I’m continuing my journey of reading the classics that have somehow escaped me (you can read previous posts here and here). Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Beautiful and Damned were next on my list, simply because I happened to have audio book versions of each. (I admit to listening to each of them on 2x speed and using my 30 minute commute to force myself to listen to them when they got dry and boring.) Still, it’s easy to see how each of these books became classics, and I’m glad I read them.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
First published in 1852, this book follows the story of several slaves and the white people who surround them. When Mr. Shelby, the slave owner, finds himself in debt, he has to sell two of his favorite slaves–kind, patient Tom and the young child of Eliza. Eliza decides to run away with her child, while Tom agrees to be sold downriver. We follow both characters, along with the masters and fellow slaves they encounter on their travels.
I was not expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. It is powerful and surprisingly modern for the time it was written. It’s easy to see why Abraham Lincoln reportedly cited it as the cause of the Civil War. Of course, there is a fair amount of racism still present (it was written in the 1850s, after all), and there is a strong case of White Savior Complex and a large group of simple, pure-hearted slaves, but I was amazed at what a case Stowe built for ending slavery. She focused on how deeply these mothers felt the loss of their children, husbands the loss of their wives, and often directs her narrative voice at the audience, urging them to think about how they would feel in similar circumstances. Stowe clearly had a deep Christian faith, as did many of her readers at the time, and she gathers evidence for how unchristian it is to own slaves. She even attacks those who justify slavery by describing how kind they are to their own slaves and how lost these people would be without guidance–Stowe rightly points out that everyone desires freedom above practically all else and how harmful it is to be even a kindly master.
If you can get past the historical racism inherent to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the length which at times feels dry, you should read this book. I’m glad I did, even though I doubt I’ll pick it up again.
Rating: Good but Forgettable
The Beautiful and Damned
Embellished with the author’s lyrical prose, here is the story of Harvard-educated, aspiring aesthete Anthony Patch and his beautiful wife, Gloria. As they await the inheritance of his grandfather’s fortune, their reckless marriage sways under the influence of alcohol and avarice. A devastating look at the nouveau riche and New York nightlife, as well as the ruinous effects of wild ambition, The Beautiful and the Damned achieved stature as one of Fitzgerald’s most accomplished novels.
Fitzgerald is great at presenting a depressing, dark view of human nature, and that’s exactly what he does in The Beautiful and Damned. Anthony and Gloria selfishly mistreat each other and fall into straits as they can’t control their spending/drinking/vanity. It’s painful to see them do so much harm to themselves and each other, although it is of course very well written. If you’ve read The Great Gatsby, you’ll know what to expect from this book.