Uncle Tom's Cabin Author/Context
Anti-slavery activist and writer Harriet Beecher Stowe could not have foreseen the phenomenal impact and undying controversy that still surrounds "Uncle Tom's Cabin," her first and most famous novel. The book, which first appeared in sections in the anti-slavery periodical The National Era, immediately set off a firestorm of controversy and heated debate about the moral consequences of owning slaves. Its publication galvanized the anti-slavery movement in America to such an extent that President Lincoln, upon meeting Stowe, jokingly suggested that she started the Civil War.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was born on June 14, 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut, one of nine children of the famous Puritan preacher and educator Lyman Beecher and his first wife, Roxanna Foote Beecher. She moved with her family in 1832 to Cincinnati, Ohio, and there she married Calvin Ellis Stowe in 1836. Through her father's work, Stowe became involved in religious and moral thought as a young child, which continued after her marriage when her husband eventually became a professor of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati.
Stowe's first novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, is also her most famous. Stowe began writing the novel at the urging of her sister, who asked Stowe to use her writing talents in the cause of eradicating slavery. The death of her youngest child from cholera also motivated her, as she began to fully sympathize with the plight of slave mothers whose children were sold away from them. She began writing the novel after the family moved to Brunswick, Maine, where her husband had been appointed to the faculty of Bowdoin College. The novel first appeared in installments in The National Era in 1851-1852 and appeared in book form in 1852. Within a year, the novel had reached sales of 300,000, and in England, sales had reached 1,000 copies per week by August of 1852. Stowe could not have foreseen the book's immediate and controversial impact.
From the second it was published, the book galvanized anti-slavery opinion in the north and angered readers in the South. The book endured its share of critical drubbings as well, including a review from The London Times that claimed the book would only appeal to readers with strong hearts and weak intellects. But the book's impact was immediate and astonishing, creating a public reaction that cemented the book's status in American literature as a work that would endure and survive as far more than mere anti-slavery propaganda. The book's success was so surprising to Stowe, she claimed that she did not write the book so much as take dictation from God.
Despite her clear anti-slavery position, Stowe and her novel continue to draw intense criticism for the novel's condescending portrayal of blacks. While some educators have stressed the importance of understanding the time period in which the novel was written (when views toward racial equality were not nearly as progressive as they are today), others have been unable to forgive her simplistic and often startlingly insulting portrayals of black characters. The book's literary merits have also been debated from the time it was first published; it received several negative reviews, and many critics today do not consider the novel to be a remarkable aesthetic achievement.
Stowe's life before and after the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin was tumultuous, marked by poverty, ill health, and the deaths of two of her children. Though she attained financial success after the publication of the book, its sequel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, was not nearly as successful. After its publication, she began writing novels set in New England, including The Minister's Wooing, Oldtown Folks, and Poganuc People. She died in Hartford, Connecticut on July 1, 1896.
Adams, John R. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.
Crow, Martha Foote. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Biography For Girls. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1913.
Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition, Volume 25. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Incorporated, 1994.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1995.