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Nearly every young author dreams of writing a book that will literally change the world. A few have succeeded, and Harriet Beecher Stowe is such a marvel. Although the American anti-slavery movement had existed at least as long as the nation itself, Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) galvanized public opinion as nothing had before. The book sold 10,000 copies in its first week and 300,000 in its first year. Its vivid dramatization of slavery’s cruelties so aroused readers that it is said Abraham Lincoln told Stowe her work had been a catalyst for the Civil War.
Today the novel is often labeled condescending, but its characters—Tom, Topsy, Little Eva, Eliza, and the evil Simon Legree—still have the power to move our hearts. Though “Uncle Tom” has become a synonym for a fawning black yes-man, Stowe’s Tom is actually American literature’s first black hero, a man who suffers for refusing to obey his white oppressors. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a living, relevant story, passionate in its vivid depiction of the cruelest forms of injustice and inhumanity—and the courage it takes to fight against them.
Amanda Claybaugh is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
The publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin lifted Stowe out of a purely Beecher orbit and put her in the stratosphere of international fame. But the novel is nonetheless indebted, as Joan D. Hedrick shows in her Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (1994), to the many and varied Beecher family projects. The father's battle for the soul of the nation, the brothers' Christian ministries, one sister's advocacy for women and slaves, another's celebration of the properly run home-all of these can be found in Uncle Tom alongside Stowe's own gifts: her ear for dialect and her eye for detail, her masterful handling of suspense and pathos, and her sympathetic embrace of all the nation's regions. The result was a novel more popular, and more influential, than anyone could have imagined.
When Calvin Stowe negotiated Uncle Tom's contract on his wife's behalf, he confided to the publishers that he hoped the novel would be successful enough so that his wife could buy a "good black silk dress" (Thomas F. Gossett, Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture, 1985, p. 165). The novel turned out, of course, to be far more successful than that. Within the first week of publication, Uncle Tom's Cabin sold 10,000 copies; within its first year, 300,000 (this in a nation with a total population of only 24 million). Uncle Tom's Cabin was the first American novel to sell more than a million copies, and no book of any kind, except for the Bible, had ever sold so well. Astonishing as the sales figures are, even they fail to suggest the full extent of Uncle Tom's popularity. For the book was published in an era when novels were still treated as a kind of communal property, borrowed from circulating libraries, passed from hand to hand, read aloud to entire households at a time; knowing this, one reviewer speculated that Uncle Tom had ten readers for every copy sold.
The best measure of Uncle Tom's popularity lies, then, not in numbers, but rather in the kind of anecdotal evidence that Thomas F. Gossett has collected in the book noted above. Reading through the letters and journals of Stowe's contemporaries, Gossett finds Richard Henry Dana, Jr., noting that four men were reading Uncle Tom in a single railway car and Ralph Waldo Emerson observing that it was the "only book that found readers in the parlor, the nursery, and the kitchen in every house-hold" (p. 165). Such popularity produced a flood of subsidiary merchandise, as Eric J. Sundquist recalls in his introduction to New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin (1986). There were innumerable plays, poems, and songs, all elaborating and exploiting the pathos of the novel's most affecting scenes; there were also, more surprisingly, Uncle Tom dioramas, engravings, figurines, candles, plates, busts, embossed spoons, painted scarves, needlepoint, and games, including one in which players competed to reunite the families of separated slaves. By the end of the year, three hundred Boston babies had been christened "Eva," in honor of the novel's heroine (Gossett, p. 164).
The success of Uncle Tom was not limited to the United States. In Britain, the novel was equally popular, and it was during a triumphal tour of Britain in 1853 that Stowe experienced the consequences of her fame at first hand. When she landed in Liverpool, she found the docks thronged with people who wanted to be the first to catch a glimpse of her. Her subsequent travels toward London confirmed that Stowe could go nowhere in public without attracting crowds who would call out her name and cheer. In London, the Lord Mayor held a dinner in her honor; she was seated across from Charles Dickens and toasted along with him. Over the course of her visit, Stowe was introduced to the most important figures in Britain: the Earl and Countess of Shaftesbury, the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, the Duchess of Sutherland, the Earl of Carlisle, Lord and Lady Palmerston, Lord John Russell, and William Gladstone. Everywhere Stowe went, she was presented with extravagant tributes: a gold purse filled with 130 pounds; a silver salver covered with one thousand pounds; an agate cup filled with one hundred gold sovereigns; and a heavy gold bracelet, made to resemble slave shackles, engraved with the date on which slavery was abolished in the British colonies (Hedrick, pp. 233-252).
