A Reaction To Uncle Tom’s Cabin Lauren Richmond History 201 April 1, 1999 A Reaction to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin “So this is the little lady who made this big war.” Abraham Lincoln’s legendary comment upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe demonstrates the significant place her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, holds in American history. Published in book form in 1852, the novel quickly became a national bestseller and stirred up strong emotions in both the North and South. The context in which Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written, therefore, is just as significant as the actual content. Among other things, Stowe’s publication of her novel was stimulated by the increasing tensions among the nation’s citizens and by her fervent belief that slavery was brutally immoral. While she was still young, Harriet’s family moved from Hartford, Connecticut to Cincinnati, Ohio. At the time, Cincinnati was a battleground for pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces, as well as being a city of religious revivalism, temperance conflicts, and race riots. Her father was a congregationalist minister and her oldest sister, Catherine, was a writer on social reform questions.
It is not surprising, therefore, that because of her environment, Harriet became involved in movements emphasizing the moral injustice of slavery. Probably the most significant influence on Harriet’s writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, however, was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1950. Under the law, people who assisted a runaway slave could receive a fine of $1,000 and six months in prison. Naturally, the statute broadened the slavery debate by involving the northern states in the apprehension of runaway slaves. The North, who had previously adopted a “not-our-problem” attitude toward slavery, now was forced into a direct role in its propagation. These influences were directly responsible for Stowe’s creation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its characters, which in her final chapter are revealed to have been, in one sense or another, factual representations.
The separate instances that compose the narrative are, to a very great extent, authentic, occurring, many of them, either under (my) own observation or that of (my) personal friends. (Myself or my friends) have observed characters the counterpart of almost all that are here introduced; and many of the sayings are word for word as heard myself. (p. 475) Her motivation for writing the novel, however, was thoroughly rooted in Christian indignation. In Stowe’s preface to the novel she said that “under the allurements of fiction, (we) breathe a humanizing and subduing influence, favorable to the development of the great principles of Christian brotherhood.
(p. 3)” She sought to correct a cruel practice and to bring “to the knowledge of the world the lowly, the oppressed, and the forgotten. (p. 3)” The unexpected success of the novel was partially due to innovations in printing, which made possible the mass production and distribution of inexpensive editions. Also at this time was a wave of educational developments, driving the literacy rate upwards into unprecedented numbers.
Because of the availability of the novel and the great increase in the reading population, there was no corner of the United States that was not reached by Stowe’s moral voice. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written in a rather empathetic tone, forcing the American public to view the black slaves as human beings, at least for the purpose of reading the novel. A southern slave-owner who read the book would be compelled to slip into the lives of his slaves, perhaps unwillingly, and view the institution from the opposing angle. In this respect was Stowe unfailingly successful. She appealed to the maternal emotions of her readers, and characterized the black population with qualities similar to that of innocent children.
This characterization, therefore, made for a powerful argument against slavery. Stowe’s characters were perhaps too dynamic, but this is a literary technique designed to further arouse the emotions of her readers. For the most part, many of the white women in the novel act as (an exaggerated) moral authority, thus compensating for the abominable “sins” of their husbands, fathers, brothers, etc. Likewise, the characteristics of the slaves were also exaggerated. They were represented as overwhelmingly loyal, clever, and pious, with Stowe therefore creating an implicit tone of victimization.
The novel’s tone was rather significant, because although many people did consider the slaves as inferior, they had never before realized that these plantation hands were actually victims. Such was the effect of Stowe’s characterization of the black protagonists versus the white antagonist institution. Undoubtedly the timing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin further entrenched the nation into a vicious cold war within it’s own borders. For several years the south’s economy slowly had been shifting away from cotton, causing widespread financial instability. Because the south then blamed the north for this unwelcome shift, trade between the north and the expanding west became considerably more lucrative.
The increased interdependence between the north and west was also reflected in the ongoing slave debate. The nation previously had been divided into an equal number of both slave and free states, but with the unexpected western expansion the equilibrium became precariously unstable. Both south and north vied to extend their interests, i.e. slavery or no slavery, into the west, with the south becoming increasingly more unsatisfied with the results. The publication of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, therefore, perhaps helped to shift not only the west, but also the nation’s public opinion against the institution of slavery. Because it was such a turbulent period in American history, it is reasonable to conclude that the very context in which Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written is just as significant as what was written.
While the content of the novel produced strong emotions, the context determined how the reading public would react to them. Stowe deliberately manipulated the content to generate a public reaction, and almost 140 years later, Uncle Tom’s Cabin continues to provide this forum to its readers, including myself. My initial reaction to Uncle Tom’s Cabin purely as a literary piece was a combination of confusion, embarrassment, and perhaps slight boredom. At several points throughout the novel I became somewhat confused at whether the narrator was nonpartisan. It appeared that Stowe sometimes allowed her own voice to penetrate the actual story, which can cause some confusion as to the credibility of the incidents in the novel.
Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I also felt somewhat embarrassed. My embarrassment stems from a more psychological root, which causes me to feel somehow responsible for the injuries caused to another race. Although I of course realize that I was born over 100 years after slavery was abolished, to an extent the novel developed within me feelings of personal accountability. I can therefore understand perhaps why Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a similar effect on the American population before the civil war. The novel bored me however, not because the plot was uninteresting, but because Stowe’s writing style was rigidly formal. For example, it was difficult to recognize the several humorous instances in the book until I had re-read the passages several times.
By that time, I was too mentally exhausted to appreciate any comical situation. I do realize, though, that her writing technique was perfectly suitable for a 19th century audience. Throughout the novel, Stowe consciously creates characters that are either exceedingly virtuous or awfully depraved. It is therefore predictable as to whom readers will elect as their favorite and least favorite individuals. Most likely people immediately admire the hero of the novel, Uncle Tom, as well as the angel-like child, Eva.
These characters are intended to be paragons of Christian virtue, and are clearly contrasted with the less agreeable characters of Mr. Haley and Simon Legree. While reading the novel, however, I found additional characters that are equally admirable (or nefarious), particularly because they display more realistic human qualities. I personally favored George Shelby, son of Arthur and Emily Shelby, Mr. Wilson, former employer of slave George Harris, and Cassy, slave of Simon Legree. These characters, although they have flaws, still maintain an element of innate decency, and therefore appear as more authentic representations of the southern population.
When George Shelby st …