Uncle Tom’s Cabin was, as James McPherson notes in Battle Cry of Freedom, “the most influential indictment of slavery of all time.” But today it’s more widely known than read. What made it so influential? McPherson writes:
“Written in the sentimental style made popular by best-selling women novelists, Uncle Tom’s Cabin homed in on the breakup of families as the theme most likely to pluck the heartstrings of middle-class readers who cherished children and spouses of their own. Eliza fleeing across the ice-choked Ohio River to save her son from the slave-trader and Tom weeping for children left behind in Kentucky when he was sold South are among the most unforgettable scenes in American letters.”
“Even the heart of an occasional law-and-order man could be melted by the vision of a runaway manacled for return to bondage. Among evangelical Protestants who had been swept into the antislavery movement by the Second Great Awakening, such a vision generated outrage and activism. This was what gave Uncle Tom’s Cabin such astounding success. As the daughter, sister, and wife of Congregational clergymen, Harriet Beecher Stowe had breathed the doctrinal air of sin, guilt, atonement, and salvation since childhood. She could clothe these themes in prose that throbbed with pathos as well as bathos.”
Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for Glamour magazine and for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.