photo of Eliza fleeing slave catchers, from an early edition of the novelUncle Tom's Cabin banner

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Harriet Beecher Stowe's most famous novel originally appeared in serial form in the anti-slavery newspaper The National Era between 1851-1852. It was published as a book in 1852 by the John P. Jewett publishing company in Boston, Mass.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once called it the book that "encircled the globe" because of the furor that arose over its subject matter. That subject matter has been praised as often as it has been vilified; some have attacked the novel as racist, while some believe that it seeks to fight the very racism it is accused of. Certainly the novel represents its subjects-- slaves and slave owners-- with overly caricatured, sentimentalized portraits. But these portraits are drawn with a large brush for a specific reason. When we take the novel out of its context we miss its point, and in so doing, miss lessons that we could learn about conceptions of race (good and bad) in the US.

Emmeline being sold at auctionHarriet Beecher Stowe believed passionately that slavery was inhumane, and that the inhumanity of owning people harmed everyone. Certainly she recognized that there were varying degrees of damage done, but she was not writing so much to teach people the overwhelming horrors of slavery but to reveal the small human tragedies and so to challenge people who did not own slaves to recognize their own complicity with slavery, as well as the humanity inherent in slaves (which the system denied). Stowe believed that if she could draw intimate portraits of individuals, then the people who were guilty of perpetuating slavery-- those who allowed its continued existence even if they did not own slaves themselves-- could no longer turn away. Stowe wanted to teach people that there was a human face behind the institution. She showed us mothers ripped from their children because she knew that her reading public of mothers would identify with those mothers. She wanted to induce a strong emotional reaction in her readers.

an actual advertisement, seeking a runaway slave named Tom The novel is criticized for its didacticism as often as for its subject matter-- that it is sometimes preachy is obvious. But if we view it as a testimony, as a sermon to those who allowed slavery to continue by not demanding it stop, then we can understand that it might have needed to be somewhat preachy. Stowe writes, "Do you say that the people of the free states have nothing to do with it, and can do nothing? Would to God this were true! But it is not true. The people of the free states have defended, encouraged, and participated" (384). She argues for education instead of separation, and she ends her novel with an option. There will be hope, or there will be God's wrath. Perhaps the lessons that have not been answered yet, more than a hundred years later, can be found in the pages of this abolitionist text. Perhaps the answer is that, even today, individuals matter, and that institutions make us less human.

Stowe herself was not perfect, and her treatment of fellow writer and escaped slave Harriet Jacobs was less than admirable, a fact that complicates our picture of Stowe vs. slavery. But she did write a novel that politicized many members of her audience, and still resists easy categorization. Anyone who thinks that the Civil War was "just about states' rights" should read a text that sketches the human (if sterotyped) face of the "peculiar institution" that still haunts us.

Frontispiece of the original text showing slavesMore links to other Uncle Tom's Cabin sites can be found on the Stowe links page.

From the Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin: an article about Separation of Families

 

 

 

 

 

 

last update: May 2003