20 March 1852: A Book That Changed The World

It was on this day in 1852 that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among The Lowly was first published. The book unquestionably ranks as one of the most important novels in world history: it was the best seller of the entire Nineteenth Century throughout the world, second only to the perennial leader, The Bible, and it was significantly responsible for creating a profound change in attitudes toward slavery throughout the United States of America, but mainly, of course, in the Northeast and Midwest. Pro-slavery and Abolitionist sentiments had been at odds from the very earliest days of the founding of our republic, but in the wake of the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, abolitionist sentiment grew immensely. Tolerence for the manifest hypocrisy of the evil of slavery flourishing in “The Land of the Free” grew less and less. As absolutists on each side clashed, war became inevitable. Upon being introduced to Mrs. Stowe at the Whitehouse, Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said, “So this is the little lady who made this great big war!”

The book sold out its first run almost immediately. Before the end of 1852, more than 300,000 copies had been printed in the United States, an unprecendented success at that time. Another 200,000 copies were printed elsewhere in the English-speaking world, and translations began to appear in other languages before the year was out. These figures do not include unauthorized and “bootleg” copies that flooded the market as well, nor the many unauthorized abridgements and digests of the book. Additionally dramatic interpretations ranging from public readings to many hundreds of theatrical versions brought the tale to millions of people. It was a phenomenon unlike any which the world had seen. And, as noted above, its impact was immense and immediate.

For today’s tastes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is overwrought, melodramatic, and verbose in the extreme. Stowe’s prose styling makes one think of Charles Dickens as being spare and concise by comparison. The novel’s major appeal today lies in its historical importance. It is today much more often read about than read; indeed, some recommend against actually reading the unabridged original novel because it contains characterizations of its enslaved protagonists that are distinctly stereotypic and often unflattering (though no one decries the portrayal of the wicked and greedy Simon LeGree, whose name is still an epitome for nastiness and evil.) This seems to me to be a perfectly fine state of affairs, as the book really is a labor to slog through; it is enough to know what it was about and to know its impact.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin did not start the dialogue on slavery in the United States, and it certainly did not conclude it. It did, however, hugely influence the development and direction of that dialogue. The book did not really do much to advance the understanding and communication between blacks and whites in the United States either. The book was written for a white audience, and while it is sympathetic and sentimental about the condition of the slaves, it does not portray a realistic view of the slave experience, and in fact did much to promote limiting, negative stereotypes. More than a century after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book was at the center of controversy in the height of the Civil Rights movement.

So, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not genuinely timeless literature, nor did it promote real understanding among diverse and conflicting populations. But it did enkindle an outrage against centuries of slavery that brought about the end of that “Peculiar Institution,” as it was euphemistically known, within less than fifteen years. The end of slavery was a most necessary starting point to permit our nation to begin addressing the resultant issues of inequality and race in America. That process is ongoing still, and as is plain from then Senator Obama’s much remarked upon speech in early 2008, that process is a work in progress, a work that has not yet, even after more than 150 years, reached its goal. The past is not dead; it is not even past: it is with us in the present. But knowing the past and frankly facing it with all its glories and all of its shames, is necessary to living today and building a better future for all of us.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us
about one man and fable tells us about a million men.

— G. K. Chesterson

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