Igniting the Spark: The Power of Uncle Tom’s Cabin
March 20th, 1852 was an important day for the United States of America. Harriet Beecher Stowe finally published her much debated story, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, on this exact date. Recent stringent changes in fugitive slave laws had inspired the creation of this anti-slavery novel. The author described the story as a series of sketches depicting slave life on a plantation. Uncle Tom, Arthur Shelby, and Emily Shelby are the central characters of this story. Uncle Tom is a very religious black man who prays to God regularly to help keep his spirits high in his sufferings as a slave. Although there seems to be a large prevalence of religion as the main theme of the novel, there is an assembly of others that include race, gender, and oppression. This novel served as a cry for help to support abolitionism through the use of rhetorical devices and dramatic story-telling. After this novel was published, the beginning of the American Civil War followed nine years later. It has been a popular belief among historians that Stowe’s controversial novel was a final tipping point that brought our country into the American Civil War. During this time period, southerners held strong disgust for the novel and author. Uncle Tom’s Cabin not only serves as a piece of American history, but also a reminder that literature can have impacts on society far greater than imagined. This essay will discuss the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to provide historical background all while giving credit to a story whose characters and plot grasped readers’ minds and refused to let go.
Around the time that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was released, the United States of Americas was rapidly evolving. During the decade of the 1850s, the United States of America grew in both size and socioeconomic problems. Franklin Pierce became the fourteenth president of the United States, the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted, and the National Women’s Rights Convention was held in Massachusetts (Unsigned, History). Yet the 1860s would be defined by the American Civil War that took place from 1861 to 1865. Scholar Edward B. Rugemer discusses the five important causes that contributed to the war between 1850 and 1865. The first major problem in America began with the difference between northern and southern culture. Due to the cash crop, cotton, the south relied on plantations and this led to white male slave owners ruling the top of the social hierarchy (Rugemer 56). The north did not endorse slavery (thus no plantations), which allowed for the culture of the people in this area to flourish in a variety of industrial professions, leading to a diverse range of citizens. The second major problem was the complicated distribution of federal and state rights that arose from the Articles of the Confederation and the US Constitution (Rugemer 58). The third problem that sparked the Civil War was the Compromise of 1850. This document created an imbalance in the distribution of slave and free states in America (Rugemer 60-61). Abolitionism became the fourth reason for the Civil War (Rugemer 62). Rising tensions over slavery began a culture clash between northern and southern citizens. Finally, the election of president Abraham Lincoln contributed to the genesis of the American Civil War (Rugemer 64). Lincoln’s progressive antislavery views had many supporters, yet just as many opponents. This huge split in reception regarding Lincoln’s presidency resulted in the American people hating for their own brethren. During the span of these five major events, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was released. This story became wildly popular amongst the American people since the novel’s content directly correlated with what was happening in the real world at the time.
To understand how one story could cause as much controversy as Uncle Tom’s Cabin did, it is essential to understand how the book was released and what critics said about the novel. Harriet Beecher Stowe was an already successful author before Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s release, having published Mayflower as her first novel. Uncle Tom’s Cabin did not begin as a full length published novel. Susan Belasco explains that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the story in serial installments and published them in an antislavery newspaper called the National Era (Belasco 319). Eventually, as readers learned about the story, it was published in novel form a year later in March of 1852. Once the novel was for sale, it sold approximately three-hundred thousand copies in less than half a year. Many states in the South banned the novel. During this time period, the bestseller went on to be read by people outside of the United States as well and became the second-best selling published novel in history (second to The Bible). In the wake of its publication, numerous responses from various authors were written including anti-Uncle Tom’s Cabin novels. Examples of the anti-Tom novels included Aunt Phillis’s Cabin and Southern Life as It Is (Belasco 319). These versions of original text would change story lines, eliminate characters, and parody. The popularity of the novel would be beneficial in awakening the United States of America of its racist ways.
Following the release of the novel, critics were split on their reactions to the novel. Some critics of the novel praised Stowe’s incorporation of religious undertones in the story and her portrayal of Tom and Eva as endearing characters. National Era Magazine stated that, “So great and good a thing has Mrs. Stowe here accomplished for humanity, for freedom, for God, that we cannot refrain from applying to her sacred words” (Unsigned, Bailey). For many readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, attention was drawn to the novel when anti-Tom novels and novel responses referenced the story, making potential readers interested in reading what this controversial story contained. As time passed, there were eventually three versions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel. There was the serialization, the Norton edition, and the “Splendid Edition” (Belasco 322). The only things that differed in these stories were occasional one-word translations in certain passages that contained dialogue between characters. The instant fame and popularity of Stowe’s novel gave her financial success and reassurance that her story was effective in informing people about abolitionism. All of the attention brought to Uncle Tom’s Cabin acted as propaganda. Regardless of praise or criticism, the novel’s message of abolitionism was spread across the country and tensions began to run high.