Uncle Tom was received quite differently, of course, in the southern states. In some regions, the book was not sold at all, while in others it was not advertised. Those southerners who did read the novel were nearly all outraged, and it was the subject of scathing reviews. While a few of these reviews limited themselves to defending the South from what were taken to be Stowe's unfair attacks, the majority of them took the occasion to attack Stowe in turn. George Frederick Holmes, of the Southern Literary Messenger, called her "an obscure Yankee school mistress, eaten up with fanaticism, festering with the malignant virtues of abolitionism, self-sanctified by the virtues of a Pharisaic religion, devoted to the assertion of women's rights, and an enthusiastic believer in many neoteric heresies" (Gossett, p. 189). William Gilmore Simms went even further, in the Southern Quarterly Review: "Mrs. Stowe betrays a malignity so remarkable," he claimed, "that the petticoat lifts of itself, and we see the hoof of the beast under the table" (Gossett, p. 190). Nor was the southern response confined to reviews. It also took the form of an astonishing new genre, what Gossett calls the anti-Uncle Tom novel (pp. 212-239).
The titles of these novels often reveal their agendas: Mary H. Eastman's Aunt Phillis's Cabin; or, Southern Life as It Is (1852); Robert Criswell's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" Contrasted with Buckingham Hall, the Planter's Home; or, A Fair View of Both Sides of the Slavery Question (1852); and John W. Page's Uncle Robin, in His Cabin in Virginia, and Tom without One in Boston (1853). Despite the references to slaves in their titles, these novels tend to focus on the debate between slave owners and abolitionists. Sometimes abolitionism is shown to be merely foolish and misguided; more often, however, it is shown to be a form of hypocrisy, as when abolitionists prefer to sympathize with distant slaves than to care for the exploited workers around them or, worse, when abolitionists use the cause as a pretext for pursuing cross-racial desires.
The slave owners, on the other hand, tend to be wise and humane, but their widely varying attitudes toward physical punishment suggest a deep confusion about what, in a slave-owning society, wisdom and humanity might mean. In some of these novels, for instance, the owners do not punish their slaves at all, for reasons either of kindness or self-interest; in others, they punish their slaves only on the rare occasions when it is deserved; in still others, they punish their slaves often because it is only through punishment that slaves can be governed; others insist that it is only the rare owner who punishes his slaves and that he is sure to be shunned for his cruelty, or that it is only overseers who punish and that they do so without the consent of the owners. With such confusion about the ethics of slave-owning, these novels leave it to the slaves themselves to articulate a defense of slavery, which they are remarkably happy to do.
In postbellum novels nostalgic for plantation life, a genre that culminates in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (1936), slaves tend to be passionately devoted to their masters and mistresses; in these antebellum novels, by contrast, loyalty matters less than self-interest. As one slave says in Martha Haines Butt's Antifanaticism: A Tale of the South (1853), "Dis nigger never leab his massa to go wid nobody, 'caze he know dat nobody ain't gwine treat him good no how like massa does" (Gossett, p. 224). Other slaves offer a more abstract defense of slavery as the system best suited to the needs and capacities of blacks. Some of these slaves may wish to be free themselves, but they recognize that freedom is not possible for the majority of those in their position. Aunt Phillis would have been very happy, the narrator tells us, to receive her freedom, but she "scorned the idea of . . . obtaining it otherwise than as a gift from her owner" (Gossett, p. 228). As Phillis lays dying, her owner at last offers to free her and her children, but she refuses, arguing that her children will be more secure enslaved on a plantation than free in the North or in Africa.
