Did Uncle Tom’s Cabin Start the Civil War?

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Can a novel really start a war? Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe may have done just that. According to the Library of Congress, when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe at the White House in 1862, the legend is that Lincoln said, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.” Whether or not Lincoln actually said that, there is no question that Stowe’s novel was a catalyst for the Civil War.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was originally published in 1851 in installments in an abolitionist newspaper, The National Era. As detailed in Stowe’s biography by the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, the publisher asked Stowe to write a story that would “paint a word picture of slavery.” The more than 40 chapters Stowe wrote became popular as they were passed from reader to reader. The stories caught the attention of publishers. In 1852 the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in a two-volume set that sold 10,000 copies in the first week and 300,000 copies in the first year. In Great Britain, the novel sold 1.5 million copies the first year. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the second best-selling book of the 19th century, surpassed only by the Bible. The novel dramatically shifted public opinion on the issue of slavery. More than 170 years later, the book has been translated into 70 languages.

In the canon of African-American literature, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has had its ups and downs in popularity and acceptance as a seminal work. Some of the criticism includes the fact that the book was written by a white woman who lived in Maine when she wrote the book. Another problem that has skewed the reputation of the book is the slang term “Uncle Tom” used to describe an African-American who pleases white people. The term is an erroneous perception of the title character. In the book, Uncle Tom is a martyred hero. He is whipped to death by his sadistic owner Simon Legree for refusing to disclose the hiding place of two escaped women slaves whom Legree sexually abused.

In a 2008 NPR interview, Patricia Turner, Professor of African-American and African Studies at University of California at Davis sheds light on how Uncle Tom became an insult. Turner explains that after the novel was a runaway bestseller, plays based on the book were created. The plays toured the U.S. under the title “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Producers of the shows did not think audiences would accept the character of the slave Uncle Tom as a hero. To sell tickets, the producers changed the story and the character of Uncle Tom. They turned Uncle Tom into a minstrel show character who curried favor with his white master. The stereotype designed to please white audiences was spread across the country by the traveling shows and Uncle Tom eventually became a slur that eclipsed the heroic image of Uncle Tom in the novel.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin has also been criticized for being sentimental and less than literary in style. The sentimental novel was the most popular literary form of its time. The fact remains that Uncle Tom’s Cabin still satisfies readers. The book has been called “the most important novel in American history” by Slate. Goodreads describes Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “a compelling adventure story with richly drawn characters.”

The traveling shows that distorted Uncle Tom’s Cabin functioned as the pop culture of their day. Readers who return to the original text will meet the real Uncle Tom and will be rewarded by a good read of a book that changed the world.

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