who Ben Affleck is, most could say in a snap that he’s an American actor, director, and social activist. If I asked about the identity of Benjamin L. Cole, I’d get a blank stare.

Creators of a documentary on Mr. Affleck recently found records from civil war era Chatham County, Georgia to prove a distant great-grandfather of Mr. Affleck named Ben Cole had custody of two dozen slaves whom by law he was to pass onto his sons. So, in Mr. Affleck’s family, slavery has tentacles that stretch over generations covering more than 160 years. Even respected celebrities cannot wash history off their hands.

Why read ��Uncle Tom’s Cabin��? Why invest precious hours in a history of American racism at its worst? Why in the age of digitalization should we bother about a sentimental and unabashedly polemical book over 165 years old, and a book to boot that contains by our standards a spate of flaky simplifications and stereotypes?