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'Uncle Tom’s Cabin' is published

'Uncle Tom’s Cabin' is published


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Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is published. The novel sold 300,000 copies within three months and was so widely read that when President Abraham Lincoln met Stowe in 1862, he reportedly said, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.”

Stowe was born in 1811, the seventh child of the famous Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher. She studied at private schools in Connecticut, then taught in Hartford from 1827 until her father moved to Cincinnati in 1832. She accompanied him and continued to teach while writing stories and essays. In 1836, she married Calvin Ellis Stowe, with whom she had seven children. She published her first book, Mayflower, in 1843.

While living in Cincinnati, Stowe encountered fugitive enslaved people and the Underground Railroad. Later, she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in reaction to recently tightened fugitive slave laws. The book had a major influence on the way the American public viewed slavery. The book established Stowe’s reputation as a woman of letters. She traveled to England in 1853, where she was welcomed as a literary hero. Along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, she became one of the original contributors to The Atlantic, which launched in November 1857. In 1863, when Lincoln announced the end of slavery, she danced in the streets. Stowe continued to write throughout her life and died in 1896.

READ MORE: Abolitionist Movement


Uncle Tom

Uncle Tom is the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. [1] The character was seen by many readers as a ground-breaking humanistic portrayal of a slave, one who uses nonresistance and gives his life to protect others who have escaped from slavery. However, the character also came to be seen, especially based on his portrayal in pro-compassion dramatizations, as inexplicably kind to white slaveholders. This led to the use of Uncle Tom – sometimes shortened to just a Tom [2] [3] – as a derogatory epithet for an exceedingly subservient person or house negro, particularly one aware of their own lower-class racial status.


Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Matter of Influence

One hundred years after Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, the poet Langston Hughes called the novel, “the most cussed and discussed book of its time.” Hughes’s observation is particularly apt in that it avoids any mention of the novel’s literary merit. George Orwell famously called it “the best bad book of the age.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin is arguably no Pride and Prejudice or Scarlet Letter. Leo Tolstoy is one of the few critics who praise it unabashedly, calling Uncle Tom’s Cabin a model of the “highest type” of art because it flowed from love of God and man. So why has it been called “a verbal earthquake, an ink-and-paper tidal wave”? How and why has it been so influential?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life among the Lowly is at heart a typical nineteenth-century melodrama of cruelty, suffering, religious devotion, broken homes, and improbable reunions. The plot in brief: the slave Uncle Tom is sold away from his cabin and family on the Shelby plantation in Kentucky he serves the St. Clare family in Louisiana, from which he is sold after the death of Eva and her father he lands at the Legree plantation on the Red River where he is whipped to death rather than betray two runaway slaves. Meanwhile some slaves escape (Eliza on ice floes across the Ohio River) and find long-lost relatives others kill themselves and their children. The white characters discuss politics and religion. Everybody weeps.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been cussed and discussed since May 8, 1851, when the novel’s first installment appeared in abolitionist Gamaliel Bailey’s Washington, DC, weekly, the National Era. Cussers include Southerners such as William Gilmore Simms, who considered the novel a libelous hodgepodge of bad research and flat-out lies Reverend Joel Parker, who threatened to sue Stowe for the “dastardly attack” on his character Charles Dickens, who wondered if Stowe patterned Eva on his Little Nell and James Baldwin, who bemoaned the sentimentality and the powerlessness of Uncle Tom. Discussers include everybody else: Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Eliot, Horace Mann, Mark Twain, Charles Dudley Warner, Henry James, and in modern times, Richard Wright, Harold Bloom, Elaine Showalter, Ann Douglas, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and John Updike, who confessed to having never read the novel until he reviewed it in the New Yorker in 2006.

Nearly everyone agrees that the reason for Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s initial influence was a matter of timing. Its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the perfect combination of magpie, shrewd political operator, and grieving mother. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the time was right for an anti-slavery novel and Stowe wrote one (though she claimed later that God himself held the pen). But Stowe’s beliefs about slavery’s effects on family did not simply manifest themselves in a fictional story. The brutal facts of slavery did not automatically translate themselves into an effective political tract. The reading public may have been primed and ready for the right anti-slavery story to come along and simply “touch a nerve” or “strike a chord,” but why was this novel the “right” story?

Sales and readership figures demonstrate Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s popular appeal. Readership of the National Era jumped from 17,000 to 28,000 during the story’s serialization. On March 20, 1852, John J. Jewett & Co. published the first one-volume edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and sold 5000 copies in two days. Over 100,000 copies were sold by the end of the summer and 300,000 by March 1853. One southern literary critic credited new technology for the novel’s sales figures, which relied on “steam-presses, steam-ships, steam-carriages, iron roads, electric telegraphs, and universal peace among the reading nations of the earth.” Hundreds of editions and millions of copies have been sold around the world. Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains the world’s second most translated book, after the Bible.

The literary influence of Stowe’s novel is evidenced by the immortality of Uncle Tom, Eliza, Little Eva, Simon Legree, and Topsy. These characters exist beyond Stowe’s tale they have become literary archetypes. Uncle Tom began as a Christ figure—a character like Jesus who loves God, loves his tormentors, turns the other cheek, and shows inhuman forbearance in the face of cruelty—but has been transformed into the perfect, silver-haired, silent, sexless, stalwart servant. Eliza remains, however, the model of the desperate mother who will leap across the ice to save her child. The name “Simon Legree” is shorthand for any cruel overseer. Topsy is the avatar of the mischief-maker, the magic urchin who asserts her own alien status, claiming, “I spect I grow’d. Don’t think nobody never made me.” These characters appeared in popular poems, cartoons, and songs within weeks. Dramatic versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared within months George L. Aiken’s stage production remained the most popular play in England and America for seventy-five years. Henry James compared the many spin-offs Stowe’s novel provoked to “a wonderful leaping fish” that “fluttered down” around the globe. Modern theatergoers may know “The Small Cabin of Uncle Thomas,” the version that appears in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical The King and I.

The political influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be measured by who talked about it or who used it as a rationale for action. Exhibit A is the remark supposedly made by President Lincoln when he met Stowe in 1862: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War.” True or not, its circulation is testament to both Lincoln’s and Stowe’s sense of public relations. Exhibit B is everyone else who saw Uncle Tom’s Cabin as revolutionary. Frederick Douglass wrote of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that “nothing could have better suited the moral and humane requirements of the hour. Its effect was amazing, instantaneous, and universal.” It was banned in the South and nearly banned by the Vatican. It was also banned in tsarist Russia, but apparently Uncle Tom’s Cabin was Lenin’s favorite book as a youth. Woodrow Wilson wrote that Uncle Tom’s Cabin “played no small part in creating the anti-slavery party.” Yet in the twentieth century, Malcolm X suggested that it wasn’t radical enough, claiming that Martin Luther King Jr. was a “modern” Uncle Tom, “who is doing the same thing today, to keep Negroes defenseless in the face of an attack.”