The sheer number of anti-Uncle Tom novels offers an inadvertent measure of the popularity of Uncle Tom, while the vehemence of their attacks on abolitionism is a backhanded tribute to its potential to effect political change. This potential was ultimately realized. Twelve years after Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin, Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves, and the connection between these two events is vividly condensed in the much-repeated story of Stowe and Lincoln's meeting. In December 1862, after the Emancipation Proclamation had been announced but before it went into full effect, Stowe was invited to the White House to have tea with Lincoln and his wife. It was on this occasion that Lincoln is famously rumored to have called Stowe "the little woman who made the great war." Hedrick can find no evidence that he actually said this: In a letter written to her husband that evening, Stowe describes nothing more specific than "a real funny interview with the President," and her daughter's diary concurs that their visit was "very droll" (p. 306).
While the story may be apocryphal, it nonetheless captures a crucial truth. Uncle Tom may not have "made" the war single-handedly (a host of political, economic, and social differences had made sectional war all but inevitable), but it did help to set the terms on which the "great war" would be fought and won. For the novel not only increased the number of antislavery activists and strengthened their resolve, but it also, in doing so, provided the North with a powerful language through which the long struggle for union could be articulated and sustained. By taking slavery to be the chief difference between North and South and by framing the issue of slavery in apocalyptic terms, Uncle Tom's Cabin, like Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic," made the coming war seem inevitable, righteous, even holy.
Posted March 31, 2007
I loved this book. I will admit that it wasn't an easy read. But I was determined to finish it anyway. It had so many valuable life lessons that I don't have the space or time to mention them all. I strongly recommend it for christians to read, because we do sometimes forget how to hold on to our faith, when times are bad. I laughed and cried, and I feel so much more enlightened now about faith and love. I hope I'll never forget the teachings in this book.
31 out of 35 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 13, 2010
Uncle Tom's cabin is a very touching story telling the life of a family of slaves. Uncle Tom is the heart of the story working on Mr. Shelbys farm. He has a wife and a son and he even has is own little cabin that Mr. Shelby has supplied him. Tom was happy there and the tought of escaping never crossed his mind. He believed that God put him there for a reason.
Writen by Harriet Beecher Stowe, this touching story is unforgettable. The story sets in the south on a slave plantation were the slaves work for their owners and the thought of being sold to a different owner stays with them everyday.
Not only does this story talk about the story of time but it is filled with charecters from all walks of life ranging from the runnaway slaves tht tells the struggles they go through and all of the heartache they experiance when the two get seperated.
Not only do the slaves suffer but their family does as well. Tom has a son and for the most of his little life he won't understand why his dad has left.
For most of Tom's journey through this book he gets traded from owner to owner and finaly gets settled in with an abusive, angered and strict man. Tom still finds away to keep faith and believes that God will light the way. Plus he meets some odd charectors throughout the story like Topsy a daranged and clumsy little slave girl that finds fun in entertaining anyone who will watch.
I would recomend this book to everyone and anyone because it teaches you the morals of life and that no matter what always keep faith because Tom never lost hope and he found the light in the most dimmest moments because he knew that God was always on his side protecting him
This book is a must read because it has a lot of historical facts and it gives you a glimpse into the eyes of a different race and what they had to experience.
28 out of 34 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 10, 2008
I am not religious, but I would call Uncle Tom the quintessential Christian, as far I have been taught. He holds on to forgiving others to the bitter end. This is one of the few ¿must read¿ books around. I think it should be mandatory reading for all youths. IMHO anyone who suggests this is anything but a great read either hasn¿t read the book, didn¿t understand the book or simply doesn¿t have a conscience. Brahma
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Posted April 28, 2011
Uncle Tom lives in Kentucky under the kind Shelby family, where he has had the life of ease, even as a slave in America. He's treated with respect, both him and his family. He has helped work the Shelby's land for years. Tom loves the Lord, and serves Him all the days of his life. His heart is set on winning others to Jesus and serving the saved and unsaved. He is joyful. He has everything a slave could ask for.
