America’s Long Journey: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of those books that everyone has heard about but few people have read. When it came out in 1852, defenders of slavery dismissed it as uninformed, unrealistic anti-slavery propaganda. In the 20th century, conversely, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was attacked as having created or perpetuated stereotypes. (In the 1960s, the ultimate insult for a black man was to be called an Uncle Tom.) But is either criticism justified?

Author Harriet Beecher Stowe was a New England-born abolitionist, to be sure. And, it is true that she wrote the book while living in Maine, and that she never lived in the South. However, she had lived for several years in Cincinnati, Ohio, just across the Ohio River from slavery, and she and her husband Calvin Stowe had harbored fugitive slaves, whose stories they learned. One additional source of inspiration was The Life Of Josiah Henson (1849), a first-person account by a former slave. Another was American Slavery As It Is (1839), co-authored by abolitionist Theodore Weld, his wife Angelina Grimke and her sister Sarah Grimke, compiled from firsthand accounts of slavery. In 1853 Stowe published A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, documenting the novel’s veracity by citing “real life equivalents” for each major character in the novel, which itself became a bestseller..And, in that same year of 1853, a free Negro named Solomon Northrup published his own story, 12 Years a Slave (which became a bestseller), documenting that the fiction accurately represented the facts.

Now, as to stereotypes? In the novel, Uncle Tom was portrayed not as a doormat but as a noble and long-suffering Christian. (The whole point of the book was twofold: to show slavery as it really was, and to show Christian love overcoming even slavery. Tom consistently stands up for his Christian beliefs, and in the end is killed for refusing an order to whip other slaves.) Eliza, the slave who escapes to the North with her five-year old son, was based on an account Mrs. Stowe heard from one of her husband’s friends. Simon Legree, the cruel slave owner whose name became a synonym for cruelty (a Northerner by birth, a fact often forgotten or unknown to the book’s critics) may have used methods more typical of overseers than of slave-owners; but the historical record records the same and worse. Stereotypes, after all, are based on reality. That’s how they become stereotypes.

And it should be remembered that Arthur Shelby, Tom’s Kentucky owner, was described as kind; that Shelby’s wife didn’t want him to sell Tom; that their son George saw him as a friend and mentor; that Augustine St. Clare, Tom’s second owner, recognized the evil in slavery but depended on the system for his wealth. In other words, Mrs. Stowe did not portray slave-owners as monsters, but as individuals. Topsy, the slave girl who famously says she just “growed,” is very much not a lovable stereotype, but a severe trial on Miss Ophelia, St. Clare’s New England-born abolitionist cousin, who – model for so many people to come! – hates slavery but also can’t stand the slaves themselves.

I will not summarize the book. Instead, I recommend that you give yourself a treat and read it. The novel helped focus Northern anger against slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law, thus aiding the abolitionist movement. An unintended effect of the book was to energize defenders of slavery, as well, and thus to increase polarization around the issue. In November, 1862, when she and two of her children met President Lincoln at the White House, Lincoln greeted her (or so her son reported, years later) by saying, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Regardless whether he did or didn’t say it (historians are undecided) he would have been justified in doing so.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was yet another consequence of the accursed Fugitive Slave Act that was passed as part of the Compromise of 1850 (see below). The act energized Mrs. Stowe to begin write a story centering on the problem of slavery, and the following year, in June, 1851, the story began to appear in weekly installments of the antislavery newspaper National Era. It continued week by week for forty weeks, and then in May, 1852, John P. Jewett published it in two volumes, and it began its unprecedented press run.

In its first year of publication, it sold 300,000 copies in the United States. Within five years of its publication in 1852, it had been translated into 20 languages, and in time it was translated into almost every language on Earth. In Great Britain, authorized and pirated editions together amounted to another million copies sold. The only book that outsold Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the 19th century was the Bible.

Partly, this was because of political passions of the day, but partly, it was because of its sheer literary skill. This is not a tract, using cardboard characters and contrived situations to attack Southerners or slave-holders or the white race. Instead, it is an accurate portrayal of the slave system as it existed, and as it warped the lives of everyone entangled in it, slave or free, black, white, or mixed-race. It still makes powerful reading today, a century and a half after slavery was abolished. Queen Victoria wept when she read it, and you may too. As famed critic Edmund Wilson wrote, “To expose oneself in maturity to Uncle Tom’s Cabin may … prove a startling experience.”

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