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Uncle Tom's Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe


Isabella Jones Beecher was furious. It was bad enough that Southerners persisted in enslaving people, but now they were forcing Northerners to do their dirty work. The Fugitive Slave Law passed as part of the Compromise of 1850 required residents of nonslave states to cooperate in returning runaway slaves to the South. In Boston, where Isabella lived with her husband, the Reverend Edward Beecher, everyone was talking about the awful new law. Black and white abolitionists had met at historic Faneuil Hall to pledge that no fugitive slave would ever be taken from Massachusetts.

The Beechers had been strongly antislavery for years. Thinking about what she could do to protest this new outrage, Isabella Beecher sent a letter to her sister-in-law, Harriet Beecher Stowe, a housewife with six children who occasionally wrote for magazines. "If I could use a pen as you can," she wrote, "I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is." As Charles Stowe tells the story, his mother read the letter aloud to her children in their parlor in Brunswick, Maine. She rose from her chair and "with an expression on her face that stamped itself on the mind of her child, said: 'I will write something. I will if I live.'" The "something" was Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Stowe intended to write a tale of slavery in three or four episodes, and she arranged for publication in the National Era, an antislavery paper that had printed some of her earlier work. As it happened, she wrote considerably more. The serial ran from June 1851 to April 1852. Readers couldn't get enough of it, and protested to the editors on the rare occasions when Stowe missed a week's installment. When Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, was published in book form in March 1852, the first 5000 copies were bought in two days. By the end of the year, more than 300,000 copies had been sold. Uncle Tom's Cabin was a runaway best-seller.

In some ways, Harriet Beecher Stowe seemed like an unlikely person to produce such a phenomenon- an extremely popular book on an extremely serious issue. She turned out magazine sketches, it's true, to make extra money, since she had six children, including a set of twins, and her husband didn't earn much of a living. Prior to writing Uncle Tom's Cabin she had published a collection of New England local color pieces. Frequently overwhelmed by family responsibilities, she once wrote her husband, who was away on business, that she was "sick of the smell of sour milk and sour meat, and sour everything."

But in other ways, Stowe was ideally placed to write about the great issue of her time. She was born in 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut, into one of the first families of American religion. Her father, Lyman Beecher, had a considerable reputation as a Protestant preacher when she was growing up. The early nineteenth century was a time of upheaval in American Protestantism. Charles Grandison Finney developed a new kind of revival preaching that swept New York State. His doctrine that sin could be avoided led many of his converts into reform movements as well as into church. Although Lyman Beecher differed from Finney on some points- he was much closer to the mainstream of the Presbyterian Church- Beecher, too, was a stirring revival preacher. And he, too, was drawn to reform, especially to the temperance movement (the movement to reduce alcohol consumption). Moving from Litchfield to Boston when Harriet was in her teens, Beecher campaigned against what he considered the overly liberal Unitarians.

Beecher communicated his interests to his children. His six sons became ministers, some of them distinguished, and three of his four daughters, barred from that career, became reformers. Harriet was four when her mother died, and she was raised by aunts and a stepmother. She was a lonely, serious child, and her father's high theological standards sometimes burdened her. When she told him at age fourteen that she had taken Jesus as her savior, he encouraged her to look deep within herself to make certain that she was really saved. Like many educated young women of her day, she began teaching at the same age in a school run by her older sister Catharine. Eventually Harriet and her younger brother, Henry Ward Beecher, came to believe in a God more loving and accessible than their father's.

In 1832 Lyman Beecher became president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. But trouble soon erupted. In 1834, Theodore Weld, a convert of Finney's, came to the school to study for the ministry. Weld had become an abolitionist, and in a series of stormy discussions he turned most of his fellow students against Beecher's view that sending blacks to colonies in Africa was the answer to the problem of slavery. A large group of students left Lane for newly established Oberlin College, and neither Beecher nor Lane Seminary ever quite recovered.

The Lane debates were part of the birth pangs of the American abolitionist movement. As early as the eighteenth century, some Americans had opposed slavery. In the years after the American Revolution, slavery was banned in Northern states, and the Constitution abolished the slave trade from Africa as of 1808. Beyond that, organized opposition was confined to groups like the Quakers (members of the Society of Friends), who disapprove of slavery on religious grounds. (Quakers hold that the divine Inner Light resides in every human, regardless of race or sex.) In 1817 some distinguished political leaders founded the American Colonization Society, whose goal was to raise money to buy slaves from their owners and send them to Africa. But that movement failed, in large part because the free blacks of the North viewed themselves as Americans and had no desire to settle on a continent they had never seen.

