Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410

Written during the Civil War, CUDJO’S CAVE mingles elements of propaganda with its historical setting and romantic theme. Because the novel displays deep sincerity, however, and a considerable degree of literary skill, it has enjoyed a popularity outlasting by many years the political issues which gave it birth. The book presents clearly and forcefully the problem of the rural population in Tennessee during that difficult time of decision at the beginning of the Civil War period. In that particular time and place the problem was peculiarly acute because Tennessee was a border state and its citizens had many reasons for indecision when faced by the realities of conflict between North and South. John Townsend Trowbridge, working close to actual history, dramatized effectively the guerrilla warfare fought among the people of Tennessee and Kentucky.

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At times, the plot comes close to melodrama, but the narrative strength and the skill of many characterizations manages to raise the action to a higher level. The villains in the tale are the least convincing characters; most of the time, they are no more than sketches, without depth or subtlety. No doubt many men committed such vile acts, but the reader is given no insight into their deeper instincts or motivations. Another flaw in the book is the dialogue, which is at times stilted and unrealistic. In particular, Old Toby’s black dialect and Carl’s German accent are both unconvincing, falling perilously close to stereotypes. Cudjo’s speech and actions occasionally slip into stereotypical patterns as well.

Pomp, however, is a character at once noble and believable. Although on the surface he seems almost too perfect to be true, the reader comes to feel an affection for this extraordinary black man. The author penetrates Pomp’s personality and creates in him one of the two best characters in the novel. Penn Hapgood, the Quaker schoolmaster, is the other character who lifts the book above the ordinary. The Abolitionist Penn is shown to be an idealist of subtle feelings and courage, a man willing to risk his life for what he believes. His speeches against the system combine propaganda with genuine emotion. He shows his wisdom when he declares that “education alone makes men free” and acknowledges that many white men might be considered slaves. Pomp’s testimony to the joys of freedom, however precarious, is a moving and powerful statement. Throughout the long novel, Penn and Pomp stir the reader’s interest and sympathies.

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