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.
Slavery is evil, and so are the political and economic institutions that support it: These two great themes helped to make Uncle Tom’s Cabin one of the most important novels in American literature. But in the 1850s people didn’t see the book as a tract. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel set sales records, the scholar David S. Reynolds notes in Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America (Norton, 351 pp., $27.95). And if the book legitimized the Civil War for Northerners, it did so through a story that captivated them. Reynolds describes the appeal of the novel in his new book:
“No book in American history molded public opinion more powerfully than Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Published in 1852, it set sales records for American fiction. An international sensation, it was soon translated into many languages. The Boston preacher Theodore Parker declared that it was ‘more an event than a book, and has excited more attention than any book since the invention of printing.’ Henry James noted that Stowe’s novel was, ‘for an immense number of people, much less a book than a state of vision, of feeling and of consciousness in which they didn’t sit and read and appraise and pass the time, but walked and talked and laughed and cried.’
“James was right. Sympathetic readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were thrilled when the fugitive slave Eliza Harris carried her child across the ice floes of the Ohio River and when her husband George fought off slave catchers in a rocky pass. They cried over the death of the angelic little Eva and were horrified by the fatal lashing of Uncle Tom, the gentle, strong, enslaved black man. They guffawed at the impish slave girl Topsy and shed thankful tears when she embraced Christianity. They sneered at the selfish hypocrite Marie St. Clare and loathed the cruel slave owner Simon Legree. They were fascinated by the brooding, Byronic Augustine St. Clare and were appalled by stories of sexual exploitation involving enslaved women like Prue and Cassy.”
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