Rather than “a book that made history,” Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a novel that matters because it is still provokes argument. Many modern readers wish Uncle Tom would stop praying and serving and do something. W. E. B. Du Bois saw Tom’s “deep religious fatalism” as an example of the stunted ethical growth endemic to plantation existence, where “habits of shiftlessness took root, and sullen hopelessness replaced hopeful strife.” In Nabokov’s Lolita, the porter who carries the bags to the hotel room where Humbert Humbert will first have his way with his young stepdaughter is called “Uncle Tom.” He will not get involved. Unfounded as the term and the application may be, “Uncle Tom” remains, even today, the standard epithet for any black man who serves whites and does not carry a gun. Indeed, in recent history, the term has been applied to Dr. King, Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, and Barack Obama.

Much of the cussing and discussing of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes from those who haven’t actually read the book. Those who have know that the power of Stowe’s novel resides in the dozens of her characters who enter our consciousness by acting fully human: Senator Bird, who reluctantly agrees that the letter of the Fugitive Slave Law does not trump his Christian duty to break the law and help the runaway Eliza and her son Marie St. Clare, vain and whiny, who sees her daughter Eva’s death as a personal affront Ophelia, the prim Vermonter who finds slavery and blacks equally abhorrent Augustine St. Clare and Arthur Shelby, thoughtful and good-hearted but utterly weak and Sam, whose “comic inefficiency,” critic Kenneth Lynn writes, “no American author before Mrs. Stowe had realized . . . could constitute a studied insult to the white man’s intelligence.” To read and take seriously the entirety of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is to see why it matters not as a historical or political phenomenon but as a relentless and passionate work of literary fiction.

Hollis Robbins is the co-editor with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin (2006) and The Selected Writings of William Wells Brown (2006) with Paula Garret. She is a member of the Humanities Faculty at The Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University.

Suggested Sources

Books and Printed Materials

On Uncle Tom’s Cabin:
Ammons, Elizabeth, ed. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Morgan, Jo-Ann. Uncle Tom's Cabin as Visual Culture. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Hollis Robbins. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007. [Particularly check the suggested readings in this edition.]

On the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850:
Campbell, Stanley W. The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850–1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.

On Harriet Beecher Stowe:
Boydston, Jeanne. The Limits of Sisterhood: The Beecher Sisters on Women’s Rights and Woman’s Sphere. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

White, Barbara Anne. The Beecher Sisters. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Wilson, Robert Forrest. Crusader in Crinoline: The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1941.

On using Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the classroom:
Ammons, Elizabeth, and Susan Belasco, eds. Approaches to Teaching Stowe’s Uncle Tom's Cabin. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2000.


'Uncle Tom’s Cabin' is published - HISTORY

In early 1851, when Harriet Beecher Stowe first imagined writing "some sketches which should show the world slavery as she herself had seen it," [ FIGURE 1 ] she was already an established author.* She had been writing and publishing domestic sketches and stories for many years, since 1834, and a small collection of these had been published as The Mayflower in 1843 over the imprint of Harper & Brothers. Slavery had not been a subject that she had dealt with in her writings, however, but the passage the preceding fall of the Fugitive Slave Act, which enjoined all American citizens, North and South, to act in support in that "peculiar institution" of chattel slavery, [ FIGURE 2 ] meant that the subject was very much on her mind. At the time, she had been contributing sketches to a moderate anti-slavery newspaper, The National Era, published in Washington, D.C., and on 9 March 1851 she wrote to its editor, Gamaliel Bailey, as follows:

At the time Stowe wrote to Bailey, she imagined that her sketch would be ready in two or three weeks and might extend to three or four numbers, but in the event the first installment did not appear until the 5 June 1851 issue of the National Era, and the novel would appear regularly each week, with only three omissions, until 1 April 1852.* [ FIGURE 5 ] As a serial, the novel attracted considerable attention, but it was only when it was published as a book that it would truly take off.

Plans were being made for its book publication as early as summer 1851, when Catharine Beecher, Stowe's older sister and a far more established author, approached the Boston publisher, Phillips, Sampson & Co., to enquire if that firm might be prepared to publish it in book form. That firm declined, however, believing that it would not be a success and that it might "disturb their business relations with the South."* Stowe next turned to another Boston firm, John P. Jewett & Co., which was an established publisher of many religious works representing the evangelical wing of Congregationalism. Jewett had likely met the Beecher family during his brief stint as a publisher in Cincinnati in 1844, since when he had published works by Stowe's brother, Henry Ward Beecher, and husband, Calvin Stowe, and would soon go on to begin publication of the collected Works of her father, Lyman Beecher. On 18 September 1851, the National Era announced that arrangements had been made for Jewett to act as publisher of Uncle Tom's Cabin in book form.*

In September 1851, Stowe had little idea of how long the work would become, though surely it grew beyond both her own and her publisher's expectations. A final contract was not signed until 13 March 1852, only weeks before the work's completion in serial form: Stowe's husband, Calvin, was in charge of the negotiations. At Catharine Beecher's suggestion, Calvin first suggested a half-profits contract, which was highly unusual at the time, but Jewett declined, preferring the standard royalty system, which would pay Stowe a ten percent of the retail price on all copies sold. Calvin was reluctant to agree, and requested a royalty of twenty, or at least fifteen, percent, but again Jewett demurred, claiming that such a high royalty would prevent him from promoting the book adequately. Finally, after consulting with members of the Boston book trade, Calvin agreed to Jewett's terms &mdash a royalty of ten percent &mdash and the book was published on 20 March 1850 [ FIGURE 6 ], twelve days before its serial publication was complete. It appeared in two volumes, with six illustrations, in a choice of three bindings: cloth at $1.50 [ FIGURE 7 ], cloth extra gilt at $2.00 [ FIGURE 8 ], and paper wrapper at $1.00.*

From the beginning, Uncle Tom's Cabin was a hit! The initial printing of 5,000 copies was soon exhausted, and by 1 April 1852 a second printing of 5,000 had appeared. In mid-April, Jewett announced that these two printings had been sold in two weeks and added:

