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Uncle Tom's Cabin Uncle Tom's Cabin
by The Ovi Team
2018-03-20 09:34:09
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uncletom01_400March 20th 1852; Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is published. Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly is an anti-slavery novel by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Published in 1852, the novel "helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War", according to Will Kaufman.
 
Stowe, a Connecticut-born teacher at the Hartford Female Academy and an active abolitionist, focused the novel on the character of Uncle Tom, a long-suffering black slave around whom the stories of other characters—both fellow slaves and slave owners—revolve. The sentimental novel depicts the reality of slavery while also asserting that Christian love can overcome something as destructive as enslavement of fellow human beings.
 
Uncle Tom's Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, and the second best-selling book of that century, following the Bible. It is credited with helping fuel the abolitionist cause in the 1850s. In the first year after it was published, 300,000 copies of the book were sold in the United States alone. In 1855, three years after it was published, it was called "the most popular novel of our day." The impact attributed to the book is great, reinforced by a story that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the Civil War, Lincoln declared, "So this is the little lady who started this great war." The quote is apocryphal; it did not appear in print until 1896, and it has been argued that "The long-term durability of Lincoln's greeting as an anecdote in literary studies and Stowe scholarship can perhaps be explained in part by the desire among many contemporary intellectuals ... to affirm the role of literature as an agent of social change."
 
The book, and even more the plays it inspired, also helped popularize a number of stereotypes about black people, many of which endure to this day. These include the affectionate, dark-skinned "mammy"; the "pickaninny" stereotype of black children; and the Uncle Tom, or dutiful, long-suffering servant faithful to his white master or mistress. In recent years, the negative associations with Uncle Tom's Cabin have, to an extent, overshadowed the historical impact of the book as a "vital antislavery tool."

Stowe, a Connecticut-born teacher at the Hartford Female Academy and an active abolitionist, wrote the novel as a response to the 1850 passage of the second Fugitive Slave Act. Much of the book was composed in Brunswick, Maine, where her husband, Calvin Ellis Stowe, taught at his alma mater, Bowdoin College.

Stowe was partly inspired to create Uncle Tom's Cabin by The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself the 1849 autobiography of Josiah Henson, an enslaved black man who lived and worked on a 3,700 acre (15 km²) tobacco plantation in North Bethesda, Maryland owned by Isaac Riley. Henson escaped slavery in 1830 by fleeing to the Province of Upper Canada (now Ontario), where he helped other fugitive slaves arrive and become self-sufficient, and where he wrote his memoirs. Stowe eventually acknowledged that Henson's writings inspired Uncle Tom's Cabin. When Stowe's work became a best-seller, Henson republished his memoirs as The Memoirs of Uncle Tom, and travelled extensively in the United States and Europe. Stowe's novel lent its name to Henson's home—Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site, near Dresden, Ontario—which since the 1940s has been a museum. The actual cabin where Henson lived while he was enslaved no longer exists, but a cabin erroneously thought to be The Henson Cabin was purchased by the Montgomery County, Maryland government in 2006. It is now a part of the National Park Service National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program.
 
American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, a volume co-authored by Theodore Dwight Weld and the Grimké sisters, is also a source of some of the novel's content. Stowe also said she based the novel on a number of interviews with people who escaped slavery during the time when she was living in Cincinnati, Ohio, across the Ohio River from Kentucky, a slave state. In Cincinnati the Underground Railroad had local abolitionist sympathizers and was active in efforts to help runaway slaves on their escape route from the South.

Stowe mentioned a number of the inspirations and sources for her novel in A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853). This non-fiction book was intended to verify Stowe's claims about slavery. However, later research indicated that Stowe did not actually read many of the book's cited works until after the publication of her novel.

Uncle Tom's Cabin first appeared as a 40-week serial in National Era, an abolitionist periodical, starting with the June 5, 1851 issue. Because of the story's popularity, the publisher John Jewett contacted Stowe about turning the serial into a book. While Stowe questioned if anyone would read Uncle Tom's Cabin in book form, she eventually consented to the request.

Convinced the book would be popular, Jewett made the unusual decision (for that time) to have six full-page illustrations by Hammatt Billings engraved for the first printing. Published in book form on March 20, 1852, the novel soon sold out its complete print run. A number of other editions were soon printed (including a deluxe edition in 1853, featuring 117 illustrations by Billings).
 
In the first year of publication, 300,000 copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin were sold. At that point, however, "demand came to an unexpected halt... No more copies were produced for many years, and if, as is claimed, Abraham Lincoln greeted Stowe in 1862 as 'the little woman, who wrote the book that made this great war,' the work had effectively been out of print for many years." Jewett went out of business, and it was not until Ticknor and Fields put the work back in print in November 1862 that demand began again to increase.

The book was translated into all major languages, and eventually became, in the United States, the second best-selling book after the Bible. A number of the early editions carried an introduction by Rev James Sherman, a Congregational minister in London noted for his abolitionist views. Uncle Tom's Cabin sold equally well in Britain, with the first London edition appearing in May 1852 and selling 200,000 copies. In a few years over 1.5 million copies of the book were in circulation in Britain, although most of these were pirated copies (a similar situation occurred in the United States).

The book opens with a Kentucky farmer named Arthur Shelby facing the loss of his farm because of debts. Even though he and his wife, Emily Shelby, believe that they have a benevolent relationship with their slaves, Shelby decides to raise the needed funds by selling two of them—Uncle Tom, a middle-aged man with a wife and children, and Harry, the son of Emily Shelby’s maid Eliza—to a slave trader. Emily Shelby hates the idea of doing this because she had promised her maid that her child would never be sold; Emily's son, George Shelby, hates to see Tom go because he sees the man as his friend and mentor.

When Eliza overhears Mr. and Mrs. Shelby discussing plans to sell Tom and Harry, Eliza determines to run away with her son. The novel states that Eliza made this decision because she fears losing her only surviving child (she had already miscarried two children). Eliza departs that night, leaving a note of apology to her mistress.

While all of this is happening, Uncle Tom is sold and placed on a riverboat, which sets sail down the Mississippi River. While on board, Tom meets and befriends a young white girl named Eva. When Eva falls into the river, Tom saves her. In gratitude, Eva's father, Augustine St. Clare, buys Tom from the slave trader and takes him with the family to their home in New Orleans. During this time, Tom and Eva begin to relate to one another because of the deep Christian faith they both share.

During Eliza's escape, she meets up with her husband George Harris, who had run away previously. They decide to attempt to reach Canada. However, they are now being tracked by a slave hunter named Tom Loker. Eventually Loker and his men trap Eliza and her family, causing George to shoot Loker. Worried that Loker may die, Eliza convinces George to bring the slave hunter to a nearby Quaker settlement for medical treatment.

Back in New Orleans, St. Clare debates slavery with his Northern cousin Ophelia who, while opposing slavery, is prejudiced against black people. St. Clare, however, believes he is not biased, even though he is a slave owner. In an attempt to show Ophelia that her views on blacks are wrong, St. Clare purchases Topsy, a young black slave. St. Clare then asks Ophelia to educate her.

After Tom has lived with the St. Clares for two years, Eva grows very ill. Before she dies she experiences a vision of heaven, which she shares with the people around her. As a result of her death and vision, the other characters resolve to change their lives, with Ophelia promising to throw off her personal prejudices against blacks, Topsy saying she will better herself, and St. Clare pledging to free Uncle Tom.

Before St. Clare can follow through on his pledge, however, he dies after being stabbed while entering a New Orleans tavern. His wife reneges on her late husband's vow and sells Tom at auction to a vicious plantation owner named Simon Legree. Legree (a transplanted northerner) takes Tom to rural Louisiana, where Tom meets Legree's other slaves, including Emmeline (whom Legree purchased at the same time).

Legree begins to hate Tom when Tom refuses Legree's order to whip his fellow slave. Legree beats Tom viciously, and resolves to crush his new slave's faith in God. Despite Legree's cruelty, however, Tom refuses to stop reading his Bible and comforting the other slaves as best he can. While at the plantation, Tom meets Cassy, another of Legree's slaves. Cassy was previously separated from her son and daughter when they were sold; unable to endure the pain of seeing another child sold, she killed her third child.

At this point Tom Loker returns to the story. Loker has changed as the result of being healed by the Quakers. George, Eliza, and Harry have also obtained their freedom after crossing into Canada. In Louisiana, Uncle Tom almost succumbs to hopelessness, as his faith in God is tested by the hardships of the plantation. However, he has two visions, one of Jesus and one of Eva, which renew his resolve to remain a faithful Christian, even unto death. He encourages Cassy to escape, which she does, taking Emmeline with her. When Tom refuses to tell Legree where Cassy and Emmeline have gone, Legree orders his overseers to kill Tom. As Tom is dying, he forgives the overseers who savagely beat him. Humbled by the character of the man they have killed, both men become Christians. Very shortly before Tom's death, George Shelby (Arthur Shelby's son) arrives to buy Tom’s freedom, but finds he is too late.

On their boat ride to freedom, Cassy and Emmeline meet George Harris' sister and accompany her to Canada. Once there, Cassy discovers that Eliza is her long-lost daughter who was sold as a child. Now that their family is together again, they travel to France and eventually Liberia, the African nation created for former American slaves. There they meet Cassy's long-lost son. George Shelby returns to the Kentucky farm and frees all his slaves. George tells them to remember Tom's sacrifice and his belief in the true meaning of Christianity.

Modern scholars and readers have criticized the book for what are seen as condescending racist descriptions of the book's black characters, especially with regard to the characters' appearances, speech, and behaviour, as well as the passive nature of Uncle Tom in accepting his fate. The novel's creation and use of common stereotypes about African Americans is important because Uncle Tom's Cabin was the best-selling novel in the world during the 19th century. As a result, the book (along with images illustrating the book and associated stage productions) had a major role in permanently ingraining these stereotypes into the American psyche.
 
Among the stereotypes of blacks in Uncle Tom's Cabin are: the "happy darky" (in the lazy, carefree character of Sam); the light-skinned tragic mulatto as a sex object (in the characters of Eliza, Cassy, and Emmeline); the affectionate, dark-skinned female mammy (through several characters, including Mammy, a cook at the St. Clare plantation); the Pickaninny stereotype of black children (in the character of Topsy); the Uncle Tom, or African American who is too eager to please white people (in the character of Uncle Tom). Stowe intended Tom to be a "noble hero." The stereotype of him as a "subservient fool who bows down to the white man" evidently resulted from staged "Tom Shows", over which Stowe had no control.
 
These negative associations have to a large degree overshadowed the historical impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin as a "vital antislavery tool." The beginning of this change in the novel's perception had its roots in an essay by James Baldwin titled "Everybody’s Protest Novel." In the essay, Baldwin called Uncle Tom’s Cabin a "very bad novel" which was also racially obtuse and aesthetically crude. In the 1960s and '70s, the Black Power and Black Arts Movements attacked the novel, saying that the character of Uncle Tom engaged in "race betrayal", and that Tom made slaves out to be worse than slave owners. Criticisms of the other stereotypes in the book also increased during this time. In recent years, however, scholars such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. have begun to re-examine Uncle Tom's Cabin, stating that the book is a "central document in American race relations and a significant moral and political exploration of the character of those relations."


  
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