Uncle Tom's Cabin | Study Guide

Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Uncle Tom's Cabin | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, first serialized and subsequently published as a book in 1852, is the most famous antislavery novel in American literature, pivotal in the cause of abolitionism in the United States in the mid-19th century. Written at a time when slavery was a commonplace institution in the southern United States, Uncle Tom's Cabin presented the lives of enslaved people sympathetically, portraying them as individuals with the same aspirations and complexities as any other American citizen.

When it was published, abolitionists lauded it and Southern slaveholders hated it. Contemporary readings view the novel in a new light—although it was instrumental to the abolition of slavery, modern readers often find that Uncle Tom's Cabin inadvertently promotes racism through the portrayals of its characters as stereotypes. The phrase "Uncle Tom" itself has come to denote an African American who apologizes for or defends racists and racially oppressive policies. Although Stowe wrote the novel to humanize a drastically disenfranchised population in the United States, Uncle Tom's Cabin is often criticized for encouraging the continuation of racism after the emancipation of the country's enslaved people.

1. Uncle Tom's Cabin was inspired by an escaped slave—also named Eliza.

Stowe was told the story of Eliza Harris, an escaped slave who made the treacherous journey across the Ohio River, and included Eliza as a character in the novel. Harris reportedly nearly died while crossing the ice floes of the frozen river with her newborn during her escape.

The character Uncle Tom was also inspired by a real figure, Josiah Henson, who was granted a royal visit by Queen Victoria after the British monarch read and adored Uncle Tom's Cabin. Henson's cabin in Montgomery County, Maryland, has since been preserved as a historic site.

2. Uncle Tom's Cabin paved the way for the Civil War.

Uncle Tom's Cabin's immense popularity immediately after its publication in 1852 had a polarizing effect on the United States, inspiring abolitionists and angering Southern slaveholders. Historian Will Kaufman noted that the novel "helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War" by creating a stir among both sides in the slavery debate.

3. President Abraham Lincoln told Stowe she started the Civil War.

In 1862, a full decade after Uncle Tom's Cabin's publication and initial controversy, Stowe met with Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Lincoln commented on the role of Uncle Tom's Cabin in starting the war by commenting to Stowe, "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."

4. Uncle Tom's Cabin was the second-best-selling book of the 19th century.

Upon publication, Uncle Tom's Cabin sold an unprecedented 300,000 copies within the first three months. Stowe's book ended up with the most sales of any novel during the 19th century in the United States and had the second most sales of any book, with only the Bible selling more copies.

5. A bookseller in Alabama was forced out of town for selling copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Despite its popularity in Northern states and abroad, Uncle Tom's Cabin caused outrage in the American South. Many locales that profited heavily from slave plantations banned the book, and one bookseller in Mobile, Alabama, was forced out of the area for carrying copies in his store. Stowe received numerous angry letters and threats in the mail from slaveholders and was once sent a box containing the severed ear of an enslaved person.

6. Stowe claimed "God wrote" Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Stowe was raised in a devoutly religious family and her father, Lyman Beecher, was a famous Presbyterian minister. When asked about her reasons for writing the slave narrative, Stowe claimed she received divine inspiration. She stated simply, "I did not write it. God wrote it. I merely did His dictation."

7. Uncle Tom's Cabin has been criticized for promoting negative stereotypes of African Americans.

Despite the novel's role in bringing the abolitionist cause to light, contemporary readers and critics often criticize the portrayals of African Americans in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Much in the way the term "Uncle Tom" has come to denote someone who shows sympathy toward oppressors, the novel's portrayals of African American children and mothers have been noted as inadvertently promoting negative images of rural black communities. While many critics still agree that the novel's impact on the abolitionist movement outweighs these stereotypes, Uncle Tom's Cabin can appear to have racist undertones if considered outside of its historical context.

8. Despite excellent early sales, Uncle Tom's Cabin went out of print after several years.

By the time Stowe famously met with Abraham Lincoln in 1862, Uncle Tom's Cabin had been out of print for several years. The novel had tremendous sales and a large print run, and the publisher John P. Jewett promoted it by advertising it as "The Greatest Book of Its Kind." However, Jewett faced financial hardships starting in 1857, and his publishing company closed in 1860. This situation delayed reprints of Uncle Tom's Cabin for years.

9. Uncle Tom's Cabin's circulation abroad was mostly because of pirated copies.

During the 1850s, the popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the United States led to an interest in Britain and continental Europe. Although 1.5 million copies of the novel were sold in England during the first few years after its publication, these were mostly pirated volumes. There were an astonishing 20 pirated editions printed in Britain in 1852 alone, most likely because printers struggled to keep up with readers' demands.

10. Uncle Tom's Cabin was so popular that many newborns were named Eva following its publication.

The character Eva's death had a profound effect on readers of Uncle Tom's Cabin during its first years of publication. In 1852, 300 newborn girls were reportedly given the name Eva in Boston. One reader contacted Stowe, telling her that the novel had made her consider renaming her daughter after the character.

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