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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 charactersTom, Topsy, Little Eva, Eliza, and the evil Simon Legreestill 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 inhumanityand the courage it takes to fight against them.
Amanda Claybaugh is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
About the Author
Date of Birth:June 14, 1811
Date of Death:July 1, 1896
Place of Birth:Litchfield, Connecticut
Place of Death:Hartford, Connecticut
Read an Excerpt
From Amanda Claybaugh's Introduction to Uncle Tom's Cabin
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.