Uncle Tom's Cabin was not only a success as a book, but became a phenomenon. Jewett himself started the trend in July 1852 when he commissioned John Greenleaf Whittier to write "Little Eva Uncle Tom's Guardian Angel," which he published first as sheet music [ FIGURE 13 ], but this was only the first of the many products that the book inspired [ FIGURE 14 ]. Prints, pottery, games, puzzles, dolls, among other things, quickly followed, as well as numerous adaptations, condensations, responses, among many other tie-ins. The work was soon dramatized and went on to become a staple of the American popular theater. In England, the text was first published in early May and became an even greater success: it was later claimed that in September "the London publishers furnished to one house 10,000 copies per day for about four weeks" and that more than a million copies were sold there by year's end, "probably ten times as many as have been sold of any other work, except the Bible and Prayer-book."* Elsewhere, the work was also soon reprinted, both in English and in translation, and one might claim that Uncle Tom's Cabin was the world's first true blockbuster.

But the book's success was qualified. By late spring 1853, Jewett had produced about 310,000 copies of Stowe's text, in various editions, but at that point demand came to an unexpected halt.* No more copies were produced for many years, and if, as is claimed, Abraham Lincoln greeted Stowe in 1862 as "the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war," the work had effectively been out of print for many years.* Jewett, who I believe played an important role in its success through his promotional efforts (he later claimed to have spent many thousands of dollars in advertising), may in the end have made very little profit from the book's publication. He was forced to suspend payment of his debts during the panic of 1857, and in August 1860 his firm ceased publishing.

There is some evidence that Jewett ordered a small printing of Uncle Tom's Cabin in late 1859, though no copy of that printing can now be located.* What is certain is that in June 1860 the rights and plates of Uncle Tom's Cabin passed to another Boston firm, Ticknor and Fields, which had established itself as the leading American publisher of literary works, especially those by New England authors. This firm was, however, in no rush to put the work back in print, and not until November 1862 did it finally issued a small impression of only 270 copies. The following 5 March, Stowe signed a contract with Ticknor and Fields that guaranteed her a royalty of eighteen cents on every copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin sold as long as the copyright of the work remained in force in the United States.*

With its new publisher, demand for Uncle Tom's Cabin increased slowly. During the 1860s, Ticknor and Fields produced only 7,951 copies, which earned Stowe $1,230.30 in royalties [ FIGURE 15 ]. During the 1870s, the original 1852 plates, still in use, produced another 19,458 copies, for which the firm paid Stowe $3,463.38.* During that period, Ticknor and Fields, after the death of William D. Ticknor in 1864 and the retirement of James T. Fields in 1868, was publishing over the imprint of Fields, Osgood & Co. and, later, James R. Osgood & Co. In 1878, just as the original copyright on Uncle Tom's Cabin was due to expire unless renewed, that successor firm's senior partner, James R. Osgood, was forced to join with Hurd & Houghton to form Houghton, Osgood & Co. At this point, it was decided to cast a new set of plates, as the original 1852 plates, which had been used to produced nearly 350,000 copies and were still valued, taking into account the right to publish the work, at $4,524.60 [ FIGURE 16 ], were badly worn and much in need of replacement.*

The new edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin, first published in 1879, repackaged the novel as an American classic. A long introduction, written anonymously by Stowe, stressed the work's national and international impact, first as a force against American chattel slavery, now comfortably in the past, but also as a work that fostered Christian support to suppressed classes around the world, ironically given the failure of Reconstruction and the imminent arrival of the Jim Crow laws that would foster widespread discrimination and violence against African Americans. It was also portrayed as an American classic. Stowe's introduction is supplemented by a bibliographical checklist of foreign editions and translations that had been collected by the British Museum Library compiled by its Keeper of Books, George Bullen [ FIGURE 17 ] &mdash again stressing the work's status not just as an American, but as a world, classic. Twenty-eight years after its original publication and fifteen after President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Stowe's novel was being put to new uses.

These new plates were used to produce Uncle Tom's Cabin in two forms: the red-line "Holiday Edition," which sold for $3.50, and the cheaper "Library Edition" for $2.00 (and, later, for a reprint issued for even less in paper wrappers [ FIGURE 18 ]). Eventually, over 72,000 copies were printed from these plates before they were melted in 1909 [ FIGURE 19 ]. In 1885, another new set of plates were manufactured, and these were used to produce [ FIGURE 20 ] the even cheaper "Popular Edition" for $1.00 in cloth, and fifty cents in paper wrappers. This set of plates was still in use in 1917, by which time it had been used to print over 202,000 copies. During the second half of the nineteenth-century, Uncle Tom's Cabin again achieved broad popular appeal [ FIGURE 21 ]: between 1886 and 1890, Houghton, Mifflin & Co. sold a total of 109,495 copies and paid Stowe $13,324.50 in royalties.*

But all was not well. In March 1892, Houghton, Mifflin had a scare: an article in an obscure periodical, the National Advertiser, entitled "A Remarkable Discovery" announced that Uncle Tom's Cabin "was not, and never has been, legally copyrighted."* Discussions within the firm were already underway about just how to manage the moment in 1893 when the work would enter the public domain, but this announcement called for extraordinary measures. The firm immediately sought legal counsel and secretly sent a staff member to the copyright office at the Library of Congress to determine the true status of the work. These investigations were inconclusive but, putting a bold face on the situation, on 16 April 1892 the firm took out a full-page advertisement in Publishers' Weekly to address it:

These announcements were ingenuous, however, as the true facts in the case showed that the work would enter the public domain, unprotected by copyright, on 12 May 1893, less than a year after this last announcement was published. Facing this unpleasant prospect, the firm decided to follow a strategy that it was also using for Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, another American classic, that went out of copyright in 1892. This involved issuing new editions of Uncle Tom's Cabin in numerous formats and at a variety of prices, from cheap to expensive, in order to blanket the market &mdash a strategy that had been pioneered by Jewett for the holiday season of 1852, when he offered the work in three editions in several bindings, recognizing that the market would sustain multiple editions that appealed to a variety of purchasers. This approach to managing sales only became standard among American publishers after the Civil War, and Houghton, Mifflin hoped that, by providing multiple editions at a range of prices, it could maintain control of the market for Uncle Tom's Cabin after it came out of copyright. Accordingly, in late 1891 the firm had issued a new two-volume deluxe illustrated "Holiday Edition," printed from new plates. At the retail price of $4.00, this was an expensive book, but a $10.00 "Large Paper" limited edition, signed by Stowe, was also issued, printed from the same plates [ FIGURE 22 ]. The real competition, however, would be at the lower end of the market. In February 1892, a second new edition &mdash the "Universal Edition" &mdash was published at 50 cents in cloth, and 25 cents in paper [ FIGURE 23 ], and later that year plans were made for an even cheaper edition. The "Brunswick Edition," priced at only 30 cents in cloth, was finally ready in March 1893. By the time that the copyright expired just a month and a half later, 38,104 copies had been produced.

