The Publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, has been widely identified as the most influential American novel in the country’s history. Books have, of course, always had the power to bring about great social change, and the widespread distribution of Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave a vivid image of Southern life, particularly the mistreatment of slaves, to the entire country. While slavery was previously an issue between slaveholders and abolitionists, the moral outrage caused by Uncle Tom’s Cabin went a long way towards bringing the slavery debate to the forefront of the entire American consciousness. Broadly speaking, the book’s success brought the moral conflict to the general public, causing many ordinary citizens to form their own moral judgments, often critical ones, of the nature of slavery, while they previously would have been more apathetic. Here, I will investigate the reaction to and effects of the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, particularly divided into two groups: the scholarly or critical reaction, and the public reaction, including both public opinion of the book and the various derivative works that were created for public consumption. I have researched both portions of this topic through the more modern works of historical analysis, and by examining primary sources reproduced in online collections (with especially heavy use of Railton’s extremely resourceful website, for which I would like to acknowledge my gratitude).
Outside of the Southern region that Uncle Tom’s Cabin criticized, the book immediately received a critical reception “of wild enthusiasm” (Donovan 16) that fully recognized the strong moral weight that was carried in its strong narrative. While the novel at the time may have been mostly viewed as an explication of conditions in the South, the associated moral argument is not merely recognized in historical analysis, but was quite apparent and important to literary critics and analysts of the time.
Donovan describes one critical observation of the 19th century that clashes remarkably with modern observations of both critics and historians. Albion W. Tourgée, a novelist, conducted a study in which he had ex-slaves analyze the accuracy of Stowe’s depictions of slavery. Tourgée concluded through these surveys that, under the standards of the real world, the gentle Uncle Tom was a rhetorically pugnacious figure, who was “unrealistically critical of his masters. Tom spoke out more frankly, the ex-slaves thought, than a real slave would have dared to” (Gossett 362, qtd. Donovan 17). Ironically, both scholarly and popular opinion in modern times hold something of a consensus that Tom’s major weakness was that his Christian martyrdom made him too passive about his plight, possibly even to the point of complicity in slavery. Today, some of us see Tom as too passive to be respected; when the book was released, some saw Tom as too active to be believed.