The Magazine

The Great American Novel?

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" after a century and a half.

Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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THE CLOSE OF 2002 brings with it the close of the 150th anniversary of the publication of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." But you would hardly have known it from America's premier journals and magazines, which showed little interest in giving "Uncle Tom's Cabin" its due in the course of the year. No other book before or since has had so dramatic an effect on American consciousness--or American history--as Harriet Beecher Stowe's epoch-making novel.

Abraham Lincoln's famous welcome to Stowe when she came to the White House--"So this is the little lady who made this big war"--has the tang of country-boy ribbing, but it also recognizes the impact Stowe had on popular thought and sentiment about slavery. In 1852, its first year in print, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" sold 300,000 copies in the United States and 2.5 million copies around the world. The British found it especially to their liking, perhaps because Stowe's compassion for the downtrodden and eloquent exhortations to do them justice reminded them of Dickens, whom she emulated (and who reciprocated her regard). Russians, too, took it to their sorrowing hearts.

But it was to Americans in particular that Stowe directed her cannonade of black pain and white failure. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" alternates barrages of withering opprobrium with bursts of uplift. By the end of the decade Americans had bought over a million copies of the novel. In the North, her readers came to admit the worst that Stowe told them about themselves, and it is not fanciful to say that many resolved to live and die worthy of the examples of virtue she showed them.

In the South they pronounced her a lying whore who (in the words of poet William Grayson) with prostituted pen assails / One half her country in malignant tales. Reply-novels such as "Aunt Phillis's Cabin" and "The Master's House" defended the South against Stowe's charges of endemic and unconscionable barbarity. In "Life on the Mississippi," Mark Twain laid the blame for the Civil War on Sir Walter Scott, whose chivalric romances thickened the skulls and compressed the brains of the Southland. But the appeal of Scott's medieval fantasies was in part a revulsion against Stowe--a steeling of the Southerners' resolve to live as their fathers had done, which, in turn, convinced the Northerners that such a mode of life could not be tolerated in a nation founded on the principles of equality and freedom.

Stowe drills home her teaching--and if there ever was a novel whose life was inseparable from its message, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is the one--with a tigerish force. The book does not trouble itself with moral nuance and scruple. Some of the white characters are well-meaning weaklings, but most are greedy fools who seize upon the nearest rationalization. To Stowe, the most urgent question facing America admitted only of one answer, and she knew she was chosen--divinely elected--to provide it.

The vision of Uncle Tom's martyrdom came to her one day in church, she said, and the rest of the story fell into place from there; she was also given to declaring that God had written the novel and used her as His amanuensis. (More than one reader has observed that, if such was the case, the weak novels she wrote afterward were strictly her own doing.)

STOWE CONSTRUCTS HER NOVEL along a north-south moral axis. The worst things happen in the deep South, and the best thing that can happen to a slave is to find refuge in Canada. The plot encompasses the descent of Uncle Tom into the infernal pit of bondage at its most cruel--the slavemaster Simon Legree is probably the most notorious literary archvillain since Richard III--and the blessed flight to freedom of the slaves George and Eliza Harris and their young son.

Dastardliness abounds, but every bit as distressing as the raw malignancy is the complicity in evil of ordinary men and women, spiritual mediocrities, who might have lived lives no worse than most but for the baneful institution that corrodes all it touches. Stowe recognizes that the façade of decorousness is the foulest ruse, and that there is really nothing banal about an evil so comprehensively monstrous. "A slave warehouse! Perhaps some of my readers conjure up horrible visions of such a place. . . . But no, innocent friend; in these days men have learned the art of sinning expertly and genteelly, so as not to shock the eyes and senses of respectable society. Human property is high in the market; and is, therefore, well fed, well cleaned, tended, and looked after, that it may come to a sale sleek, and strong, and shining."