March 20, 2010

Uncle Tom's Cabin published

After serializing it in 40 parts for the National Era, Harriet Beecher Stowe agreed to turn her story into a book. Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in that format on March 20, 1852. It was a major success, named a best-seller second only to the Bible. It sold 300,000 copies in its first year alone.

The book tells a fictional story based partly on the autobiography of Josiah Henson, a black man who escaped from slavery in Maryland and helped others settle down and become self-sufficient in Canada. Presented as a sentimental novel, the story tried to draw emotional reactions from its readers. Stowe did this intentionally. In particular, the death of the character Eva drew solid fan support, such that it is claimed that, the year of its publication, 300 girls were named Eva in Boston alone.

Stowe's book also is a bit heavy-handed as a Christian tale, with her narrative voice often interjecting to comment on Christian values. Ultimately, she condemns slavery as immoral and inherently evil. Though it has occasionally been criticized in modern times for perpetuating or even creating stereotypes of black characters (though, in reality, those criticisms are better aimed at the stage version of the book, created without Stowe's approval), there is no denying its purpose: to call upon Americans to end slavery.

The book swiftly drew condemnation from Southerners, including the writer William Gilmore Simms, who said the book's sentiments were completely untrue. In fact, the book spurned a whole genre of literature known as "Anti-Tom" novels. In the northern part of the country, readers were strongly turned against slavery, particularly aiming at the Fugitive Slave Law. The polarizing effect of the book (and, of course, slavery in general) later led to the Civil War — which, in turn, led to the legendary (perhaps apocryphal) meeting between Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abraham Lincoln. Legend has it that the President referred to her as "the little lady who started this great war."


  1. I'm particularly interested in the modern criticism of this book. This article from Bowdoin College talks a little about it.

  2. Reading it today! There's a 24-hour readathon in celebration. :)

  3. I assigned this book for our current homeschool history/literature Civil War studies. Finishing the book this week.