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Uncle Tom's Cabin

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is arguably one of the best known classical American novels, and probably the best known anti-slavery novel in history. According to Geoffrey Wheatcroft, 300, 000 people bought the book in America in the year of its publication, 1852, and a million copies were sold in Great Britain. The depiction of lives of colored people in America prior to the Civil War won the novel general sympathy in the Northern states, making it one of the most widely read novels of its time. At the same time, it caused the indignation in the slave-owning South, where the book was instantly denounced as a fraud. (Several writers in the South even wrote copycat novels, which defended slavery.) Indeed, the book fuelled so much controversy between the two parts of the country that it is, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, “cited among the causes of the American Civil War”, a war that put an end to the slavery.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut, in the family of Congregational minister Lyman Beecher and Roxanna Foote, a deeply religious woman who died when Stowe was very young.  At the age of eleven, she went the seminary at Hartford, Connecticut, and was with her sister Catharine.  There she received training in such subjects as; languages, composition, ethics, logic, science and mathematics. Later on, Harriet became a teacher at the seminary and then at the Western Female Institute, which she co-founded with Catharine. At the age of 21, she joined her father to move to Cincinnati, where he became the President of Lane Theological Seminary. In 1836 she got married with Calvin Ellis Stowe, who was a professor at her father’s seminary; they had seven children.

It should be noted that the United States at that time was a country divided on the issue of slavery, with as many as four million African Americans held in bondage in 1860, which was almost one eighth of the American population at the time (National Park Service Civil War Institute). In 1850, the Northern states, which stood for the abolition of slavery, were incensed by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, stating that runaway slaves had to be returned to their owners without the right to free trial. In Cincinnati, Stowe, who was already a published author, was exposed to the shocking testimonies of slave life in the South, including those she heard from the slaves that she and her husband sheltered in their own home. She also observed firsthand several incidents which spurred to write the future novel. Harriet and Calvin Stowe soon came to be closely associated with the Underground Railroad, which was actually a network of stops on the fugitive slaves’ way from the southern states to the north and Canada. The ‘railroad’ was operated jointly by sympathetic whites and freed blacks.

While being engaged in the Abolitionist movement, Stowe was also actively writing. The scenes sheobserved on the Ohio River, including seeing a husband and wife being sold apart, as well as newspaper and magazine accounts and interviews, contributed material to the emerging plot. By 1851 she had accumulated enough material to write the first chapters of what was to become Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her narrative was based on the true story of fugitive slave Josiah Henson and appeared in installments in the anti-slavery newspaper The National Era. Its instant popularity led to the novel's publication in the book form in 1852, catapulting Harriet Beecher Stowe to the American literary scene. During some time she was one of the most celebrated woman writers in all national literary magazines and journals, as well as in New England literary clubs. She was then invited to speak about her novel, emancipation and slavery both in Europe and across the North America. In 1853, 1856, and 1859 she visited to Europe and made friends with such British counterparts as Elisabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and Lady Byron. 

In 1853, confronted by the Southerners’ claims of the untruthfulness of her portrayal of Southern life, she undertook to refute them by publishing A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which presented the documentary evidence supporting the novel. Stowe discussed each of the major characters in her novel, and cited their real-life prototypes, while also launching a more fervent attack on slavery in the South than the novel itself had. Like the novel, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin was also a best-seller. A major part of the Key was Stowe's critique of how the legal system supported slavery and licensed owners' mistreatment of slaves. Thus, she put more than slavery on trial; she subjected the law itself to the scrutiny. This continued an important theme of Uncle Tom's Cabin, namely that the law allowed owners to mistreat slaves and then avoid punishment for their conduct. In some cases, as Stowe pointed out, the law even prevented kind owners from liberating their slaves. It should be noted, though, that while Stowe claimed that A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin documented her previously consulted sources, she actually read a number of them only after her famous novel had been published.

