|Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)|
Her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin sold more copies than any previous work of fiction: 5000 copies in 2 days; 50,000 copies in 8 weeks; 300,000 copies in a year; a million copies in 16 months. It was translated into 37 languages and inspired at least 20 songs, two card games, countless plays and stage shows, a comic opera. and more than 30 "anti-Tom" replies (with titles like Uncle Robin in His Cabin in Virginia and Tom Without One in Boston). Yet Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, the most famous novel in American history, was out of print in the United States during much of the twentieth century.
The mere mention of the novel immediately brings to mind one of the most famous scenes in American literature: the slave mother Eliza, clutching her child, fleeing slavery across ice floes on the Ohio River, pursued by bloodhounds. Yet this scene does not actually appear in the novel itself. Today, the phrase "Uncle Tom" is a term of derision, referring to a black man who is humiliatingly deferential to whites. In fact the novel portrays Uncle Tom as a dignified and brave man who dies rather than betray the hiding place of two runaway slaves. Like the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Tom believes that patient determination is the most effective protest against oppression.
Even Americans who have never opened the pages of Uncle Tom's Cabin recognize the names of its major characters: the brutal dissolute overseer Simon Legree; the mischievous black child Topsy; the New England spinster Miss Ophelia St. Clare, bitterly opposed to slavery in the abstract, but unable to touch the skin of a black child. Yet, ironically, the popular image of Uncle Tom's Cabin comes not from the novel itself but from crude and bitterly racist "Tom shows" that grossly distorted the original story and its characters.
Many people who have never actually read the book think of it as a crude anti-Southern tract - sentimental, melodramatic, didactic, and racially condescending. This view is almost entirely incorrect. The novel's archvillain, the drunken, degenerate Simon Legree, is a Northerner, a native of Vermont. And one of the book's most idealized characters is a Southern slaveowner, Augustine St. Clare, who recognizes that slavery is a moral evil. Indeed, much of the novel's power grows out of the fact that it treats slavery as an economic system that corrupts people's moral sensibilities and leads them to treat "a man as a thing."
When the novel appeared in 1851, it was correctly perceived as truly a revolutionary work. Not only was it the first serious work of fiction to depict a black man as a hero - the first to show slaves as real people with a full range of human emotions and aspirations - it was one of the very first works of realism in American literature, blending humor, sentiment, and pathos to depict life in all of its harsh and complex reality.
One of the supreme ironies of American literary history is that the woman who produced the most effective written attack on slavery had little first-hand acquaintance with slavery. Stowe was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1811, the daughter of Lyman Beecher, an eminent Congregationalist minister. At 21, she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, when her father became president of the Lane Theological Seminary. Three years later, she married Calvin Stowe, a professor of biblical literature at Lane, "rich in Greek and Hebrew, Latin and Arabic, and alas! in nothing else." When he was offered an ill-paid professorship at Bowdoin College in 1850, the family moved to Brunswick, Maine.
Poverty and moral fervor prompted her to write Uncle Tom's Cabin. To supplement her family's meager income, Harriet Beecher Stowe contributed stories and sketches to local periodicals and women's magazines. During the fall of 1850, she received a letter from a sister-in-law in Boston, relating the sufferings of escaped slaves under the new Fugitive Slave Law. The letter concluded: "Now, Hattie, if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that would make the whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is!" Stowe replied: "As long as the baby sleeps with me at night I can't do much at anything, but I will do it at last. I will write that thing if I live."
In February 1851, while sitting at church, she had a vision that would become the basis of Uncle Tom's Cabin. She rushed home and wrote down her vision of a pious slave brutally beaten to death by his master using brown wrapping paper when she ran out of writing paper. In later years, Harriet Beecher Stowe would say that she did not write her famous novel. "God wrote it," she would explain. "I merely wrote His dictation."
As she wrote her novel, she drew upon a wealth of memories: an aunt's description of her marriage to a Jamaican planter, who kept a black mistress and a family of mulatto children; a single visit to a Kentucky slave plantation; and especially the stories she heard from Eliza Buck, a former slave who helped her with housework in Cincinnati, whose children had been fathered by her former master. Stowe modeled many of her characters on people she had met. Josiah Henson, a deeply religious former slave, provided the model for Tom. Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist and ex-slave, furnished a model for the proud, defiant fugitive slave George Harris.
In March 1851 she asked the editor of the National Era, a leading abolitionist weekly, if he would be interested in publishing a serialized story about slavery. The editor responded positively and paid her a $300 advance. The editor expected the serialized story to run for three or four months, but the story ran on and on. After six months, the editor asked the National Era's readers if the story should be brought to a close. They demanded that the story continue. Even before the National Era had printed the final installment, a small Boston publisher released a two-volume edition of the complete work, which had a larger immediate impact than any work of fiction ever written.
What accounts for the intensity with which the novel was received? Part of the answer lies in the simple fact that Uncle Tom's Cabin was one of the very first American novels to explore seriously the pains and cruelties of slavery. Abolitionists had written six or seven antislavery novels during the 1830s and 1840s, and "plantation romancers'' such as William Alexander Caruthers, William Gilmore Simms, and John Pendleton Kennedy included faithful house servants and beautiful quadroons in their highly romanticized portraits of plantation life. For the most part, however, American literature simply ignored the major moral issue of the age.
But the popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin rested on more than the fact that it dealt with a timely social issue. It succeeded in placing slavery into a religious and moral framework deeply meaningful to early nineteenth-century Americans. The novel's structure is rooted in the Judeo-Christian story of salvation, a story repeated again and again by religious revivalists. The novel describes two parallel tales of redemption and deliverance. Tom, who is sold down the river away from two kindly slaveowners to the brutal Simon Legree, ultimately achieves spiritual salvation; George and Eliza Harris, who escape northward from slavery, ultimately achieve physical freedom. By awakening countless Northerners to the fact that black slaves suffered just as the ancient Hebrews had suffered in bondage in ancient Egypt, Uncle Tom's Cabin created a new awareness of the moral evil of slavery.
An excerpt from Uncle Tom's Cabin: