Harriet Beecher Stowe: Author of 'The Little Book That Made the Big War'

Article excerpt

The little book referred to in the title is, of course, the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the "big war" is the Civil War, and the person who uttered those words was President Abraham Lincoln when they met in 1863. There is good evidence to show that his praise was not mere exaggeration, and the natural question is why this great novel has failed to maintain the success it had when in came out.

Published on March 20, 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin sold ten thousand copies within the first week and three hundred thousand by the end of the first year. In Great Britain, the sales reached a million and a half in that time. It was quickly translated into many foreign languages, and very rapidly an industry developed that transformed its characters and ideas into dolls, songs, dramas, toys, games, plates, and spoons. Adapting its vocabulary and characters, people began to describe others as a "Simon Legree" or an "Uncle Tom." In Germany, there quickly appeared an Onkel Tom Strasse. Emerson called it the book that "encircled the globe," and the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace, praised it.

"In its theatrical form," one drama historian has written, "it has varied from a short one-act miniature with a handful of actors to a five-hour six- act spectacular with live animals--dogs, donkeys, horses, even alligators--two hundred jubilee singers, and real cotton ginned on the stage." At the height of the craze, five hundred Uncle Tom companies were touring the United States. What made the novel so popular and why didn't that popularity last?

It is doubtful that Stowe herself could have answered these questions. Her life up to the time of the publication of the novel did not suggest the extent of her future fame and the immense popularity of her novel. She was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1811, the seventh child of Lyman and Roxanna Foote Beecher. Her father, a Congregational minister and devout Christian, later became head of the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio.

After her own education, Stowe taught at her sister Catherine's school for girls in Cincinnati and for the first time became aware of the horrors of slavery and the slave trade. In 1836 she married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a teacher at her father's seminary, and during the course of their marriage they had seven children: Harriet and Eliza (twins), Henry, Frederic, Georgiana, Samuel, and Charles. One the great tragedies in her life was the death of Charley, who died of cholera before he was a year old. Her profound grief over Charley's death is reflected in the early death of little Eva in her famous novel.

Stowe began to write articles for newspapers and magazines in order to supplement her husband's meager income, and in 1843 published her first book, The Mayflower. She continued writing for the rest of her life, but none of her subsequent books equaled the success of the little book that started the great war. Some of her other works include The Minister's Wooing (1859) and Old Town Folks (1869), She died in 1896, two weeks after her eighty- fifth birthday, and was buried in Andover, Massachusetts. One of her recent biographers states that her greatest legacy was the one she herself wrote: "My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage & my courage & skill to him that can get it."

Why was the book so popular? Part of its appeal lay, and is still found, in its simplicity, its unwillingness to gloss over the immeasurable distress of the author, and of the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery and the slave trade. Its great fascination and ultimate attraction rest on Stowe's "melodramatic" treatment of these topics, her appeal to a mass audience interested not only in being entertained but anxious to be morally enlightened. Uncle Tom's Cabin is an outstanding example of what melodrama represents: a democratic genre of popular art, designed for large mass audiences who are not particularly interested in matters of culture or sophistication. …