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The Effect of Uncle Tom's Cabin

 

        Seldom does a one work of literature change a society or start it

down the road to cataclysmic conflict.   One such catalytic work is Harriet

Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852).  It is considered by many, one

the most influential American works of fiction ever published.  Uncle Tom's

Cabin sold more copies than any other previous fiction title.  It sold five

thousand copies in its first two days, fifty thousand copies in eight weeks,

three hundred thousand copies in a year and over a million copies in its

first sixteen months.   What makes this accomplishment even more amazing is

that this book was written by a woman during a time in history women were

relegated to domestic duties and child rearing and were not allowed

positions of influence or leadership roles in society.  Legend holds that

when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe in 1682 he said, "So you're the little woman

who wrote the book that made this great war".  The impact of Uncle Tom's

Cabin did more to arouse antislavery sentiment in the N orth and provoke

angry rebuttals in the south than any other event in antebellum era.

 

        Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), born Lichfeild, Connecticut, was

the daughter, sister, and wife of liberal clergymen and theologians.  Her

father Lyman and brother Henry Ward were two of the most preeminent

theologians of the nineteenth century.  This extremely devout Christian

upbringing, focusing on the doctrines of sin, guilt, atonement and

salvation, had an undeniable impact in her writings.   Each of her

characters displays some aspect of these beliefs.  Although he is unjustly

and ignorantly vilified by contemporary Black society, the character Uncle

Toms is given a Christ like persona.  Tom forgives his oppressors, turns

the other cheek to blows, blesses those who curse him, and prays for those

who sin against him. At the end of the story he even gives his life to save

his people. Beecher's upbringing is readily apparent in the formation and

characterization of Uncle Tom's Cabin.  She even goes as far as to credit

God with authorship, only allowing herself to be viewed as God's instrument

 against the evils of slavery.

 

        Before the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, information regarding

the evils of slavery and the treatment of slaves was readily available, but

little of this information was read outside anti-slavery circles. The

narratives of escaped slaves, as well as the work of other writers,

documented stories relating real occurrences of plantation barbarity.

Fredric Douglas of the North Star, and William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of

The Liberator, two fervent abolitionists, contributed greatly to the body

of anti-slavery writings. Uncle Tom's Cabin was originally published in the

anti-slavery newspaper National Era, in weekly installments, from the

summer of 1851 to the spring of 1852. In it original form, it too did not

attract much attention outside of anti-slavery circles.  This all changed

when it was published in 1852 for the first time between hard covers.

 

        Uncle Tom's Cabin succeeded where other anti-slavery writings had

failed because it made a deep emotional impact and humanized the slave,

elevating the him to a level where he could be understood to have thoughts

and feeling comparable to any other member of the human race. Using the

character of George Harris, Stowe gives flesh to the shallow skeletal views

of slave humanity that many Americans held. She also brought to view the

inhuman disintegration of families that the institution of slavery

perpetuated.  Slaves families were often separated, as family members were

sold off, for profit or necessity, in different directions sometimes never

see each other again.   In her novel one mother, Eliza, bravely escapes the

south by crossing the icy Ohio River to guarantee the safety of her child

while another, Cassy, commits infanticide rather than force her child to

endure the indignities of slave life.  A third mother, Lucy, commits

suicide when her ten-month-old son is sold away from her.  Stowe uses the

Victorian sanctity of the family to appeal directly to the heart of her

readers. The publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin coupled with the offensive

and invasive nature of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), changed northerners

so they could no longer view slavery with a disconnected view.  Slavery was

no longer a Southern issue that had no impact on the life of those in the

north.

 

        Once a majority of the northern population became polarized against

the institution of slavery it was only a matter of time before conflict

came to a head. Differing views about the institution of slavery

contributed to the growing rift between the north and south.   This chasm

became the American Civil War.  Uncle Tom's Cabin gave a powerful and

moving voice to the Abolition movement.  It shook out of complacently

northerners and southerners alike, and forced a nation to look within its

collective soul at the horrors of slavery and moral contradictions of the

institution itself. Stowe's novel demonstrates the absurdity and

contradictions of slavery.

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