Initially, Houghton, Mifflin's strategy succeeded. For many years Stowe's royalties on Uncle Tom's Cabin had ranged between $2,000 and $3,000 per annum [ FIGURE 24 | FIGURE 25 ], but in 1892 her earnings were $6,693.77 &mdash chiefly as a result of the recently published "Universal Edition." The publication of the "Brunswick Edition" in 1893, however, brought the sales of the "Universal Edition" to a near halt. Although 53,498 copies of the "Brunswick Edition" were sold by November 1893, its retail price of 30 cents meant that it paid a very low royalty, and Stowe's earnings from Uncle Tom's Cabin fell to only $2,407.51. Although the firm was to remain a major publisher of the work after the copyright expired, the sales of all Houghton, Mifflin editions fell off markedly as they had more and more to compete with a range of new editions published by firms who specialized in cheap reprints &mdash Altemus [ FIGURE 26 ], Burt, Caldwell [ FIGURE 27 ], Coates, Crowell [ FIGURE 28 ], Dominion [ FIGURE 29 ], Donohue, Fenno, Hill, Hurst [ FIGURE 30] , Lupton [ FIGURE 31 ], McKay, Mershon, Neely, Page, People, Rand, Routledge, Warne, and Ziegler &mdash editions from a representative selection of the publishers of cheap books operating at the turn of the century that are listed in The United States Catalog: Books in Print, 1899.* But there were surely others, including copies issued by the Syndicate Publishing Co. [ FIGURE 32 ] and John C. Winston & Co. [ FIGURE 33 ], both of Philadelphia. Stowe's earnings from the authorized editions dropped accordingly: in 1894 her royalties on the work fell to $903.59 the following year to just $696.56 [ FIGURE 34 ].

By the end of the nineteenth century [ FIGURE 35 ], Uncle Tom's Cabin was widely available in a multitude of editions, many very cheap indeed, but who could have forecast its fate during the twentieth century? From American classic &mdash a work of genius, as George Sand had called it &mdash it came to be viewed as an embarrassment: racist, sentimental, and poorly written. Only recently have scholars begun the task of reassessing its place in American literary culture, and it remains to be seen just how it will be evaluated as we continue, during the twenty-first century, to struggle with our vexed history of race relations in the United States.


The Story of Josiah Henson, the Real Inspiration for ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’

From its very first moments in print on March 20, 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a smashing success. It sold 3,000 copies on its first day, and Frederick Douglass reported that 5,000 copies—the entire first print run—were purchased within four days. By May 3, the Boston Morning Post declared that “everybody has read it, is reading, or is about to read it.”

According to reports at the time, it took 17 printing presses running around the clock to keep up with demand. By the end of its first year in print, the book had sold over 300,000 copies in the United States alone, going on to become the best-selling novel of the 19th century.

In Canada, a former enslaved laborer and aging Methodist minister named Josiah Henson—whose life story bore uncanny resemblances to Stowe’s titular character—immediately understood its importance.

The Road to Dawn: Josiah Henson and the Story That Sparked the Civil War

This sweeping biography immortalizes the man who was the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in an epic tale of courage and bravery in the face of unimaginable trials.

Born near Port Tobacco, Maryland, around 1789, Henson’s first memory was of his father being whipped, having his ear cut off, and sold south—all as punishment for striking a white man who had attempted to rape his wife. He never saw his father again.

Henson was later separated from his mother and sold to a child trafficker, but soon fell deathly ill. The slave trader offered the boy to Henson’s mother’s owner, an alcoholic gambler named Isaac Riley, for a bargain: free of charge if the young Henson died, a barter of some horseshoeing work if he survived.

But he did recover, and Henson and his mother were enslaved about 12 miles from Washington, D.C., on Riley’s plantation. He endured countless beatings as a child—especially after an ill-fated attempt to learn to read.

Henson had great physical strength and leadership ability, and eventually became Riley’s market man in the nation’s capital. As the person in charge of selling all his master’s farm produce, he rubbed shoulders with eminent lawyers and businessmen and learned the skills of running a business.

Despite the fact that he wouldn't learn to read until much later in life, Henson also became a great preacher, memorizing verses and relying on his eloquence and natural sense of humor to connect with parishioners. A white minister convinced him to secretly raise money to purchase his own freedom while traveling between the Riley family’s farms. The minister arranged for churches to host Henson, and he raised $350 towards his emancipation, but Riley swindled him out of the money and tried to sell him south to New Orleans. Henson narrowly avoided that harsh fate through a highly providential twist of events: Riley’s nephew Amos, the young man tasked with selling Henson, contracted malaria. Rather than letting the son die, Henson loaded him on a steamship and returned north. In 1830, Henson ran away with his wife and two youngest children they walked more than 600 miles to Canada.

Once in a new land, Henson helped start in 1841 a freeman settlement called the British American Institute, in an area called Dawn, which became known as one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad. Henson repeatedly returned to the U.S. to guide 118 other slaves to freedom. It was a massively dangerous undertaking, but Henson saw a greater purpose than simply living out his life in Ontario, Canada. In addition to his service to the school, Henson ran a farm, started a gristmill, bred horses, and built a sawmill for high-quality black lumber— so good, in fact, that it won him a medal at the first World's Fair in London ten years later.

Before the Civil War, Henson frequently traveled unhindered between Ontario and Boston, where he often preached. During one such trip, Henson befriended the abolitionist Samuel Atkins Eliot, a former mayor of Boston and state legislator Eliot would later serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Impressed with Henson, Eliot offered to pen the story of his life as a memoir. That book, titled The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, was published in early 1849.

Life of Josiah Henson: Formerly a Slave

The character Uncle Tom, fr om Harriet Beecher Stowe's bestselling novel, ""Uncle Tom's Cabin,"" is based on the life of Josiah Henson (1789-1882).

