(WSJ) Fergus Bordewich–The Novel That Changed America

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was abolitionist propaganda, but it was also a brilliant novel that intertwined the stories of a host of memorable characters: the long-suffering slave Uncle Tom, the sadistic overseer Simon Legree, the defiant fugitive George Harris, the antic slave girl Topsy, the conscience-stricken slave owner Augustine St. Clare, and a teeming cast of abolitionists, Southerners and African-Americans. By presenting an array of emotive story lines””e.g., the bonding of Uncle Tom with St. Clare’s saintly daughter Eva, Tom’s fatal persecution at a Louisiana plantation, and the dramatic flight of the Harris family to freedom in the North””the author Harriet Beecher Stowe rendered American slavery as a soul-destroying system of grinding injustice and, for the first time in American literature, depicted slaves as complex, heroic and emotionally nuanced individuals.

The novel shocked Americans North and South not just with its heart-rending portrayal of slavery’s cruelty but with its attention to such subversive themes as interracial sex, cross-racial friendship and black rage. “Wherever it goes, prejudice is disarmed, opposition is removed, and the hearts of all are touched with a new and strange feeling, to which they before were strangers,” declared an editorialist in Washington’s National Era newspaper.

In the first year after its release in 1852, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” sold 310,000 copies in the United States, triple the number of its nearest rivals; it sold one million copies in Britain alone.

Read it all (especially appropriate in light of the previous blog entry–KSH).


Posted in * Culture-Watch, * International News & Commentary, America/U.S.A., Books, History, Race/Race Relations, Religion & Culture

3 comments on “(WSJ) Fergus Bordewich–The Novel That Changed America

  1. NoVA Scout says:

    The reviewer in the link managed to get through without the much-told story of Mr. Lincoln’s remark on being introduced to Mrs. Stowe: “So you’re the little lady who started this great war.”

    Mrs. Stowe gathered much of her material for the book while living in Cincinnati, Ohio, a city that because of its geographical position, was very much at the front line of the fugitive slave activity of the mid-19th Century. Anyone who lives around that city or is travelling through the area this summer might find it worth their while to visit the Rankin House, in Ripley, Ohio, about 50 miles east of Cincinnati. Rankin was a local minister whose home occupies a high hill overlooking the Ohio River. Eliza’s escape as recounted by Mrs. Stowe was inspired by events that occurred in Rankin’s sector of the underground railroad. The house still stands, complete with its hidden spaces where escapees were sheltered. It is a scenic spot well worth a visit.

  2. Catholic Mom says:

    I don’t know about “subversive themes…such as interracial sex.” The novel said point out (or as point out as you could say in those days ) “southerners say that the African race is inferior and only one stop above animals — if that — but how many southern women quietly endure the humiliation of knowing that their plantation is filled with mixed-race children sired by their father, husband, or brothers.” A good portion of the novel revolves around the awkward existence of these individuals whose origin must never be openly acknowledged. In the same way, slaves are shown to be taken away from their husbands and wives when sold and “assigned” new husbands and wives on their new plantations (only of course they are not actually husbands and wives because the slave system does not allow slaves to enter into Christian marriage — the permanence of which would be inconvenient for the slave holders.) It is, above all, a Christian novel, and one of its strongest themes is that slavery inherently creates a stew of sexual immorality that its “Christian” supporters simply turn their eyes away from. Uncle Tom himself of course is a Christ-figure who allows himself to be beaten to death rather than do what he knows to be wrong. And his perfect faith in Jesus is what gives him the strength to endure even unto death.

  3. Catholic Mom says:

    [blockquote] When the 1956 film “The King and I,” set in Siam and starring Yul Brynner, incorporated the hilarious rendering of a ballet titled “Small House of Uncle Thomas,” it was a typically incoherent destiny for a book that, as William Dean Howells once declared, had “move[d] the whole world more than any other.” [/blockquote]

    Another strange comment I see as I read the whole article. Makes me wonder if the person writing this even saw the movie. The inclusion of this play is not a joke — it is a very serious part of the book and the musical it was based on. Anna is appalled by the effects of slavery in Siam — especially on women. Yet the king is such a merciless autocrat that she, in her humble position as a teacher, dares not criticize any of the king’s actions or any aspect of Siamese society. So she encourages her pupils to put on this play for the king which focuses on the emotional scene of Eliza crossing the ice while being chased by the slave catchers in the hopes of inspiring the king to have mercy on a runaway slave in his own court. In this case it is truly intended as “subversive” entertainment.