I just finished reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a book that’s been on my list of “classics” to read for several years.
It left me quite conflicted and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I’ve been reading what others have said and even discussed it with my husband.
Stowe’s book is about a hard-working and deeply religious slave, Uncle Tom. I greatly admire his faith, compassion, ability to forgive and the strength he had to endure an unimaginable hell.
But there’s also the side to Tom that has been criticized since publication, that he was weak, too tolerant, a traitor to his race, which has led to his name becoming a racial slur.
At times, I wanted him to stand up and fight back, to stir up a revolt, or at least try to.
But then I think, maybe he was fighting back in his own way. I could go on, but I’ll save that for another forum.
So I’m still up in the air about Tom, but I plan on revisiting it again soon. And I guess that’s why it’s been on my list of “classics.” It’s kept me going back to it. Thinking critically, sharing my thoughts and learning from others. And possibly changing how I feel. Or maybe not.
A classic work, as defined by Oliver DeMille in “A Thomas Jefferson Education,” is one that is worth returning to over and over because you get more from it each time.
It also, for me, does not necessarily mean that it’s old. There are plenty of books written in recent years that are really great reads. And some of the books classified as classics are not classics to me, although they might be to you. I barely finished “The Scarlet Letter” and “The Lightning Thief” left me wanting more.
DeMille said, “Great works inspire greatness.”
The more classics I study, the more I find myself being inspired and asking myself questions. How would I react in a certain situation? How can I be a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, community member? How can I use this knowledge to affect change?
Classics give us crucial questions but not all the answers. They make us seek and struggle, discover and decide, and sometimes even reconsider.
Many times they present an old question and we can answer it in a new and current way.
Does slavery exist today? Yes. Maybe not exactly as shown by Stowe, but it’s still very much a problem today, both literally and figuratively. So what am I going to do about it? The answer may be nothing. Or it may be something great.
Many of them also happen to be some of the most controversial, I believe, because they make us think about real issues. “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Bridge to Terabithia” and “Harry Potter.”
And some of the most meaningful books I’ve read recently were both intriguing and thought-provoking, and yet, horrific and disturbing like “The Giver” or “The Kite Runner.”
Then there’s one of my all-time favorite classics, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain.
I was recently shocked to learn that a publisher is going to print a new version of the book, replacing the word “nigger” (all 219 times) with “slave” and “Indian” for “injun.” The change came after an English professor approached the publisher to create a version for “younger people and general readers.”
My husband and I discussed this at length, he being a teacher said he could understand the difficulty in teaching it. He often reads books out loud in class and said he would struggle with saying it.
I don’t believe we can rewrite our nation’s history to make it all politically correct. I’m shocked every time I read it and every time I hear it. It makes me think and remember. We need to teach our children about those social attitudes and how wrong they were, but we can’t do that if it’s not included in the book.
And so we agreed to disagree.
Clifton Fadiman said, “When you reread a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than was there before.”
So grab a classic. I guarantee you will see more inside of you, just as I am learning to do.