In the 1830s, however, American attitudes toward slavery underwent a revolution. In 1830 the merchant Arthur Tappan formed an antislavery organization. The next year William Lloyd Garrison, a Boston journalist, began to publish The Liberator, a militant antislavery newspaper whose first supporters and subscribers were Northern free blacks. In 1833, following the abolition of slavery in the British empire, Garrison and the Tappan group joined to form the American Antislavery Society (AASS). Throughout the 1830s, they organized rallies, conventions, and revivals over the North. Some people responded to the abolitionist view of slavery as a sin because of what they'd heard at Finney's revivals, but the abolitionists were not generally popular. Speakers were mobbed and occasionally murdered (as was Edward Beecher's friend Elijah Lovejoy in 1837) and printing presses were burned. But the persistent agitation convinced many Americans, regardless of how they felt about abolition or the abolitionists, that slavery was an issue that could not be ignored.

In 1840 the movement split into two branches, when a group withdrew from the AASS to form the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Garrison's group saw the abolition of slavery as part of a fundamental reform of American society; more conservative abolitionists believed that slavery alone was the problem. Abolitionists differed, too, on such questions as the role of women in the movement. Garrisonians favored full participation by women, while conservatives wanted to avoid embracing stands that would alienate Northern public opinion. Followers of Garrison agreed with him that slavery had to be abolished by changing public opinion rather than by working through the U.S. Congress; his opponents used conventional political methods. Besides the abolitionists, a growing number of Northerners in the 1840s and 1850s came to oppose the expansion of slavery to the territories that were entering the Union as states. They disliked slavery, but did not necessarily believe that it could or should be ended in the South. These people were called antislavery rather than abolitionist, and Harriet Beecher Stowe could be characterized as one of them.

The fight against slavery attracted the energies of a number of American women, who soon discovered that within that movement for liberation they were second-class citizens. Women had to fight for the right to speak at abolitionist meetings, to hold office in organizations, and to be seated as delegates at conventions. (Debates about their proper place in the movement had contributed to the split in 1840.) In 1848, a group of women who had been excluded from the World Anti-Slavery Convention eight years earlier met at Seneca Falls, N.Y., to proclaim that, in words that recalled the Declaration of Independence, "all men and women are created equal." Most early leaders of the American women's movement of the nineteenth century were abolitionists (just as most leaders of the American women's movement that began in the 1960s emerged from the civil rights movement).

Harriet Beecher Stowe had a ringside seat for the religious and political agitation of her day. In 1836 she married Calvin Stowe, a Professor at Lane Seminary. In addition to her exposure to religious and moral reform currents through her father, and to abolitionism through her connection with Lane, Stowe remained close to her sister Catharine, at whose school in Cincinnati she had taught before her marriage. Catharine Beecher was not a feminist in the mold of the women's rights activists who met in the pathbreaking convention at Seneca Falls, in 1848. She believed that men and women lived in separate worlds, and she worked to increase the power of women in their sphere, the home, rather than in the world at large. Catharine Beecher saw childrearing and home management as sciences worthy of respect, and she wrote many books (one, The American Woman's Home, in collaboration with Harriet in 1869) to that effect. Like many reformers the sisters believed that women had a higher morality than men, and that it was their duty to raise the rest of society to women's level. The feminists of the late twentieth century are the descendants of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the women of Seneca Falls, not of Catharine Beecher, and they argue over whether Catharine and her sisters were feminists. Whether or not they were feminists in today's terms, both were dedicated to improving the lot of women.

In Cincinnati, Harriet Beecher Stowe had a closer view of slavery than she would have had back in Connecticut. Located on the Ohio River across from the slave state of Kentucky, the city was filled with former slaves and slaveholders. In conversations with black women who worked as servants in her home, Stowe heard many stories of slave life that found their way into Uncle Tom's Cabin. In 1839 the Stowes hired a servant who had been brought to Ohio by her mistress, and was therefore technically free. Learning several months later that the young woman's former master was looking for her, Calvin Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher took her to a safe house in the country in the dead of night. This episode showed up years later in the novel as Eliza's rescue by Senator Bird. In its last chapter Stowe attempts to prove the capability of black people by listing the free blacks of Cincinnati with whom her husband had dealings. Part of Uncle Tom's Cabin was based on Stowe's reading of abolitionist books and pamphlets and slave narratives, some of which were ghostwritten by abolitionists. But at least some of the book came from her own observations of black Cincinnatians with personal experience of slavery.