Henson’s book garnered attention at the abolitionist reading room in Boston as well as in like-minded households throughout the North. On one of his trips home from Boston, Henson took a detour to visit a woman who was about to write a book of her own. As a later edition of Henson’s memoir recalls:

“I was in the vicinity of Andover, Mass., in the year 1849, where Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe resided. She sent for me and my travelling companion, Mr. George Clark, a white gentleman, who had a fine voice for singing, and usually sang at my meetings to add to their interest. We went to Mrs. Stowe’s house, and she was deeply interested in the story of my life and misfortunes, and had me narrate its details to her. She said she was glad it had been published, and hoped it would be of great service, and would open the eyes of the people to the enormity of the crime of holding men in bondage. She manifested so much interest in me, that I told her about the peculiarities of many slaveholders, and the slaves in the region where I had lived for forty-two years. My experiences had been more varied than those of the majority of slaves. ”

In March 1851, Stowe wrote to Gamaliel Bailey, editor and publisher of The National Era, a Washington antislavery paper, and offered him the story she had been working on, which she thought would run for three or four installments. The plot, at its most basic, details the journeys of two enslaved laborers on the precipice of being sold off by their owner, a Kentucky farmer in arrears. One, named Harry, flees with his mother, Eliza, to the North, eventually ending up in Canada, while the other, Uncle Tom, is transported down the Mississippi River, where he is eventually sold to a vicious Louisiana plantation owner. Tom’s faith nearly falters, but a pair of visions places him back on firm ground. After encouraging two women to escape north, Tom is beaten to death when he refuses to reveal where they’ve gone an attempt by Tom’s original owner to purchase Tom back arrives too late. Upon returning to Kentucky, the farmer’s son sets all of his late father’s enslaved free, encouraging them to remember Tom’s sacrifice whenever they see his cabin.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin debuted in the Era on June 5, 1851, and it ran in 41 weekly installments over the following ten months, and immediately grabbed the capital city’s attention. The paper’s subscriber base grew by 26 percent, and an estimated 50,000 people read Stowe’s story in serial form, spurring John P. Jewett and Company to publish it as a novel in two volumes of 312 pages each.

Henson wrote of the release: ““When this novel of Mrs. Stowe came out, it shook the foundations of this world… It shook the Americans out of their shoes and of their shirts. It left some of them on the sandbar barefooted and scratching their heads, so they came to the conclusion that the whole thing was a fabrication.”

Indeed, the backlash against the novel came rapidly and rabidly. Critics argued that Stowe’s writing was far too emotional to impact events in the real world. After all, it was a novel. It wasn’t based on facts, they said. And in any case, some said, she’d overlooked many of the “benefits” of slavery, including romantic love between an enslaved woman and her master.

Stowe wasn’t concerned about the politics. To her, an ardent abolitionist and daughter of a world-famous preacher, slavery was a religious and emotional challenge. Her goal, as stated in the first edition preface, was “to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race.” On this point she certainly hit her mark, with many moderate antislavery advocates praising the book for putting a human face on slavery. If the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had been a tipping point, then Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a hard shove toward abolitionism.

A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin Book (Library of Congress) Josiah and his editor John Lobb, likely 1876 (Public Domain, originally from the London School of Photography) Josiah and his second wife Nancy (Library of Congress)

Proslavery advocates saw the novel as sectarian propaganda. They insisted that slavery was sanctioned in the Bible, and that Stowe had fabricated an unrealistic, one-dimensional picture of slavery in the South. Pro-slavery newspapers were mocking and sarcastic in their reviews, which had titles like “More Anti-Slavery Fiction,” “A Few Facts for Mrs. Stowe,” and “Uncle Tom Mania.” Editors lamented that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin seems fated to be an ever-springing fountain of discord,” and “We tremble for the traditional chivalry of the South.”

Rather than letting the media and propagandist anti-Tom novels gain attention and discredit the truths behind her novel, Stowe decided to fight fire with fact. Her response to critics was another book, published in early 1853, called The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon Which the Story Is Founded, Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work. A giant annotated bibliography of her sources, the book pointing to hundreds of documented cases of real-life incidents that were similar or identical to those portrayed in her story.

Stowe had named names. She had described the various people who had inspired the characters of Mr. Haley, George Harris, Eliza, Simon Legree, and the rest. One of those characters, of course, was of particular interest. Who was Uncle Tom?

Stowe wrote in The Key: “The character of Uncle Tom has been objected to as improbable and yet the writer has received more confirmations of that character, and from a great variety of sources, than of any other in the book.” Stowe spends several pages describing the inspiration for various scenes in Uncle Tom’s story, and then she declares: “A last instance parallel with that of Uncle Tom is to be found in the published memoirs of the venerable Josiah Henson . . . now pastor of the missionary settlement at Dawn, in Canada.”

There were significant overlaps between the lives of Josiah Henson and Tom, and readers familiar with Henson’s story immediately saw them. Their real-life and fictional slave owners both separated a mother from her child while she begged him not to tear the family apart. Both Josiah and Tom lived on plantations in Kentucky. Legree constantly beat Tom, and Tom was sold to pay his owner’s debts before being sent to Louisiana, a fate Josiah just barely escaped. Both would cross the Ohio River in their daring escapes. Above all, it was Josiah’s faith in God in the face of hardship that fused him to Stowe’s hero, for both Tom and Josiah were strongly religious men.

The parallels were close enough for prominent African-Americans to take notice. On April 15, 1853, Martin Robison Delany, one of the first three black men admitted to Harvard Medical School, and the only black officer who received the rank of major during the Civil War, wrote a letter to Frederick Douglass in which he confirmed Stowe’s estimation of Josiah. He wrote, “It is now certain, that the Rev. JOSIAH HENSON, of Dawn, Canada West, is the real Uncle Tom, the Christian hero, in Mrs. Stowe’s far-famed book of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’”

Josiah's audience with Queen Victoria on March 5, 1877 (Courtesy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic site)

Delany suggested to Douglass that perhaps Stowe owed Josiah something more substantial than a citation in her book: “Since Mrs. Stowe and Messrs. Jewett & Co., Publishers, have realized so great an amount of money from the sale of a work founded upon this good old man, whose living testimony has to be brought to sustain this great book . . . would it be expecting too much to suggest, that they—the publishers—present Father Henson . . . but a portion of the profits? I do not know what you may think about it but it strikes me that this would be but just and right.”

