May 8, 2011

A new story by Mrs. H. B. Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe alerted the editor of the National Era, Gamaliel Bailey, that her new story would "extend three or four numbers" but it would "be ready in two to three weeks." In fact, Stowe's project turned to be a much bigger undertaking and she missed her own deadline. The headline on May 8, 1851, seemed simple enough: "A New Story by Mrs. Stowe." The body of the article promised "the publication of a new story by Mrs. H. B. Stowe, the title of which will be, 'UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, OR THE MAN THAT WAS A THING'." Bailey warned his readers not to "neglect to renew their subscriptions."

In the process of writing the serialized novel, Stowe knew she would be writing something far longer than her previous work. The idea first came to her in a vision: one Sunday morning at church in Brunswick, Maine, she saw the image of an enslaved man being beaten by two others at the orders of a white master. As she wrote:

My vocation is simply that of a painter, and my object will be to hold up in the most lifelike and graphic manner possible Slavery, its reverses, changes, and the negro character, which I have had ample opportunities for studying.

Throughout a cold winter, she wrote (sometimes skipping meals) in her home at Bowdoin College. She told her husband she would show "the capabilities of liberated blacks to take care of themselves" — a topic over which she soon obsessed. Even when she traveled, she continued working on her novel, sometimes moved to tears by her own scenes. The project grew and grew and the author ultimately changed its subtitle to "Life Among the Lowly." What was originally a four-part sketch became a 40-part novel. Its first section was not published the first week after Bailey's announcement but about a month later, on June 5. It continued weekly until April 1 of the next year. In book form, it became the highest-selling novel of the 19th century.

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