There was no more influential book in Abraham Lincoln's life -- and perhaps in American history -- than Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The book, subtitled Life Among the Lowly, shook the U.S. like an earthquake when it was published in 1852. Written in the sentimental style of the time, it had a profound effect on the abolitionist movement and white attitudes toward African Americans in general. Its portrayal of slavery as immoral and evil so intensified the conflict between North and South that Lincoln, upon meeting Stowe, is said to have remarked, "So this is the little lady who made this big war."
A preacher at the Hartford (Conn.) Female Academy and a abolitionist, Stowe (above) focused the novel on the character of Uncle Tom, a long-suffering black slave around whom the stories of other characters -- including fellow slaves and slave owners -- revolve. Stowe was unflinching in how she portrayed slavery while asserting that Christian love could overcome its awfulness.
Uncle Tom's Cabin first appeared as a 40-week serial in National Era, an abolitionist periodical, beginning in June 1851. Because of its popularity, Stowe reluctantly agreed to turn the serial into a book while questioning whether anyone would read it. She need not have worried as Uncle Tom's Cabin became the best-selling novel of the 19th century and was second only to the Holy Bible in book sales. Some 300,000 copies were sold in the United States alone and it was published in all the major languages.
Unfortunately, the book and especially the plays it inspired helped created negative stereotypes about blacks, including the affectionate, dark-skinned "mammy," the "pickaninny" portrayal of black children and, of course, "Uncle Tom" as a dutiful black ever faithful to whites.
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The author had several influences for the book, including the autobiography of Josiah Henson, a black who lived and worked on a tobacco plantation in Maryland. Henson had escaped slavery in 1830 by fleeing to Canada, and republished his book as The Memoirs of Uncle Tom after Stowe's book became a best seller.Uncle Tom's Cabin opens with a Kentuckian named Arthur Shelby facing the loss of his farm because of debts. Even though they are kind toward their slaves, the Shelbys decide to sell two of them -- Uncle Tom, a middle-aged man with a wife and children, and Harry, the son of Emily Shelby’s maid Eliza.
When Eliza overhears the Shelby discussing plans to sell Tom and Harry, Eliza runs away with her son while Uncle Tom is sold and placed on a riverboat, which sets sail down the Mississippi. While on board, Tom meets and befriends a young white girl named Eva, whom he saves after she falls into the river. In gratitude, Eva's father, Augustine St. Clare, buys Tom from a slave trader and takes him with his family to their home in New Orleans where he lives with Ophelia, a prejudiced Northern cousin.During Eliza's escape, she meets up with her husband, George Harris, who had run away previously. They decide to try to reach Canada, but are being tracked by a slave hunter, Tom Loker, who trap Eliza and son, causing George to shoot Loker.
After Tom has lived with the St. Clares for two years, Eva grows very ill and experiences a death-bed vision of heaven. The other characters resolve to change their lives with Ophelia promising to throw off her black prejudices, the slave Topsy saying she will better herself, and St. Clare pledging to free Uncle Tom.Before St. Clare can make good on his pledge, he dies after being stabbed while entering a New Orleans tavern. His wife reneges on her late husband's vow and sells Tom at auction to Simon Legree, a vicious plantation owner.
Legree hates Tom because he refuses his order to whip a fellow slave. He beats him viciously and unsuccessfully tries to crush Tom's faith in God.
Tom Loker then reenters the story, his attitude toward blacks having been changed by the Quakers who healed him, while George, Eliza and Harry have attained their freedom after crossing into Canada.
Uncle Tom almost succumbs to hopelessness, as his faith in God is tested by the hardships of plantation life, but he has two visions, one of Jesus and one of Eva, which renew his resolve to remain a faithful Christian, and he encourages the slaves Casey and Emmeline to escape. Tom refuses to tell Legree where the slaves have gone, and he orders his overseers to kill Tom. As Tom lays dying, he forgives the overseers who, humbled by the character of the man they have killed, become Christians.On their boat ride to freedom, Cassy and Emmeline meet George Harris' sister and accompany her to Canada. Once there, Cassy discovers that Eliza is her long-lost daughter who was sold as a child.
Now that their family is together again, they travel to France and eventually Liberia, the African nation created for former American slaves. There they meet Cassy's long-lost son. George Shelby returns to his Kentucky farm and frees all his slaves. He admonishes them to remember Tom's sacrifice and his belief in the true meaning of Christianity.
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Many literary critics panned Uncle Tom's Cabin at the time of its publication and for years afterward because it was written by a women and prominently featured "women's sloppy emotions," as one critic put it. Another said that had the book not been about slavery, "it would be just another sentimental novel."
Stowe's ultimate redemption came in 1985 when Jane Tompkins published In Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction. Tompkins noted that sentimental novels revealed how women's emotions had the power to change the world for the better, and today Uncle Tom's Cabin is compared favorably to protest literature like The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.
Illustrations by Hammatt Billings for the first edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin (from top to bottom): "Eliza Comes to Tell Uncle Tom That He Is Sold and That She Is Running Away to Save Her Child," "Little Eva Reads the Bible to Uncle Tom in the Arbor," "Cassy Ministers to Uncle Tom After His Whipping," and "The Fugitives Are Safe in a Free Land."
Based in part on the Wikipedia entry on Uncle Tom's Cabin