The events in Uncle Tom's Cabin unfold in two parallel story lines. The pious, soft and resourceful Uncle Tom is sold by his Kentucky owner, Mr. Shelby, who is faced with bankruptcy. The trader also lays claim to Harry, the four-year-old son of Mrs. Shelby’s servant Eliza. In despair Eliza takes the child and attempts an escape from the Shelby mansion. Conversely, Uncle Tom submits to his fate and is taken away. On the board, a steamship Tom rescued Little Eva, and is bought by her father Augustine St. Clare, who was a liberal. The other whites in St. Clare’s house included his wife Marie and his cousin Ophelia. Ophelia opposed to slavery, and Augustine bought her a homeless black girl, Topsy. While Ophelia tries to educate Topsy according to her theories, Uncle Tom and the angelic Eva read the Bible together. All goes well, but suddenly things took a somber turn. Eva became ill and died. Augustine was killed, while trying to break up a barroom brawl – before he could fulfill his promise to Eva to free Tom. Tom is sold again. He was then owned by Simon Legree, a Yankee cruel cotton plantation-owner. Two of Legree’s female slaves, Emmeline and Cassy, pretended to escape and went into hiding. Tom would not reveal their whereabouts and Legree’s people flog him to death. Uncle Tom dies just as George, the son of Mr. Shelby, arrives to buy him out. Learning about Tom’s death, George Shelby decided to fight for Abolitionist cause. The parallel plot revolves around Eliza Harris, their child Harry and her husband George, who escaped to freedom to Canada, using the Underground Railroad. Harris family goes to Africa and George Shelby gives freedom to his slaves.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was a deeply religious woman and Uncle Tom’s Cabin is permeated with Christian ideas of morality. The novel's overpowering theme is the exploration of the nature of Christianity, and how Christian theology is fundamental at odds with the fact of slavery. This theme is most pronounced when, after the death of Eva, Tom urges St. Clare to find solace in Jesus. After Tom dies, George Shelby commemorates him as a devout Christian.

It is worth noting, however, that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s religiosity personified in the figures of Tom, Eva and some other characters of the novel, as well as its sentimentality came under the increasing criticism in the 20th century. Some readers objected to what they saw as the author’s use of racial stereotypes in Uncle Tom's Cabin. In 1949 black novelist James Baldwin, for example, lambasted the book as a “very bad novel,” branding its “self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality” (30). He pointed out that, while the more educated and enterprising characters in the novel are relatively light-skinned, its real protagonist, around whom the action is centered, Uncle Tom is "jet-black, wooly-haired, illiterate; and he is phenomenally forbearing. He has to be; he is black; only through this forbearance can he survive or triumph." Baldwin attributed this fault to Stowe’s religious and moral convictions: "[Tom’s] triumph is metaphysical, unearthly; since he is black, born without the light, it is only through humility, the incessant mortification of the flesh that he can enter into communion with God or man" (30). This view was counterbalanced by those critics who, in spite of the novel’s melodramatic overtones, saw it as an emotionally powerful appeal to humanity. Here’s what literary critic Margaret Just Butcher wrote in 1956 response to Baldwin’s words:

“Like most anti-slavery crusaders, [Stowe] crammed her first [sic] novel with heroic and melodramatic action that weakened its artistry, but without question intensified its propagandistic value. In spite of exaggeration, the novel, like the best of the slave narratives, had a human authenticity that was irresistible. No single piece of Southern propaganda could offset or contradict this powerful narrative -- certainly none was able to refute the claims of Mrs Stowe” (153).

The historical impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is perhaps best conveyed by the opinion of the Reverend James Sherman, who wrote in the Introductory Remarks to the novel when the abolition of slavery in America was only a dream: "The work of Mrs Stowe has already given a blow to slavery which it will never recover: it will create a new era in the cause of emancipation; it will enlist millions of sympathetic hearts ...; and it will produce a sober excitement among the thoughtful and religious in America against the accursed system" (6). As we know it today, the Reverend’s words turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Be that as it may, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel in the 19th century and continues to be read throughout the world today. Its readers are drawn to the vividness of the book’s characters and to the excitement of the story. The novel gives a reasonably accurate glimpse of life in America under slavery, and it also provides an absolutely compelling demonstration of how Americans felt about slavery in the nineteenth century. A number of musical, stage, film and television adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin have been produced over the years. Most of the movies based on the novel were made during the silent film epoch. Characters, themes and plots from Uncle Tom's Cabin have also influenced a large number of other movies, including Birth of a Nation (1915), while also inspiring numerous animated cartoons.

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