Not only would Henson—the real Uncle Tom—never receive a dime from Stowe’s publishers, history itself didn’t remember him kindly because of his connection to the fictional hero. After the publication of Stowe’s novel, theater owners adapted the story for the stage, producing “Tom shows,” better known as “minstrel shows” that inverted version the novel’s plot. Played by white men in blackface, Tom was a caricature, an old hunchback with poor English who would happily sell out his own race to curry favor with his owner. Even though the novel was the best-selling book of the century, considerably more people saw one of these racist performances than read the book. That perversion of the name “Uncle Tom,” has stuck ever since.

Among all the readers of Stowe’s Key, there was one whose influence could not be overstated. According to the Library of Congress’s circulation records, President Abraham Lincoln borrowed The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin on June 16, 1862, and returned it 43 days later, on July 29. The dates correspond exactly to the time during which he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. We may never know the degree to which Harriet Beecher Stowe influenced Abraham Lincoln himself. But it is clear that the northern writer used her celebrity platform to powerfully sway public opinion toward emancipation. And during the critical time when Lincoln was crafting the Emancipation Proclamation, he had Stowe’s Key–and Josiah Henson’s story— near at hand.

Which would be fitting as the original offering played a major role in Lincoln’s election. His Republican Party had distributed 100,000 copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin during the presidential campaign of 1860 as a way to stir up abolitionist support. Without the abolitionist press and Stowe’s book, it’s possible that Lincoln would not have garnered enough support to be elected President. As Radical Republican leader and U.S. Senator Charles Sumner declared, “Had there been no Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there would have been no Lincoln in the White House.”

For his part, Henson used the publication of Stowe’s books to agitate for change in the United States. He re-published his memoir and used the funds to purchase his brother’s freedom. He supported black families whose husbands and fathers went off to fight in the Civil War. He ran businesses in Canada to employ black refugees. In 1876, at age 87, Henson did a 100-plus city speaking tour of the United Kingdom to relieve himself of debts shouldered on behalf of the work at Dawn, and Queen Victoria invited him to Windsor Castle. Sixteen years after the Civil War ended, Rutherford B. Hayes entertained him at the White House.

Josiah's cabin (Boom Documentaries)

Henson died in Dresden, Ontario, in 1883 at the age of 93 the New York Times obituary included his literary connection in the first line.

His funeral was one of the largest in Dresden’s history. Bells rang from the churches, and most of the businesses closed for the service. Black musicians performed hymns, and 50 wagons followed his casket in a nearly two-mile procession to the graveside. Thousands of black and white attendees paid their respects.

Henson’s cabin in Dresden is now a small museum, and more than 200 of his descendants are still alive today. The village of Dresden is still home to hundreds of descendants of enslaved laborers, men and women who first settled in the area as fugitives in Josiah Henson’s time.

Though history has been unkind to Uncle Tom, there’s hope that his reputation as a martyr can be resuscitated as readers extricate him from the more negative connotations. Were he still alive today, one would hope Henson could still proudly repeat his words upon learning of his connection to the novel’s hero: “From that time to the present, I have been called ‘Uncle Tom,’ and I feel proud of the title. If my humble words in any way inspired that gifted lady to write… I have not lived in vain for I believe that her book was the beginning of the glorious end.”


Uncle Tom's Cabin: Early and Notable Editions

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of the most influential books in American history, was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) to inform readers of the appalling realities of American slavery. First published in March 1852, the novel quickly became an international bestseller, second only in sales at that time to the Bible.

This collection shows a selection of the early and notable editions of the novel in the Libraries' collections, as well as its interesting publishing history. First published by John P. Jewett & Company, it changed ownership among U.S. publishers at least four times before the copyright expired in 1893. Each publisher also attempted to capitalize on its popularity by publishing new and “special” editions, where new elements, illustrations, and commentary were added. As a result, the novel was a bestseller for well over 30 years after it was first published and has continued to inspire numerous other publications and works of art.

Our exhibition Uncle Tom's Cabin: Early and Notable Editions is on view at the National Museum of African American History and Culture from February 28, 2020 – May 6, 2021.


Theatrical Posters

A black actor, Sam Lucas (for whom the song “Uncle Tom’s Gwine to Stay External ” was written) first played the title role on film in 1914. By 1927, at least seven silent film versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been made. More recently, The King and I — a Broadway play, movie, and animated feature film — contains a stylized version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin within its own story. Over time Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been translated into at least twenty-three languages.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin. [Uncle Tom]. N.Y.: A.S. Seer’s Union Square Print, c1886. Posters: Performing Arts Posters. Prints & Photographs Division George Peck’s Grand Revival of Stetson’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin…[Legree]. N.Y.: A.S. Seer’s Litho. Print, [1886]. Posters: Performing Arts Posters. Prints & Photographs Division George Peck’s Grand Revival of Stetson’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin…[Eliza].. N.Y.: A.S. Seer’s Union Square Print., [1886]. Posters: Performing Arts Posters. Prints & Photographs Division Uncle Tom’s Cabin. [Topsy]. N.Y.: A.S. Seer’s Union Square Print., [1886]. Posters: Performing Arts Posters. Prints & Photographs Division Poster for Production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin External , Monday, September 27 (year unknown). The African-American Experience in Ohio, 1850-1920 External

This poster publicized Harmount’s production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the Wilmington, Ohio, Opera House. Harmount’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin Company, based in Williamsport, Ohio, was a theatrical road show company which operated from 1903-29.

Title Card for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ca. 1910. H. A. Molzon Company. Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Division. The African-American Mosaic

This title card, used in theater lobbies to advertise the film, is from a rare issue of a thirty-minute silent film version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin originally released by Vitagraph Studio in 1910. Directed by J. Stuart Blackton, a noted director of the period, this version featured Maurice Costello, Clara Kimball Young, and Norma Talmadge, all of whom became major stars.

Anthony Burns. John Andrews, engraver Boston, Massachusetts: R. M. Edwards, printer, c1855. Cartoon Prints, American. Prints & Photographs Division


Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Read the text of Uncle Tom’s Cabin HERE as originally released in The National Era. You will find each chapter, followed by commentary, and links to Stowe’s A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and related materials.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) published more than 30 books, but it was her best-selling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin that catapulted her to international celebrity and secured her place in history.

In 1851, Stowe offered the publisher of the abolitionist newspaper The National Era a piece that would “paint a word picture of slavery.” Stowe expected to write three or four installments, but Uncle Tom’s Cabin grew to more than 40.

Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in The National Era (1851)

In 1852, the serial was published as a two-volume book. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a runaway best-seller, selling 10,000 copies in the United States in its first week 300,000 in the first year and in Great Britain, 1.5 million copies in one year. In the 19th century, the only book to outsell Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the Bible.

More than 160 years after its publication, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been translated into more than 70 languages and is known throughout the world.

Since Connecticut was the last New England state to abolish slavery in 1848, Harriet could have been exposed to slavery as a child. Some of Harriet’s earliest memories were of two indentured African American women in her family household, and an African American woman employed by the family. As an adult, Harriet remembered how they comforted her after the loss of her mother.

As a young woman living in Ohio, Harriet traveled to neighboring Kentucky, a state where slavery was legal. There she visited a plantation which would serve as inspiration for the Shelby Plantation in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In Cincinnati, Harriet learned that even discussion of slavery could divide a community: most students at her father’s school, Lane Seminary, left in protest after anti-slavery debates and societies were forbidden.

Later, Stowe heard first-hand accounts from formerly enslaved people and employed at least one fugitive in her home. Her husband and brother helped sheltered a man and helped along the informal underground railroad. And she was appalled by the stories of cruel separations of mothers and children. As a woman who had lost her mother and one of her own children, Stowe felt a kinship with these women.

As she began to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe enlisted friends and family to send her information and scoured freedom narratives and anti-slavery newspapers for first-hand accounts.

In the summer of 1849, Harriet’s 18-month-old son, Samuel Charles, died of cholera. This

Samuel Charles Stowe, 1849

crushing grief was incorporated into Uncle Tom’s Cabin Stowe said it helped her understand the pain enslaved mothers felt when their children were sold away from them.

Then, on September 18, 1850, the U.S. Congress passed the Compromise of 1850. Among its provisions was creation of the Fugitive Slave Law. Although helping those who escaped slavery had been illegal since 1793, the new law required that everyone, including ordinary citizens, help catch alleged fugitives. Those who aided escapees or refused to assist slave-catchers could be fined up to $1,000 and jailed for six months.

After the law’s passage, anyone could be taken from the street, accused of being a fugitive from slavery, and taken before a federally appointed commissioner. The commissioner received $5 by ruling the suspected fugitive person was free, and $10 for ruling the person was “property” of an enslaver. The law clearly favored returning people to slavery. Free blacks and anti-slavery groups argued that the new law bribed commissioners to unjustly enslave kidnapped people.

Stowe was furious. She believed slavery was unjust and immoral, and bristled at an law requiring citizen — including her — complicity. Living in Brunswick, ME while her husband taught at Bowdoin College, Stowe disobeyed the law by hiding John Andrew Jackson, who was traveling north from enslavement in South Carolina. When she shared her frustrations and feelings of powerlessness with her family, her sister-in-law Isabella Porter Beecher suggested she do more: “…if I could use a pen as you can, Hatty, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.”

For more than 200 years, slavery had been common practice in the U.S. Enslaved African-Americans helped build the economic foundations of the new nation and were a driving force in the growing economy. Following the American Revolution, the new U.S. Constitution had tacitly acknowledged slavery, counting each enslaved person as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of taxation and Congressional representation.

Abolitionist sentiment had provoked hostile responses north and south, including violent mobs, burning mailbags of abolitionist literature, and passage of a “gag rule” banning consideration of anti-slavery petitions in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Despite the threat of violent persecution, and her expected role as a respectable woman, Stowe put pen to paper, illustrating slavery’s effect on families and helping readers empathize with enslaved characters.

With the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, critics charged that Stowe had made it all up and that slavery was a humane system. Stowe followed with a nonfiction retort, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), compiling real-life evidence that had informed her novel.

Stowe’s words changed the world, yet the issues she wrote about persist her work provokes us to think and act on issues facing our world today.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe shared ideas about the injustices of slavery, pushing back against dominant cultural beliefs about the physical and emotional capacities of black people. Stowe became a leading voice in the anti-slavery movement, and yet, her ideas about race were complicated. In letters to friends and family members, Stowe demonstrated that she did not believe in racial equality she suggested, for example, that emancipated slaves should be sent to Africa, and she used derogatory language when describing black servants. Even in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe drew on popular and deeply offensive racial stereotypes when describing some of her characters. Though these beliefs seem to contradict Stowe’s commitment to anti-slavery, many white abolitionists believed that slavery was unjust while also believing that white people were intellectually, physically, and spiritually superior to black people.

Other readers questioned Stowe’s authority to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was a Northern white woman writing an exposé of slavery, and people from the 19th century until today have questioned whether she had the ability or right to speak for people of African descent. Though Stowe was earnest in her attempts to portray slavery as it really was—gathering an impressive array of facts, figures, and first-person testimonies to supplement her own observations—she would not have had the same insight or understanding as an enslaved person experiencing those conditions. Her reliance on racial stereotypes exposed her misconceptions about black people, discrediting her authority even more.

Stowe’s position as a white author meant that she had access to larger audiences, and so, even though some doubted her perspective, she was able to reach and influence more people with her powerful argument against slavery.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin opens on the Shelby plantation in Kentucky as two enslaved people, Tom and 4-year old Harry, are sold to pay Shelby family debts. Developing two plot lines, the story focuses on Tom, a strong, religious man living with his wife and three young children, and Eliza, Harry’s mother.

When the novel begins, Eliza’s husband George Harris, unaware of Harry’s danger, has already escaped, planning to later purchase his family’s freedom. To protect her son, Eliza runs away, making a dramatic escape over the frozen Ohio River with Harry in her arms. Eventually the Harris family is reunited and journeys north to Canada.

Tom protects his family by choosing not to run away so the others may stay together. Upon being sold south, he meets Topsy, a young black girl whose mischievous behavior hides her pain Eva, an angelic, young white girl who is wise beyond her years charming, elegant but passive St. Clare, Eva’s father and finally, cruel, violent Simon Legree. Tom’s faith gives him the strength which carries him through years of suffering.

The novel ends when both Tom and Eliza escape slavery: Eliza and her family reach Canada, but Tom’s freedom only comes in death. Simon Legree has Tom whipped to death for refusing to deny his faith or betray the hiding place of two fugitive women.


Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Early and Notable Editions

I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed and broken-hearted with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity – because as a lover of my country, I trembled at the coming day of wrath.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1853
in a letter to Lord Thomas Denman of London, England .

There are varying opinions about the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, yet it is inarguably one of the most influential books in American history . Written by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811 – 1896) to inform readers of the appalling realities of American slavery , i t was first published in March 1852 . The novel quickly became a n international bestseller, second only in sales at that time to the B ible .

