20th March 1852 the Publication of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

"Yes Eliza, it's all misery, misery, misery!"

Today we commemorate the anniversary of the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly – one of the few works of fiction that can lay genuine claim to changing history. A literary incendiary, Beecher Stowe was the first to dare to polemicize slavery – to portray an African-American slave as a central, heroic figure. Christ-like, even. “The most cussed and discussed book of its time,” this verbal earthquake galvanised slavery’s critics, enraged its defenders and laid the psychological groundwork for the American Civil War. Uncle Tom’s Cabin would very quickly outlive its purpose – engendering future controversies, stereotypes and accusations of inadvertent racism – but its sociological and political impact at the time cannot be underestimated. No other novel – before or since – has done so much to alter the thinking of an entire nation.

The daughter of an outspoken religious leader, Harriet Beecher Stowe was compelled to respond to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law that forbade citizens of free states from in any way assisting in the flight of runaway slaves. And so she took one of the few options available to nineteenth century women who wanted to affect public opinion: she wrote a novel. A huge, enthralling narrative that claimed the heart, soul and consciousness of pre-Civil War Americans. In its attempt “to show the institution of slavery just as it existed,” Stowe cannily sugar-coated the indigestible – portraying her fictional slaves as mothers, fathers, sons and daughters with (Christian) souls. Pushing home the immorality of slavery on almost every page, Stowe deliberately tugged at the heartstrings of women who – in their guise as the “ethical and structural model for all of American life” – were the only ones who could “change the moral fibre of society.” This proto-feminist appeal would spark another movement in addition to the the abolition of slavery, as women in their droves at last began to actively challenge their husbands’ political stances and their own roles as ‘domestic slaves’.

The success of this highly controversial melodrama surprised everyone; readers responded on a scale hitherto unknown in America’s publishing history. Within the first eight weeks, sales of Uncle Tom’s Cabin reached an unprecedented fifty thousand copies. Six months later, it had sold a quarter of a million. A cultural phenomenon, it proved to be the bestselling novel of the entire 19th century, outselling the Bible in its first year of publication.

Harriet Beecher Stowe had not intended war to be the solution to the problem of slavery. At the novel’s conclusion, she asks readers to “feel right.” Once they did, she was certain Americans would come to their moral senses and slavery would be abolished. History, however, chose a different ending. Nine years after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the American Civil War began. Shortly afterwards, Harriet Beecher Stowe met President Abraham Lincoln who reportedly said to her: “So you’re the little lady whose book started this big war.”

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4 Responses to 20th March 1852 – the Publication of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

  1. Anonymous says:

    As literature, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is overly sentimental and not even that good. It must only be judged by its social influence and significance and its study is better suited to history classrooms than American Lit. Its impact cannot be denied.

  2. Breanna says:

    This helped me a lot by saying how many copies of the books were sold. Thank you!

  3. Marianne Hancock says:

    I don’t agree with the comment above. I had expected it to be pious and moralistic but I was told by a friend that it was a really great book. I found a library copy where the blurb bragged that it was the only book other than the Bible and the Koran known to have started a war.This is only partly true of course.John Brown and a whole series of events must take some of the credit.It is more that the book was part of a domino effect.

    I found the novel powerful and realistic with marvellous dialogue. It is not without faults. A mixed race slave who is a renowned inventor has his ability attributed automatically to his white ancestry even by the writer. Passages about Topsy and Eva stir up uneasy emotions.

    But it is definitely not sentimental drivel. Nor is it marred by the Victorian fad for moralising unlike ‘Little Women’, written by Louisa Alcott, a great fan of John Brown.Harriet Beecher Stowe may never have written anything else of great literary merit, but this is a pacy, thrilling narrative which incidentally evokes righteous anger and appropriate sympathy for the oppressed in any sensitive reader.

    I wonder if I read the same novel as the first commentator. Did the first person read it at all or just take it on trust that it was a trashy tear jerker?

  4. Lanark says:

    Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote an incredible memoir of her 1856 visit to the Duke of Sutherland’s Dunrobin Estate in Sutherland. It was shortly after the peak of the Sutherland wave of the Highland Clearances. Thousands had been burned out of their homes across the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland’s estate and forced to live on rocky shores off “the land” and above the high tide mark. Harriet Beecher Stowe called her travel memoir “Sunny Memories” and she thought the actions of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland were” an almost sublime instance of the benevolent employment of superior wealth and power in shortening the struggles of a civilisation and elevating in a few years a whole community to a point of education and material prosperity, which, unassisted they might never have obtained.”
    Harriet Beecher Stowe’s willfull blindness to the suffering of the thousands of Scots living above the high tide mark left an impression. Donald MacLeod who had been transported to Canada on one of the rotting hilks which shipped the dispossessed away from Scotland, wrote and published a response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Sunny Memories”. It was published in Canada in 1857 and was called “Gloomy Memories”. The descriptions of the Sutherland Clearances and the oppressive and violent tyranny which Beecher Stowe so loved being meted out to the Scots can be read here.

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