harriet beecher stowe and uncle tom's cabin -- 10/1/21

Today's selection -- from Don't Know Much About History by Kenneth C. Davis. Harriet Beecher Stowe writes Uncle Tom's Cabin:

"Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is certainly not the great American novel. It is far from the best-selling American novel. But for a long time it was surely the most significant American novel.

"Harriet Beecher Stowe was the daughter, sister, and wife of Protestant clergymen. Her father, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, was a Calvinist minister who took the family to Cincinnati, where he headed a new seminary. There Harriet Beecher met and married Calvin Stowe, a professor of biblical literature. The seminary was a center of abolitionist sentiment, and a trip to nearby Kentucky provided the young woman with her only firsthand glimpse of slavery. In 1850, her husband took a teaching job at Bowdoin College in Maine, and there, after putting her children to bed at night, Stowe followed her family's urgings to write about the evils of slavery.

Title page for Volume I of the first edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852)

"Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly first appeared in serial form in the National Era, an abolitionist journal. In 1852, a Boston publisher brought out the book in its complete form. Simplistic and overly melodramatic, the novel was also deeply affecting. The plot attempted to depict the lives of slaves and slaveholders through three primary characters: Eliza, a slave who wants to keep her child who is about to be sold off, and sets off in search of the Underground Railroad; Eva, the angelic but sickly daughter of a New Orleans plantation owner; and Uncle Tom, the noble slave sold to a series of owners, but who retains his dignity through all the depredations he suffers in hopes of being reunited with his family. That family, living together in Tom's idealized cabin on a Kentucky farm, represented the humanity of slaves, depicting them as husbands and wives, parents and children, in stark counterpoint to the common image of slaves as mere drudges.

"Many of the book's characters were simply caricatures calculated to jolt tears from even the most heartless. But the book contained unforgettable images and scenes, perhaps the most famous of which was the picture of barefoot Eliza, her child in her arms, leaping from one ice floe to another across the frozen Ohio River to escape a ruthless slave trader. There was the cherubic child Eva, trying to bring out the good in everyone in a weepy death scene; the vicious plantation owner, Simon Legree -- pointedly written as a transplanted Yankee -- vainly trying to break the will and spirit of Tom; and Uncle Tom himself, resilient and saintly, the novel's Christlike central character, beaten by Legree but refusing to submit to overseeing the other slaves.

"The reaction to the public -- North, South, and worldwide -- was astonishing. Sales reached 300,000 copies within a year. Foreign translations were published throughout Europe, and sales soon afterward exceeded 1.5 million copies worldwide, a staggering number of books for the mid-nineteenth century, when there were no paperbacks or big bookstore chains. A dramatic version played on stages around the world, making Stowe one of the most famous women in the world, although not necessarily wealthy; pirated editions were commonplace. The theatrical presentation also spawned a brand of popular minstrel entertainments called Tom Shows, which provided the basis for the use of Uncle Tom as a derisive epithet for a black man viewed by other blacks as a shuffling lackey to whites.

"In a time when slavery was discussed with dry legalisms and code words like 'states rights' and 'popular sovereignty,' this book personalized the question of slavery as no amount of abolitionist literature or congressional debate had. For the first time, thousands of whites got some taste of slavery's human suffering. In the South, there was outraged indignation. Yet even there the book sold out. Stowe was criticized as naive or a liar. In one infamous incident, she received an anonymous parcel containing the ear of a disobedient slave. Faced with the charge that the book was deceitful, Stowe answered with A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which provided documentation that every incident in the novel had actually happened. 

"In 1862, Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe and reportedly said, 'So you're the little woman that wrote the book that made this great war.' The copies sold can be counted, but the emotional impact can't be calculated so easily. It is safe to say that no other literary work since 1776, when Tom Paine's Common Sense incited a wave of pro independence fervor, had the political impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Kenneth C. Davis


Don't Know Much About History




Copyright 2011, 2020 by Kenneth C. Davis


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