What the Anti-Slavery Book Unleashed

Article excerpt


Is Uncle Tom's Cabin the most influential work of fiction ever written in America? In all likelihood, yes. Not only was it an overwhelming best-seller - more than 300,000 copies were sold in the year after its publication - but it addressed the most divisive issue in the country: slavery. Many think Uncle Tom's Cabin exacerbated the sectional differences that led to civil war.

The author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was born in 1811, the daughter of a Calvinist preacher and the sister of five other clergymen. She showed an early aptitude for writing, which initially took the form of religious reflections and temperance tracts. Stowe was a bit of a prude. She was critical of Charles Dickens, whose writings highlighted the strong flavor of brandy and water, and spiritous drink of all sorts. In an article on popular culture, she wrote, "Any one who has [followed] what is called the trash literature of the day, must have noticed .. it has run very

much in a foul and muddy current, full of the slang and filth of low and degraded society"

Mr. Reynolds, a historian who has written extensively on the period leading up to the Civil War, observes that Uncle Tom's Cabin flowed from Stowe's deepest religious convictions, bringing many of them together in this single work. Mr. Reynolds thinks Uncle Tom's Cabin contributed to revolutionary movements in Europe as well as America.

Slavery was Stowe's obsession, and in 1852, she poured her indignation over the Fugitive Slave Law - which required all Americans to assist in the capture of escaped slaves - into the melodramatic novel that brought her fame. Unlike most anti-slavery literature of the day, Uncle Tom's Cabin has an action-filled plot. Two slave lovers, George and Eliza, escape baying bloodhounds across the ice-filled Ohio River. Tom, sold by a kindly but financially distressed master, is taken south by riverboat but saves the life of Eva, the daughter of a wealthy planter, Augustine St. Clair, who purchases and then befriends Tom.

Uncle Tom spends two happy years with the St. Clairs, but when Eva and her father both die, Tom is sold to the villainous Simon Legree who, infuriated by Tom's Christian faith, beats him to death. Tom, with his dying breath, forgives his tormentor.

The book infuriated most Southerners. One critic wrote that Mrs. Stowe throws an ultra Christian hue over all her writings but was in fact a mouthpiece for the Abolitionists, the Communists .. the Spirit Rappers, and the whole confederacy of social humbugs As recently as 1906, the Daughters of the Confederacy declared that the incidents of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' are not typical of slave life in the South and presented a false idea of .. history

Stowe's great work has had a remarkable shelf life. …