Uncle Tom's Cabin - Fiction as a Catalyst for Fact
The Origins of a Living Document
North and South Polarized: Critics Respond
The Abolitionist Debates
The Tom Caricature
The Greatest Impact
The Origins of a Living Document
In her own words, Harriet Beecher Stowe was compelled to pen Uncle Tom's Cabin "....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."1 Stowe was born in Litchfield, Connecticut on June 14th, 1811. Her strong moral convictions may be attributed to the fact that she was raised as the daughter of a well-known Congregationalist minister, Lyman Beecher.
Harriet was the seventh of nine children, which certainly implies an instilled sense of tolerance, fairness and sharing throughout her upbringing. Her brother Henry was also a popular preacher as well as a leader of the abolitionist movement. Ms. Stowe was privileged to be an educated woman, attending school and later teaching at the Hartford Female Academy, which was founded by her sister Catherine Beecher in 1823. While teaching, she wrote stories and created illustrations for local journals. Throughout her lifetime, she would publish more than thirty works, but it was Uncle Tom's Cabin that made her a household name. Harriet Stowe's real exposure to the issue of slavery and views on abolition came firsthand in Cincinnati where she later taught, and where she encountered fugitive slaves and learned about life on the other side of the Ohio River, spawning the impetus for Uncle Tom's Cabin.2
Initially serialized in 1851 in over 40 installments over a period of ten months in the weekly anti-slavery newspaper The Washington National Era for with Ms. Stowe received remuneration of $300, then published in 1852 as a book, Uncle Tom's Cabin was an immediate success, selling 10,000 copies within days and nearly 1.5 million worldwide, rivaling in sales for its time only the bible (Boydston, Kelley, Margolis).3 The notion of the abolition of slavery during the time of Ms. Stowe's novel was by no means a consensus: in fact, it was a topic of significant debate.
The Southern plantation owners deftly clung to the economics of their ability to utilize slaves as farm workers, while the majority of Northern abolitionists favored an end to the de-humanizing practice of engaging in the commerce of human beings. Ms. Stowe, intending to expose the historical truth of slavery's horrors, opened Pandora's proverbial box on the issue and started a movement in society and the arts that adapted the text of Uncle Tom's Cabin as its own, spawning differing views, slants on characters and an overall plethora of versions of the original story.
Uncle Tom's Cabin emerged as a novel, but soon transformed itself into a cultural icon whose text was created and recreated by its readers, adapters, and its foremost opponents, polarizing the abolitionist debate. The responses to and adaptations of the text provided a means by which the novel assumed a principal role in American culture through various media: the theatre, film, posters, paintings, follow-on writings, essays and press coverage. The way its readers articulated and reconstructed the text brought on a range of social and political meanings and results.
In what way did this text change the traditional relationship between reader and the novel? The reader became the author, interpreter, director, actor, witness and part and parcel of the story. The story, instead of being about life, became life, and life in turn became its own version of the story. In this context of slavery, religion, melodrama, and family crisis, Uncle Tom's Cabin can be viewed as a cultural pattern instead of an isolated work. Almost as soon as it was published as a novel, Stowe's story was adapted for the American stage; from 1852 until well into the twentieth century, adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin were among the most popular productions that a theater company could stage. Stowe, however, never condoned nor participated in developing the productions, nor did she earn any money from these adaptations.
The chronicle of the trail from the first adaptation of the Uncle Tom's Cabin in print to the living, breathing persona of the stage reveals a production that caught on like wildfire, as evidenced by the following listing of stage performances and subsequent press reviews that occurred throughout the United States between 1852 and 1928:4
One of the most widely quoted and outspoken critics of the theatrical debut of Stowe's conception is James Gordon Bennet of the Herald who stated the following in his September 1852 review:
The furore which it has thus created, has brought out quite a number of catchpenny imitators, pro and con, desirous of filling their sails while yet the breeze is blowing, though it does appear to us to be the meanest kind of stealing of a lady's thunder. This is, indeed, a new epoch and a new…