Uncle Tom's America

First published in serial beginning in 1851 by The National Era, Uncle Tom's Cabin was released in book form in March, 1852 to immediate popular success. Within the first week it had sold 10,000 copies and by the close of the first year the total had reached 300,000. Although here I concentrate only on the novel, book sales tell only part of the story of the extent of Uncle Tom's hold on the American imagination. With "Tom Shows" and widespread marketing of "Tomitudes," Stowe's story (or, rather, more or less significantly modified versions of her story) became an American institution.

To remain with the book Stowe wrote, however, is to explore a riveting narrative with a profoundly reformist message. The immediate impetus for writing the story was a letter from Stowe's sister-in-law, Isabella Beecher, in which she wrote from Boston of the abuses taking place there in the name of the Fugitive Slave Law. She urged her husband's sister to action, "Now, Hattie, if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is."1 Stowe's son later remembered her rising "up from her chair" and declaring "I will write something. I will if I live." 2 But as Jane P. Tompkins notes in her essay "Uncle Tom's Cabin and Literary History", "The novel's deepest political aspirations are expressed only secondarily in its devastating attack on the slave system; the true goal of Stowe's rhetorical undertaking is nothing less than the institution of the kingdom of heaven on earth." 3 And the kingdom of heaven, as Stowe and Catharine Beecher would write in The American Woman's Home (1869), had as its "aptest earthly illustration" the family state, with woman as "its chief minister." 4 Uncle Tom's Cabin is indeed a crusade to reform American society - the reform it urges does not stop at abolition but goes beyond to the upending of the patriarchal social system.

This goal is articulated in Stowe's depiction of the Quaker settlement. There Rachel Halliday's Christian motherliness is not only a comfort for the worried Eliza, it dictates the hearts of all who live there, and is "a living Gospel" which has the power to clean George Harris of his "dark, misanthropic, pining atheistic doubts." (p.224)

1. As quoted in Joan Hedrick, HBS A Life, p. 207.

2. ibid.

3. Jane P. Tompkins, "Uncle Tom's Cabin and Literary History," in the Norton Critical UTC, p518.

4. Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, The American Woman's Home, p19.