But Shelby has some debts to settle. Tom, the most valuable slave on the plantation, is sold, and sent with a trader named Haley to be sold. It is the beginning of one of the greatest adventures ever put to paper. It is an adventure of sorrow, broken hearts, and a love that is more redeeming than any human love.
I was greatly impressed by this book. Before I was finished with it, I read in a curriculum that many writers and publishers were very critical of Stowe's work, that many did (and do) not like it. Even then I wasn't quite sure why, but at the end I was confused. How could anyone dislike this book? Even if the story is too sad for you - how can you not at least see the beauty of the characters and how Stowe formed each sentence? It was all careful, taking one step, one breath at a time. The book was like that. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. Methodical, like breathing. And what's the beauty of breathing? It keeps you alive without you even knowing it. In a sense, Uncle Tom's Cabin was like that. Every breath was perfect, I didn't even realize it, but it kept the story going in a way that I will never, ever forget.
There isn't much else to say about this story...other than please, I beg you to read this book. I laughed, I cried my eyes out, I went numb with fear and hatred, I was captivated by the love of God. And Tom, the slave who is now free, will always be a hero.
9 out of 12 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 3, 2007
Uncle Tom's Cabin is an eloquent classic that vividly exposes the brutality of slavery. The personality and morals of various characters in the novel really engage one's attention, reflecting the mindsets of individuals from 19th Century Southern Society. Although an extremely long read with an uninteresting plot, the novel's realistic and gruesome account of the lives of slaves will surely astonish and intrigue the reader.
8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 16, 2006
I'm horrified and deeply troubled and haunted by the injustices done to poor Uncle Tom. After reading Uncle Tom I am ashamed slavery ever existed in the first place and people could treat others in such a cruel and dehumanzing way. I wont forget this book for as long as I live.
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Posted February 15, 2012
Posted June 6, 2009
My title says it all. This book should be on everyone's "must read" book list. While the book is not entirely factual, it is founded on events that actually took place. It paints a rather grim picture of the terrible life of slavery in America. It is amazing to me that we allowed this practice to exist, even though I understand why it was condoned.
6 out of 8 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 26, 2010
This incredible book opens a window into the seedier side of American slave trade history. Written with compassion and realism Uncle Tom's Cabin exposes the harsh realities of plantation life in the South. Many of the fictional characters and their circumstances were developed by Ms. Stowe from actual individuals.
I was engrossed in the character development. Simon Legree is arguably the greatest villain ever penned and Uncle Tom is a gentle soul hard to forget. A great classic well worth reading for many reasons. I would highly recommend it.
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Posted September 10, 2006
This book is a very nice read. There is a very large amount of characters and it can be hard to remember who's who. But the main characters show multiple sides of their personality, and this book really shows what a good Christian is. Harriet Beecher Stowe does a wonderful job of showing the cruelties of slavery and the diversity of slave owners, ranging from St. Clare to Simon Legree, and the honesty of slaves such as Uncle Tom. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about the thoughts about slavery in the 1850's.
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Posted November 25, 2005
When I started to read this book, I was crying as the characters were seperating. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote this novel in such a fantastic way that I could actually bond and understand what the characters had to go through. Although most of this book is very sad and depressing, she ties it together with more fortunate events which make the novel seem even more real. I think that Harriet Beecher Stowe is one of the only authors who understands that one novel can not just be only morbid or gleeful, and that if you tie those two feelings together (with some more feelings to one side than another to set the tone), more connection and passion can be felt by the reader. Once you read this fantastic novel, you will be amazed at the real connection you feel with the characters and actual slaves.
