“So this is the little lady who made this big war.” Abraham Lincoln’s legendary comment upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe demonstrates the significant place her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, holds in American history. Published in book form in 1852, the novel quickly became a national bestseller and stirred up strong emotions in both the North and South. The context in which Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written, therefore, is just as significant as the actual content. Among other things, Stowe’s publication of her novel was stimulated by the increasing tensions among the nation’s citizens and by her fervent belief that slavery was brutally immoral.
While she was still young, Harriet’s family moved from Hartford, Connecticut to Cincinnati, Ohio. At the time, Cincinnati was a battleground for pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces, as well as being a city of religious revivalism, temperance conflicts, and race riots. Her father was a congregationalist minister and her oldest sister, Catherine, was a writer on social reform questions. It is not surprising, therefore, that because of her environment, Harriet became involved in movements emphasizing the moral injustice of slavery.
Probably the most significant influence on Harriet’s writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, however, was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1950. Under the law, people who assisted a runaway slave could receive a fine of $1,000 and six months in prison. Naturally, the statute broadened the slavery debate by involving the northern states in the apprehension of runaway slaves. The North, who had previously adopted a “not-our-problem” attitude toward slavery, now was forced into a direct role in its propa...
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...Although it was written over 140 years ago, apparently Uncle Tom’s Cabin still is able to invoke a personal reflection on the state of fellow men (and women!).
Generally, I would say that reading the novel was a valuable (though time-consuming) experience. I had read it once before, but never really understanding the importance of the context in which it was written. The surrounding events of the period bore heavy consequences on both the creation and reaction to the novel, and I now can appreciate the value of such a “document” in the scheme of American history. The “little lady who made the big war,” then, surely did not realize that her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, would heavily reverberate into the dawn of the 21st century.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 1852. Introduction by Darryl Pinckney. New York: Penguin Group, 1998.
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