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UNCLE TOM'S CABIN AND THE SHIFT IN PUBLIC OPINION

In 1852, author Harriet Beecher Stowe had an unexpected hit on her hands. Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) was the most popular book in the United States and a best seller, not only in the U. S. but also in England and France. It went on to become the best-selling novel of the entire 1800s. One copy of the book was in print for almost every voter in the North; Uncle Tom was banned in the South.

Uncle Tom's Cabin followed the format of then-popular writing called domestic or women's fiction; it could have been a hit even if it didn't have so much meaning. Increasing its impact was the fact that Uncle Tom's Cabin was the first novel many people had ever read: Literacy was just becoming common for average people due to the growth of public schools. It would also be the last book many young Northerners read before they went off to fight and sometimes die in the Union Army.

The book not only helped start the war but also helped win it by causing Europeans to side with the North. Because of the book's popularity in Britain and France, those governments were morally afraid to intervene on the side of the South. The book was translated into languages around the world, including Chinese. Stowe had a simple answer when asked how her book came about. "God wrote it," she said.

People didn't even have to read the book to get the message; Uncle Tom appeared in thousands of plays performed in every Northern town before the Civil War. The message was so popular that Uncle Tom's Cabin was still in theaters during the 1900s, 50 years after the Civil War was over.

Another book, The Impending Crisis of the South (1857), written by middle-class Southerner Hinton Helper, argued that slavery was bad for the Southerners who didn't own slaves. The book was banned in the South but used by the Republicans in the North as campaign publicity. Southerners were fighting mad about exposés they considered to be false and libelous.

Example

Question: Why was Uncle Tom's Cabin important?

Answer: The book turned Northern opinion firmly against slavery.

What made Harriet Beecher Stowe's book so powerful? Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) put a human face on slaves for the first time in literary history. Most people don't like to see other people suffer. The way Americans coped with the cruelty of slavery was to pretend, without thinking too hard, that slaves were work animals without feelings. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, the slaves have names, families, hopes, and spiritual souls. Uncle Tom is never the kiss-up that his name has come to signify in modern times; he stands up for his beliefs and his friends even though he doesn't have the power to fight back physically against the slave masters.

Tom is an older Christian slave separated from his wife and children when his master falls on hard times and is forced to sell Tom literally down the river to a life of hard labor and punishment on a cotton plantation in the Deep South. Eliza, a young mother who also belongs to Tom's master, is about to have her own son torn away from her and flees North, finally crossing into freedom in a harrowing scene in which she carries her small child across the dangerously shifting ice of the Ohio River. On his way south, Tom saves a 6-year-old white girl named Eva from drowning. Eva's family buys Tom. By the time young Eva dies of natural causes several years later, she and Tom have developed a faith in goodwill that inspires everyone around them. Eventually, Tom is sold to an evil slave owner named Simon Legree. When Tom refuses to tell about two slaves who have escaped from the plantation, Legree has Tom beaten to death. Like Christ on the cross, as Tom is being killed, he forgives the slave drivers who are whipping him. The slaves who escaped from Legree meet the slaves who escaped from Tom's first master in Canada and realize they're all from the same family. Moved by Tom's story, the son of Tom's first master frees all his slaves.

Part of the power of Uncle Tom's Cabin for contemporary audiences came from readers' feeling that they were learning the truth about the taboo subject of slave life. The subtitle of the book is Life among the Lowly, making the cause sound plaintive and nonthreatening. The main title is a poem in three words. Cabin is the humble home familiar to all Americans; several U.S. presidents benefited in elections because they'd been born in log cabins. Tom is as simple as any male name; it was the name of both Thomas Jefferson and Thomas, a disciple of Christ. Tom incorporates the ohm sound used in meditation and as part of Amen; the name means twin in Latin and Greek. Uncle is a favorite relative, kindly without having to carry the emotional baggage of a mother or father.

 
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