4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
I’ve observed that persons reading this book fall into one of two categories. The first group consists of individuals having enthusiasm and amazement with a gripping story that vividly describes the horrors of slavery in 19th century America. These folks note that even Abraham Lincoln recognized the importance of this book (based on the apocryphal story of Mr. Lincoln saying to Harriet Stowe words to the effect, ‘So you’re the lady who started this war.’ The book’s historical and social impact can’t be questioned. The other group of readers, which include myself, find the book filled with too many sermons, characters who are like cardboard cut-outs (predictable, one-dimensional), language that is unbelievably stilted and a writing style that can only be characterized as maudlin in the extreme. This group of readers finds the novel to be of great historical importance, but at best tedious to get through. One particularly set of awful chapters describe the death of Little Eva, an angelic little blonde girl who reads the bible, chides her parents for not being more Christian like and describes with anticipation her death after which she’ll be in heaven. Her final request is that locks of her hair be given to her close friends and family, including the slaves. If not for its inclusion in this historically important novel, I would nominate these chapters as entries for competition as the worst literature ever written. It was also hard to believe that, according to the characters in this book, the only persons who could possibly behave in a decent way were God fearing Christians…the rest of them were going to hell. Contrast this with Mark Twain’s writings on slavery which argue that slavery is an intrinsic evil with no need to refer to any religion at all. Remember the scene on a raft in Huckleberry Finn where Huck decides not to write to Jim’s master about helping Jim escape, accepting what the ministers said and concluding “All right, then, I’ll GO to hell” This kind of humanism is entirely missing from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. I give this book high marks for its historical importance, but low marks as a piece of good writing. And would direct readers interested in this period of American history to the novels and essays of Mark Twain.
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Posted September 8, 2011
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Posted February 2, 2011
This was the first classic I ever read aside of those I was forced to read as a child back in middle school. This was a great book!!! Not only does it talk about slavery but also about true Christianity. Very good book to read for those who want to learn more about this dark period and for those who want to learn about Christianity. Many life lessons can be found here. I laughed and cried... Very moving book.
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Posted November 17, 2005
Uncle Toms Cabin was truly a great book. Harriet Beecher Stowe aws very articulate in this novel. This book showed how African-Americans struggled during the civil war. I reccomend this book to anybody who likes to read. This book was also deeply religous to me. Also this book showed the mentallity of a rascist. Today many colleges read this book. Many people believe that this book was controversial in the south. People are very impressed with this book.
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Posted August 17, 2013
A seminal work of the nineteenth-century anti-slavery movement, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is also the quintessential sentimental novel. It is both reactionary and political, a call to arms to awaken citizens to the atrocities of the “peculiar institution” of American slavery. By directly addressing the reader in the present tense, Stowe forces the reader to engage in the story and to consider the various characters’ feelings and actions. She also accomplishes this by relying on stereotypes, particularly of the slave characters (Dinah, Mammy, Topsy, Sambo), thereby making them as all-encompassing and as universal as possible while at the same time destroying the myth that they are happily enslaved. Uncle Tom and Eliza are the two main protagonists, and they embody the two plot lines which soon diverge, like the issue of slavery, into north and south, creating a microcosm of the antebellum period of America. Many of the other characters are also forever etched into the literary consciousness, such as Mr. St. Clare, Eva, and Simon Legree.
One of the most memorable aspects of the novel is Stowe’s anti-slavery proselytizing through a presentation of the most common arguments used in favor of the “peculiar institution” and a more or less all-encompassing view of its many facets, often accomplished through the dialogue of fringe characters. If there is one overarching theme and point that Stowe is trying to emphasize, it is the role of the law in the slavery issue, and the necessity of abrogating that law. A thesis of sorts that is fictional with a factual basis, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” advocates for a Christian awakening and acknowledgment. As Stowe makes clear, humanity and compassion—fueled by enlightenment—should be the basis for equality. The entirety of the novel and its message is summarized in the last chapter, and it is as prevalent today as it was when it was written. An individual may not be able to accomplish or effect change on his/her own, but when a group of individuals gather together against injustice and allow themselves to be educated and their eyes to be opened to oppression, transformation is possible.
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Posted March 11, 2013
A bit difficult in the beginning until I got used to the dialect, but it is truly an educational, endearing and emotional read.
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Posted January 12, 2013
One of my favorite books ever! No wonder this book was a explosion during the antebellum period in American. To me, the people that Tom went through with were the best parts!
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