In writing about slavery Stowe went beyond what was acceptable for a woman novelist in the United States. Other women writers of her day wrote decorous tales of domestic life under names like "Fanny Fern" and "Grace Greenwood." Like them, Stowe focused on female characters and values. But unlike them, she wrote under her own name about the most pressing issue of the time. She wrote- as did many male American authors, but not female writers- in dialect rather than refined prose. And the dialect was spoken by sympathetic black characters!

No wonder one reader called her a "foul-mouthed hag." Stowe got around the point by insisting that she wasn't really the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. "The Lord himself wrote it, and I was but the humblest of instruments in His hand," she said. Like much of what Harriet Beecher Stowe said, that statement contains two messages: "I'm not much, I'm just writing this down for God," on the one hand, and on the other- "Listen to me, God speaks through my voice." A nineteenth-century woman was not supposed to be proud of her ability, except as a mother. Stowe found a way of disclaiming responsibility for her success and glorifying it at the same time.

Right from the start, people either loved or hated Uncle Tom's Cabin, which appeared in book form in 1852. Enthusiastic letters poured in to Stowe from around the country and the world. The American poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier wrote congratulatory letters. Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in his journal that everyone read it, including "the lady, the cook, and the chambermaid." From abroad came praise from the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, the French novelist George Sand, and the German poet Heinrich Heine. Although abolitionists were not satisfied with Uncle Tom's Cabin because it endorsed sending free blacks to Africa, leaders of the movement like William Lloyd Garrison and Thomas Wentworth Higginson told Stowe they were glad she had written it.

A stage version of Uncle Tom's Cabin written by Charles W. Taylor appeared shortly after the novel was published, and a few years later George L. Aiken produced the version that was frequently performed in the late nineteenth century. Millions of Americans saw the play- even more than read the novel- but as the years passed, the drama had less to do with either Stowe or her original story. The play, performed by white actors in blackface, stressed the comic and melodramatic parts of the novel. By the 1870s, it was, according to one observer, "half a minstrel show and half a circus." By 1880 some productions included live bloodhounds chasing Eliza across the ice.

In addition to its impressive sales- precise records were not kept in the nineteenth century, but the book is thought to have sold more than two million copies in English and in translation- the influence of Uncle Tom's Cabin was astonishing. As a friend of Stowe's told her, "I thought I was a thorough- going abolitionist before, but your book has awakened so strong a feeling of indignation and of compassion that I never seem to have had any feeling on this subject until now." Because Uncle Tom's Cabin appealed to the emotions of nineteenth-century readers through pitiful scenes of children torn away from their mothers and melodramatic plot devices, it made many people think of slaves as people for the first time. The influence of Uncle Tom's Cabin is reflected in the story (probably apocryphal) that President Lincoln greeted Stowe in 1863 by saying, "So this is the little lady who made this big war." Even if Lincoln was exaggerating the book's influence, Uncle Tom's Cabin did contribute to the climate of opinion in the North that made the continued existence of slavery unacceptable.

Many Southerners claimed that Uncle Tom's Cabin gave a misleading picture of slavery. Stowe, who had tried to make the book accurate and fair to the South- Mrs. Shelby, George Shelby, and Augustine and Eva St. Clare are extremely sympathetic characters, and the book's villain, Simon Legree, is from New England- was stung by these attacks. Uncle Tom's Cabin, as you'll see, is full of Stowe's little lectures about the truthfulness and source of various details. The year after it was published, Stowe produced A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which answered the critics point by point and supplied further documentation for her stories. In 1856 she wrote another novel about slavery, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp.