The way that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is crafted has to do significantly with the way Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the novel. She was after all an author associated with the American Renaissance, which explains her style of effective dramatic writing. The culture’s new ideas and ways of thinking inspired many authors to translate this into their writing, something Harriet Beecher Stowe accomplished. In specific terminology, she was a popular sentimental writer. According to Dr. Ashley Reed, these sentimental stories involved family relationships, religious conversion, and moral development (Reed). All of these concepts are themes that are prevalent in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The novel is infused with a myriad of social problems, yet the ideas of relationships, religion, and race resonate in Stowe’s work. Scholar Curtis Evans dissects the novel to understand the author’s ways of bringing attention to her call to action. He expresses that the emotion of doubt acts as a character in the novel. Doubt plagues Tom’s Christianity and the peace between blacks and whites (Evans 498). Another way Stowe appealed to readers was through the use of extreme racial stereotypes to disturb readers. As an example of this, Stowe describes blacks as “unlike the hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon race” (Stowe xiii) to grab attention. In terms of religion, Tom and Eva are used as Christ-like figures in the story to appeal to Christian readers (Evans 498). Depicting mistreatment of innocent slaves brought readers to their feet and made them want to end slavery in their Anglo-Saxon environment. As the story progresses, there is a bond created between the readers and characters. This creation of an emotional attachment is vital to Stowe’s call to action. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s role as one of the leading faces of the abolitionist movement could possibly be due to the fact that her past experiences were relatable for many readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While her story of slavery brought a nation to its feet, the story of the inspiration behind the novel could also explain the novel’s success. Thomas Hagood explains that the child characters Eva and Topsy were influenced by the death of Stowe’s infant Samuel Charles Stowe. The pain and agony of losing a loved one was one key event that sparked the idea of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Because she had a connection with death, Stowe’s goal was to eradicate the harsh treatment of slaves and to “motivate Southern readers to ‘introduce into our system the law of kindness’” (Hagood). Another startling fact that made the idea of slavery too unbearable for readers was the fact that the novel was inspired by and contained many true stories (Reed). In film or text, when readers are told the story is inspired by true events, it creates logos for the reader to be persuaded by. In the case of abolitionism, the knowledge that slavery plagued innocent people meant that Americans needed to eradicate this practice. As people rallied behind a woman who had witnessed unsettling acts, the army of abolitionism continued to grow and sparked the beginnings of a civil war.
The emotional connection that readers felt towards the story’s characters are all due to the literary techniques Harriet Beecher Stowe employed in her novel. Even though Uncle Tom’s Cabin was officially banned in the Southern states of America, the novel was read across the country due to the sympathy Stowe built for the characters in the novel. These characters became icons in the pre-Civil War era. Harriet Beecher Stowe used rhetorical strategies, persuasion techniques, and writing style to get audiences to support the novel’s oppressed characters. Direct address and apostrophes are used in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which were two literary techniques that were popular in this time period (Reed). Motifs are also incorporated in the story through the images of dead children, fugitive slavery, and grieving mothers. These motifs caused readers to feel uncomfortable, but still drew them into the story. Stowe infused persuasion techniques into her novel. The incorporation of whites and blacks reading, praying and supporting each other establishes a pathos appeal to emotion for readers. Barbara Hochman notes that as blacks read The Bible in the story, it creates a sense of an ethos ethical appeal for audiences that realize that slaves are capable of holding spiritual beliefs and having literacy (Hochman 118-121). In reading such a racist novel, some readers would have been very offended, but the dramatic characterization in the novel helped to reveal the negativity and stigma of slavery in America. Stowe’s writing style of the novel was of the sentimentalism literary genre. Kevin Pelletier states that, “The quintessence of nineteenth-century sentimentalism, Uncle Tom’s Cabin predicates its anti-slavery politics on the belief that each reader can learn to sympathize with and ultimately come to love America’s slaves…love is central to Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (Pelletier 266). This sentimentalism infused into the novel really plays on the idea of what people’s emotions can persuade them to do. By writing a sentimentalist novel, audiences can form a deep connection to the story and be persuaded to commit the novel’s call to action. The impact of the putting all of these elements into Uncle Tom’s Cabin make for characters that audiences think about for generations to come.
