The History of Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe Essay
Uncle Tom is probably the most important single book written in the United States of America. No one is really familiar with American culture, literature, relgion, and history if she or he has not read Uncle Tom.
To understand this book, I would urge people to consult Eric J. Sundquist's book New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin (The American Novel) and Jane Tompkin's Sensational Designs. The 19th Century world and reader that Stowe aimed at read and understood things so differently, that you will miss much without knowing how to look at this book the way Stowe wrote to them and the way they read.
This book has a broad purpose: literary to decide what is wrong with the entire world and present an answer. If you follow the sweep of the book you will find Stowe takes on everything from whether the issues of the 1848 revolutions can be resolved on the side of Democracy, to the question of marital relations amogn the free and the white. The issue of slavery is not the book's only focus. It is, in fact, the solution.
Stowe's real thesis here is that American Chattel slavery is the number one evil in the world, that this evil corrupts every institution in society North and South and corrupts far beyond the borders of the United States, and that no compromise with it or avoidance of it is possible.
To Stowe, slavery is an abomination not just because of the cruelty, savagery, exploitation, and degradation involved, but above all, it is an abomination against God, the most unChrist-like behavior possible.
Thus the relgious solution she offers is to become more Christlike in your opposition to slavery and to finally undergrow the Christic experience of dying for your sins and being reborn in Jesus Christ. That's right, in Stowe's time evangelical Christianity, rather than being a fob for right-wing politics, was practiced by some of the militant and serious opponents of slavery.
Stowe creates figures that are Christlike who like Christ die rather than yield to sin and influence the others in their faith. The supreme figure is of course Uncle Tom. Uncle Tom, as a a pejorative, comes not from this novel, but from the Tom shows that blossomed in the late 19th century which were a presentation of a mock version of this story with racist minstrel like charicatures of the African American characters.
In this book, Uncle Tom is a physically majestic, heroic, dignified person, whose faith and dignity are never corrupted, whose death is shown as a parallel to that of Christ in the resurrection of the souls of all around him required to eliminate Slavery. If he is passive, never disobeys his masters, and seems to have not much of a material interest of his own in life, it is because to Stowe this a reflection of his Christic nature.
No doubt at best Stowe sees him as a "noble savage" at Best. There is no doubt if one reads this book and even more clearly Stowe's Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin which provided documentation for this book's depiction of slavery, that it is clear that Stowe did not believe African Americans were equal to whites. Her then-current immigrationist views are expressed in the way the one intelligent independently acting Black couple presented here leave the US for Canada once they escape slavery.
Yet, this book accomplished the purpose it had. It galvanized millions of Americans and more millions around the world to dramatically oppose slavery. Uncle Tom was one of the first true international best sellers. In a smaller country, where literacy was lower, and when many people bought books through private libraries where families shared books and the book was often read to family gatherings rather than by one person, Uncle Tom sold two hundred thousand copies in its first year and sold a million copies between its publication and the civil war.
Stowe was honest in her afterward and in other writings to say that her description of slavery in Uncle Tom is much prettier and more nicer than slavery was. She believed an accurate depiction of slavery--Stowe had lived in Cincinatti on the board with slaving Kentucky and traveled through the South--would be so revolting that her target audience of Northern whites would not read this book.
Her book launched a torrent of responses from white southerners as could be expected. However, the popularity of her book encouraged white authors, but especially Black authors to write antislavery books that responded to Stowe. Some of the foundations of Black American literature by authors like Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Harriet Jacobs, and Martin Delany are essentially response to Uncle Tom.
Perhaps the most dramatic is Delany's Blake or the Huts of America whose character is a double to Uncle Tom. However, Delany's hero does not submit to being sold "down the river." He instead runs away and travels throughout the US following the same course as the travels in Uncle Tom showing how slave conditions are so much worse than Stowe showed. Finished with that business, Blake leaves the United States for Cuba where he becomes part of a group of Afro-Cubans unwilling to suffer like Christ and Uncle Tom. Like the current leaders of Cuba, they start to organize an international revolution of Slaves and the oppressed!