Today, the debate about the accuracy of Uncle Tom's Cabin has largely been resolved in Stowe's favor. Recent historians like Herbert Gutman (in The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925) and Eugene G. Genovese (in Roll, Jordan, Roll) paint a picture of slavery that is not appreciably different from the one in Stowe's novel. Like Stowe, modern historians acknowledge that slaveowners' treatment of their property varied enormously, and that masters as cruel as Simon Legree were rare. But most of them would agree with Stowe that the possibility of being sold to a Simon Legree weighed heavily on the minds of slaves. The description in Uncle Tom's Cabin of life on the Shelby plantation is largely accurate for an operation of its type, according to what we now know about slavery. In the relationship between Eliza and Mrs. Shelby and between Uncle Tom and his wife Aunt Chloe and young George Shelby, Stowe shows the warm mutual feeling that could develop between slaves and masters. In the characters of Sam and Andy, she demonstrates the pattern of slave behavior that contemporary historians, like slaves, call "putting on ol' Massa." She shows the way slaves shared information about life on the plantation. She points to the existence of a slave community, and shows that religion was important in maintaining both group feeling and an individual sense of worth and hope. However, she doesn't seem to have known much about black music; she has Tom sing standard Methodist hymns much more often than the slave sorrow songs, or spirituals. Her portrayal of the St. Clare household shows some of the differences between plantation slavery and slavery in the cities. In Adolph and Rosa, she shows how some house servants identified with the social style of their owners, and saw themselves as a cut above the other slaves.

Although Stowe's depiction of slavery is accurate in its general outlines, it is not correct in every detail. Many of Stowe's inaccuracies show up in her efforts to make black characters appealing to white readers. For example, it is true that babies were sometimes sold away from their mothers. (Since records of this sort were not kept, it is impossible to generalize with statistical accuracy, except about small specific populations that historians have been able to study.) And it is true that every slave mother lived with the threat of losing her child. However, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, nearly all the black female characters lose, or (like Eliza) are at risk of losing, their children. This seems like an attempt to tug at the heartstrings of Northern female readers rather than provide an accurate description. Another way in which Stowe attempted to engage her readers' sympathies was by making two of her leading characters, George and Eliza Harris, light-skinned enough to pass for white. Their color serves the plot, since it makes it easier for George and Eliza to escape. But in their characters, Stowe associates lightness of skin with attractiveness, intelligence, and energy. George and Eliza are very much like white people, which may have engaged the sympathies of white readers. Although there were no doubt some slaves like George and Eliza, skin color in fact is not an indication of attractiveness or ability.

Some readers have objected to what they see as Stowe's use of racial stereotypes in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Black novelist James Baldwin, for example, criticized the linking of light skin with high intelligence in the characters of George and Eliza. He also blasted the book for praising black submissiveness in the character of Uncle Tom. Other black readers agree. During the 1960s blacks who put too much energy into maintaining good relations with whites were dismissed by militants as "Uncle Toms." In your reading of the book, you'll have to decide whether that interpretation is accurate.

By the late nineteenth century Uncle Tom's Cabin had gone out of print in the United States, although it was still read widely in Europe and Russia. It was not reissued in the United States until 1948. It is possible that, in the years after the Civil War, Americans were tired of the moral passion of the crusade against slavery- and that by the late 1940s, with the renewal of the struggle for black civil rights, they were ready to embrace those passions again. The book gained new popularity during the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Readers are still drawn to the vividness of the characters of Uncle Tom, Simon Legree, little Eva, and Topsy, and to the excitement of the story. Uncle Tom's Cabin gives modern readers a reasonably accurate look at life under slavery, and it also provides an absolutely compelling demonstration of how Americans, and especially American women, felt about slavery. Reading Uncle Tom's Cabin today will help you understand what drew women to reform movements in the nineteenth century, and why Americans fought the Civil War.

Uncle Tom's Cabin changed Harriet Beecher Stowe's life. Although she had negotiated a poor royalty arrangement, she earned $10,000, enough money to live comfortably. She traveled frequently to Europe, where both she and her book were highly esteemed. Nothing else she wrote attained the popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Although she completed a fine novel about life in New England, The Minister's Wooing (1859), the noted critic Edmund Wilson had a point when he wrote, "If there is something to be said for the author's claim that Uncle Tom's Cabin was written by God, it is evident that the nine novels which followed it were produced without divine intervention by Harriet Beecher Stowe herself." After her husband's death, Stowe returned to Hartford, Connecticut, where her house today is open to visitors. She died there in 1896.


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