In a visual outlook on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, publishers made abolitionism the prime focus on the front covers of the novel. While the inside pages were filled with controversy and commotion, the outside covers of the novel were just as contentious. The images depicted on the differing editions of the novel made potential readers of the novel judge the book by its covers. Exploring the visual archaeology of Uncle Tom’s Cabin reveals that there was a plethora of concepts that publishers used to advertise the novel. Samuel and Tara Fee both discover that the first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin contained a cover with multiple slaves in front of a cabin. This represented the theme of home in the novel, which made readers associate their families with Tom’s, creating an emotional connection for potential buyers of the book (Fee 41). Another issue of the novel had a cover depicting Christ preaching to injured slaves. This image of Christ and his followers promoted one of the main arguments in the novel regarding the importance of religion (Fee 42-43). The third and final issue of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a very simplistic cover with no pictures. On the cover, the words “245,000 Copies Already Published in America” were printed directly under the title (Fee 45). This advertisement displayed that the novel had much success and encouraged potential readers to give in to buying, reading, and eventually endorsing a popular American story. The imagery of abolitionism was thus another driving force of the novel. The different imagery amongst the designs challenged traditional ideas of literary and textual interpretation. By doing so, it opened a door for new found freedom of expression.
As the popularity of literature increased, so did the popularity of the theatre during the era of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While the physical text of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel provided many citizens of America with an insight into the abolitionist movement, many people tend to neglect theatrical portrayals of the novel. During the antebellum period, theatre could offer entertainment and politics all wrapped up in one show. There were people who wanted to learn more about the story, but were not literate. Tom Robson notes that some women were more drawn to the idea of theatre than they were to reading. Live adaptations had the advantage of “capitalizing on mid-century women’s interest in moral reform dramas” (Robson). In this time period, there were groups of people who disliked reading and refused to pick up a large novel to read in its entirety. Theatre was the perfect solution for those less ambitious readers. Different stage acts based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin were more faithful to the text than others. These acts of theatre had aspects which, “advocated social change and resisted it” all at the same time (Robson). This means that the content in the plays was so controversial that it could be seen as helping or hurting Harriet Stowe’s call to action. Luckily for Stowe’s novel, the agenda for the story was still clear: advocate social justice to all slaves by showing the harsh social treatment. The live-action depiction of slavery and its hardships persuaded believers in slavery to realize the harshness of their actions.
While it has been argued that Stowe’s novel acts as a propaganda piece, readers of Stowe’s novel would have been able to form their own opinion on abolitionism and select their political views from there. In a historical sense, Uncle Tom’s Cabin depicted what had been going on in America for hundreds of years. The book was able to simulate a background of slavery, but in a dramatic context. Spread of word-of-mouth helped to bring attention to the story. In the social aspect of the novel, readers had the ability to digest the story and discuss it with friends if they chose to do so. Finally, the text itself was lengthy and provided challenges for some people who had weak or nonexistent reading skills. The novel acted as a way for people to learn about the English language and broaden their vocabulary usage all while broadening their methods of communication. Not only did the novel succeed in alarming the American people about the harshness of slavery, but also improving literacy in Antebellum citizens.
Analyzing the motivations and history behind the influential work that is Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not an easy task. This novel’s socio-political agenda received much praise, but still caused some critics to express their concern. Literature has the impact to do more than describe a story and teach people new vocabulary words. Literature has the chance to improve the education of a people and better society as a whole. The famous quote from Abraham Lincoln regarding Harriet Beecher Stowe that states, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war” resonates because it was the first time a woman had catalyzed public debate in the country regarding slavery (Unsigned, History). Harriet Beecher Stowe wanted to end the oppression caused by slavery in America. Her ultimate goal was to reveal the harshness people suffered and attain supporters. By doing this, all the techniques she contributed to her novel were put to noble use. While some actions speak louder than words, the words of Uncle Tom’s Cabin spoke loud and actions soon followed.
Works Cited Belasco, Susan. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin in our Time.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 29.2 (2012): 318-28. Web. Evans, C. “The Chief Glory of God [is] in Self-Denying, Suffering Love!”: True Religion in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Journal of Religion 92.4 (2012): 498-514. Web. Fee, Samuel B., and Tara R. Fee. “Visual Archaeology: Cultural Change Reflected by the Covers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Journal of Visual Literacy 31.2 (2012): 35. Web. Hagood, Thomas Chase. “‘Oh, what a Slanderous Book’: Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the Antebellum South.” Southern Quarterly 49.4 (2012): 71-93. Web. Hochman, Barbara. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Reading Revolution.” Kritikon Litterarum 39.1-2 (2012): 117. Web. Pelletier, K. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Apocalyptic Sentimentalism.” LIT-LITERATURE INTERPRETATION THEORY 20.4 (2009): 266-87. Web. Reed, Ashley. “The American Renaissance 1820-1860.” English 2534. Virginia Tech, Blacksburg. Feb.-Mar. 2016. Lecture. Robson, Tom. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the American Stage and Screen by John W. Frick (Review).” Theatre Journal 66.1 (2014): 172-3. Web. Rugemer, Edward B. “Explaining the Causes of the American Civil War, 1787-1861.” Reviews in American History 37.1 (2009): 56–68. Web. Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918. Web. Unsigned. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Is Published.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. Web. Unsigned (Gamaliel Bailey). “Literary Notices.” The National Era 22 April 1852. Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture. Web. 26 Apr 2016.
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