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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

7. Slavery and

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Authors: Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)

Uncle Tom's Cabin
[1328] A. S. Seer, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1879), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-13513].

Harriet Beecher Stowe Activities
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Harriet Beecher Stowe was born into a large New England religious family. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a prominent Evangelical Calvinist minister, and her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, followed in their father's footsteps to become one of the best-known preachers in the country. Stowe's oldest sister, Catharine Beecher, ran a succession of girls' schools and gained national recognition for her theories of education, health, and domestic economy. When the family moved west to Cincinnati in 1832, the Beecher sisters founded a new religious school for young women. Because Ohio was a border state between North and South, Stowe met fugitive slaves and encountered fierce debates over slavery while she lived there, ultimately leading her to adopt the abolitionist cause.

In 1836, Harriet Beecher married Calvin Stowe, a widower and professor of biblical studies at a seminary in Cincinnati. She soon found herself overwhelmed by domestic concerns, raising seven children and managing a large household on a professor's small salary. To supplement the family's finances, Stowe published stories and sketches in magazines. In 1850, the Stowes moved back to New England when Calvin Stowe accepted a teaching job first in Maine and later in Massachusetts. Stowe's commitment to the abolitionist cause remained fierce, and, spurred by her outrage at the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, she resolved to "write something that will make the whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is." Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared in 1851 in serial form in the weekly anti-slavery journal The National Era. It was published as a book the following year.

Although Stowe had set out to "make the whole nation feel" the horrors and injustice of slavery, she could not have anticipated the enormous and unprecedented impact her novel would have on the national psyche. Uncle Tom's Cabin sold over 350,000 copies in its first year of publication, and only the Bible sold more copies in the United States during the nineteenth century. The novel appealed to a wide audience by drawing upon mainstream religious and cultural beliefs: Stowe mobilized evangelical doctrine and the ideal of domesticity to argue that slavery was both unchristian and destructive to family life. Above all, Stowe intended to convince the nation that slavery was a sin that harmed both slaves and the souls of slave owners. By treating human beings as property that could be bought and sold, slavery separated husbands and wives and parents and children, thus standing in opposition to both familial and Christian love. Using sentimental rhetoric and melodramatic situations, and writing in clear, accessible language, Stowe appealed to her culture's investment in the sacredness of home, family, and Christian salvation. The strategy was effective; when she visited the White House in 1862, President Lincoln is said to have remarked, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this big war."

Whether or not Uncle Tom's Cabin was responsible for the Civil War, there is no denying that it brought slavery to the forefront of American consciousness. The novel has caused controversy since its publication, when southerners attempted to ban it and some northerners viewed it as inflammatory. In the twentieth century, the literary establishment has criticized Uncle Tom's Cabin for its unsophisticated sentimentality and emotionalism, its reliance on offensive racial stereotypes, its reinforcement of traditional gender roles, and its colonialist project of forming a separate state for free blacks in Africa. However out of touch the book is with contemporary values, Stowe's unparalleled ability to move readers--and effect social change--remains a testament to the power and importance of her first novel.

Uncle Tom's Cabin not only made Stowe famous, but also brought her enough wealth to free her from economic and domestic cares. She continued writing through the nineteenth century, producing many more novels and serving as an influential spokesperson on national affairs, literature, spirituality, and domestic practices.

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