ENDURING LITERATURE ILLUMINATEDBY PRACTICAL SCHOLARSHIPHarriet Beecher Stowe's scathing indictment of slavery in the Old South, a novel that has become a landmark of American literature.
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December 31, 2003
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Excerpt from Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
>Uncle Tom's Cabin:
The Great American Protest Novel
Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) was a best-selling blockbuster of a novel, the kind of book that made its readers laugh, shake with fear and suspense, and weep -- especially weep. Its initial sales were explosive in the United States and even bigger in England, and the book reached a still wider audience as it was passed from hand to hand or read aloud to groups of people (a common nineteenth-century practice). It was even smuggled into communities in the American South where Uncle Tom had been banned, and Stowe was widely regarded as a lying traitor, trying to stir up trouble.
Her detractors were not entirely wrong. Stowe did want to stir her readers. She wanted to wrench tears of conscience and pity from them, to make them feel the evil of slavery through her rhetorical "pictures." She used every tool in her literary arsenal to do so: melodrama, sentimentality, sensational gothic horror, powerful Christian symbols, lively characters, forceful argument, a suspenseful plot, and a wickedly dry sense of humor.
Stowe could never have anticipated the enormous impact her novel would have on American culture and history, an impact neatly encapsulated by her legendary meeting with Abraham Lincoln in 1862, at the height of the Civil War. "So," Lincoln is supposed to have said, "you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." While Stowe firmly denied any such intention, the impact of Uncle Tom on the antislavery movement was incalculable. The novel gave thousands of Americans who were passively uneasy about slavery a specific set of stories and people to imagine, weep over, and fight for.
The first theatrical adaptation of the novel appeared only a year after its publication. Almost as soon as movies were invented, a version of Uncle Tom was filmed. Ten different silent versions and multiple talking versions and spin-offs followed. Uncle Tom's characters were used to sell everything from soap to tobacco; they appeared as china figures, silverware, needlepoint, and other items. The book also gave rise to "anti-Tom" responses that sought to reestablish the glory of the South, a tradition that includes Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936) and D. W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation.
How is it possible, then, that contemporary readers may be unfamiliar with Mrs. Stowe's phenomenon One answer is that tastes change. Stories considered deeply moving in Stowe's day may seem overdone, even corny, to ironic modern readers. The work of Stowe and other popular nineteenth-century women writers dropped out of view as post-World War II scholars raised the status of previously obscure authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. Stowe and her peers did not return to the classroom until feminist critics offered fresh readings of their work in the 1970s. Another hurdle for modern readers is the fact that Uncle Tom's Cabin is rife with racist assumptions common in the nineteenth century. A hundred years after the novel's publication, "Uncle Tom" had become an insult leveled at African Americans who pandered to whites.
In spite of these difficulties, the power of Uncle Tom's Cabin is hard to deny. Contemporary readers are bound, at the very least, to enjoy the book as a superb window onto nineteenth-century habits of hearts and mind and to admire Stowe's extraordinary efforts on behalf of her cause. They may even shed more than a tear or two.