So goes the beginning of the introductory text for the current N ational Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) Library exhibit ion , Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Early and Notable Editions . The exhibit ion – which features editions not only from the NMAAHC Library collection, but also from other Smithsonian Libraries’ collections at the National Museum of American History Library , the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology , and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library – was created to highlight the early and notable editions of the novel in our library collections, a nd to reveal its fascinating publishing history.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Early and Notable Editions

I n regard s to this exhibit ion , I have termed “notable” as having distinguishable characteristics , such as particular illustrations, a foreword written by an important or historical figure, or simply the number of sales an edition might have garnered when first published . Be coming a collector’s item in recent years could also make an edition notable.

The idea for this exhibit came about in 2016, at a time when the NMAAHC Library was r ece iving world-wide attention immediately before and after the grand opening of the museum . A s a result , the library was also receiving numerous unsolicited donations of books. At some point I realized the book we received more than any other wa s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and that each time it was a different edition. Matter of fact, after receiving at least six donated copies, none were duplicate editions ! A day or so later I was talking to one of the NMAAHC curators about it, and she said, “ w ell , why not create an exhibit ?”

A while later I began the research for the exhibit ion and I was amazed at not only the number of various editions published in a short period of time, but also at aspects of the book I didn’t truly know (but thought I did) , such as the publis hing history , the public response, the international attention , Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ongoing efforts to promote and defend the book, and the great cultural impact of it on American history – t here’s even a n unsubstantiated but often repeated story that Lincoln once referred to Harriet Beecher Stowe as the “little lady who wrote the book that started this great war.”

First published by the John P. Jewett & Company , the novel changed ownership among U.S. publishers at least four tim es before the copyright expired in 1893. Each publisher also attempted to capitalize on its popularity by publishing new and “special” editions , where new elements, illustrations , and comme ntary were added . As a result, t he novel was a bestseller for well over 30 years after it was first published and since then has continued to inspire numerous other publications and works of art .

Some of the notable editions includ ed in the exhibit ion :

Title page from Aunt Phillis’s cabin

In response to the initial publishing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin , a multitude of other novels were published to defend slavery and the southern image. These novels, which often painted a picture of slavery in opposition to Stowe’s (such as happy slaves who were well-taken care of), became known as the “anti-Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” or often shortened to the “ anti-Toms. ” Aunt Phillis’s Cabin , published just four months after Uncle Tom’s Cabin , was one of the first such novels.

The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Arno Press, 1968 [ Reprint of the 1854 edition published by John P. Jewett & Co., and Jewett, Proctor & Worthington]

Stowe’s critics harshly characterized her novel as propaganda with an inaccurate and unfair portrayal of slavery , and with characters who were not based on research or firsthand account s. Stowe’s response to those critics , The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin , presents the fa cts and research behind the novel.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, Life Among the Lowly / Introduction by Raymond Weaver illustrated with 16 lithographs by Miguel Covarrubias

The Limited Editions Club, 1938

In its great publishing history, numerous versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin have included new illustrations, which is one of the things that might make a particular edition “notable.” Such is the case with this 20 th century edition , richly illustrated with lithographs by Mexican Ame rican artist Miguel Covarrubias.


'Uncle Tom’s Cabin' is published - HISTORY

Excerpts from two reviews of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the first from a Boston journal, the second from The Southern Literary Messenger, published in Richmond.

. The enthusiastic reception of Mrs. Stowe's novel is the result of various causes. One is the merit of the book itself. It is, unquestionably, a work of genius…. It has the capital excellence of exciting the interest of the reader this never stops or falters from the beginning to the end.

But whatever may be the literary merits of Uncle Tom, they do not account for its success.… It is true, that, were Uncle Tom not well written, it would not have produced these effects but the result is so disproportioned to its merit as a work of art, that we must look to other causes. The book has one idea and purpose to which it is wholly devoted. Its sole object is to reveal to the world the nature of American slavery, and thus to promote the cause of abolition.

Another cause of the wide-spread popularity of Uncle Tom is its foundation in truth. It is a highly-colored description of a reality. This is undeniable by any one who can reflect on what must be the consequences of absolute and irresponsible power, bestowed without reference to character. Here is the real source of the power of the work. Were it a mere fanciful picture of ideal scenes, it would have already taken the place of other falsehoods, and been forgotten for it does not pretend to be a work of mere imagination, and if it did, it wants the creative power, the touches of genius, that could give it life as such. If it be not founded on truth, it is nothing….

…We dismiss Mrs. Stowe: and we claim credit for our forbearance in thus resisting the temptation to castigate the improprieties of a woman, who has abandoned the elevated sphere appropriate to her sex, and descended into the arena of civil dissension and political warfare….

We have said that Uncle Tom's Cabin is a fiction. It is a fiction throughout a fiction in form a fiction in its facts a fiction in its representations and coloring a fiction in its statements a fiction in its sentiments a fiction in its morals a fiction in its religion a fiction in its inferences a fiction equally with regard to the subjects it is designed to expound, and with respect to the manner of their exposition. It is a fiction, not for the sake of more effectually communicating truth but for the purpose of more effectually disseminating a slander. It is a fictitious or fanciful representation for the sake of producing fictitious or false impressions. Fiction is its form and falsehood is its end.

Unsigned (probably John R. Thompson), Southern Literary Messenger Review (Richmond, October 1852).


The Impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Was Enormous

As Uncle Tom’s Cabin became the most discussed work of fiction in the United States, there’s no doubt that the novel influenced feelings about the institution of slavery. With readers relating very deeply to the characters, enslavement was transformed from an abstract concern to something very personal and emotional.

There is little doubt that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel helped to move anti-slavery feelings in the North beyond the relatively small circle of abolitionists to a more general audience. And that helped to create the political climate for the election of 1860, and the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln, whose anti-slavery views had been publicized in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates and also in his address at Cooper Union in New York City.

So, while it would be a simplification to say that Harriet Beecher Stowe and her novel caused the Civil War, her writing definitely delivered the political impact she intended.

Incidentally, on January 1, 1863, Stowe attended a concert in Boston held to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Lincoln would sign that night. The crowd, which contained notable abolition activists, chanted her name, and she waved to them from the balcony. The crowd that night in Boston firmly believed that Harriet Beecher Stowe had played a major role in the battle to end slavery in America.


Watch the video: uncletomscabin (May 2022).