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The Unexpected Mrs. Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe, an extraordinary member of an extraordinary family, always claimed that God wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin
August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
The truth is, the subject of the book had been all around her for a very long time. Old Lyman had been able to make Litchfield farmers weep when he preached on slavery. In Cincinnati she had opened her own Sunday school to black children, and the Lane Seminary had been a hotbed of abolitionist fervor. The Underground Railroad, she later claimed, went directly through her Cincinnati house, which was a bit of an exaggeration; but on one occasion Calvin and her brother Charles did indeed help a black woman and her child elude a slave hunter. The only time she was in an actual slave state, during a visit across the Ohio River in Kentucky, she made no show of emotion about it. But stories she heard from the Negro women she knew in Cincinnati moved her enormously, particularly those told by a gentle person named Eliza Buck, who helped her with housework and whose children, Harriet Stowe discovered with incredulity, had all been fathered by the woman’s former master in Kentucky. “You know, Mrs. Stowe,” she had said, “slave women cannot help themselves.”
Eliza Buck told her of lashings and of Negro families split up and “sold down the river.” Once on an Ohio River wharf Mrs. Stowe had seen with her own eyes a husband and wife torn apart by a slave trader.
By the time she came east to Maine, Henry Ward was using his Brooklyn pulpit to raise money to buy children out of slavery. In Boston she and Edward had talked long and emotionally about the Fugitive Slave Bill, then being debated in Congress, which made it a federal crime to harbor or assist the escaped “property” of a slave master. Her duty was plain. There was, she said, a standard higher than an act of Congress.
She did some research in Boston and corresponded with Frederick Douglass on certain details. But for all that, the book would be written more out of something within her, something she knew herself about bondage and the craving for liberation, than from any documentary sources or personal investigation of Negro slavery in the South. Indeed she really knew very little about Negro slavery in the South. Her critics would be vicious with her for this, of course, and she would go so far as to write a whole second book in defense of her sources. But Uncle Tom’s Cabin could never be accounted for that way.
There is probably something to the story that she began the book as a result of a letter from Edward’s wife. “Hattie,” wrote her sister-in-law from Boston, “if I could use the pen as you can, I would write something that will make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.” To which Hattie answered, “As long as the baby sleeps with me nights, I can’t do much at anything, but I will do it at last. I will write that thing if I live.”
The story appeared first as a serial in the National Era , an antislavery paper, beginning in June, 1851. It took her a year to write it all, and apparently she did Uncle Tom’s death scene first and at a single sitting, writing on brown wrapping paper when her writing paper ran out. The finished story was brought out in book form by the publisher, John P. Jewett, in two volumes on March 2O, 1852, a month before the serialized version ended.
Calvin thought the book had little importance. He wept over it, but he wept over most of the things she wrote. Her publisher warned that her subject was unpopular and said she took too long to tell her story. On the advice of a friend who had not read the manuscript, she decided to take a 10 per cent royalty on every copy sold instead of a fifty-fifty division of profit or losses, as had also been offered to her.
She herself expected to make no money from it; she thought it inadequate and was sure her friends would be disappointed with her. Within a week after publication ten thousand copies had been sold. The publisher had three power presses running twenty-four hours a day. In a year sales in the United States came to more than three hundred thousand. The book made publishing history right from the start. In England, where Mrs. Stowe had no copyright and therefore received no royalties, sales were even more stupendous. A million and a half copies were sold in about a year’s time. The book appeared in thirty-seven different languages. “It is no longer permissible to those who can read not to have read it,” wrote George Sand from France, who said Mrs. Stowe had no talent, only genius, and called her a saint.
The book had a strange power L over almost everyone who read it then, and for all its Victorian mannerisms and frequent patches of sentimentality much of still does. Its characters have a vitality of a kind comparable to the most memorable figures in literature. There is sweep and power to the narrative, and there are scenes that once read are not forgotten. The book is also rather different from what most people imagine, largely because it was eventually eclipsed by the stage version, which Mrs. Stowe had nothing to do with (and from which she never received a cent) and which was probably performed more often than any play in the language, evolving after a fewyears into something between circus and minstrel show. (One successful road company advertised“…a pack of genuine bloodhounds; two Toppsies; Two Marks, Eva and her Pony ‘Prince’; African Mandolin Players; ‘Tinker’the famous Trick Donkey.”) In the book, for example, no bloodhounds chase Eliza and her baby across the ice.