Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin

Book Review
Uncle Tom's Cabin or Life Among The Lowly
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Published in 1852
Read on an Amazon Kindle, public domain edition

  Above all, Uncle Tom's Cabin was a monster, monster hit- with sales in excess of one million copies in Great Britain and half a million copies in the United States within three years of publication.  Today, Uncle Tom's Cabin is better known for the controversy it has inspired due to its frank depiction of the conditions of slavery in ante-bellum America.   I never read Uncle Tom's Cabin in school, but I was certainly aware that:

 a) It existed
 b) It was where the term "Uncle Tom's Cabin" came from
 c) That it was a hugely popular and successful book that was published before the civil war by an Author with Abolitionist beliefs.

    Harriet Beecher Stowe has attained a canonical status that compares to the two other "Major" novel writers from America in that period, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.  If you look at a graph comparing their relative popularity between 1800 and 2000, you can see that Harriet Beecher Stowe has held her own against both Hawthorne and Melville, though I suspect that is more for her popularity among non-literature or quasi-literature related disciplines like "history" and "gender studies" etc.

 Stowe only surpasses Hawthorne in over-all popularity between 1866 and 1888- after that

   I suspect if you looked at the largest Audiences for these three Authors, Nathaniel Hawthorne would have the largest Audience of school assigned and general audience attention because he wrote in an accessible style and wrote in school friendly formats like the short story.   Melville's largest Audience would be higher education "types": students, teachers, and those who aspire to advanced education.  Stowe's largest Audience would be academic specialists- graduate students and Professors.

Portrayal of the character of "Topsy" from Uncle Tom's Cabin

   Considering that all Authors are neck and neck in a current Google Ngram comparing the three, it's hard to say that any is more "worth while" then the other- though my sense is that if we were to look ten years from now you'd see Herman Melville reinforcing the dominance he's displayed since the 1950s-60s.  Both Melville and Hawthorne "take off" in the 1940s and 50s, but Stowe's level of popularity stays relatively flat.

    Uncle Tom's Cabin is particularly shocking for anyone who's come of Age in the "P.C." era where the very use of the "N-word" is a highly charged subject.  Obviously, I take the position that you take a historical text "as it comes" and don't imply modern canons of construction when discussing the work in question.

   Stowe was an unabashed abolitionist, and the purpose of Uncle Tom's Cabin was to encourage the abolition of slavery.  Taken in that context, the racist characters and "Jim Crow" dialect of the African American characters can be seen as a  well-meaning attempt to provide "realism" to the text.

Portrayal of Uncle Tom of Uncle Tom's Cabin

   I wouldn't say that school kids should be reading Uncle Tom's Cabin- it is no doubt an Adult book today.   I can't even imagine how awkward it would be to try to teach this book in a public school. I wonder if anyone even tries to get anyone to read Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Judging from the consistent popularity the answer must be yes, but perhaps the frequency results from the frequent citation to Stowe as the writer in Academic sources.

  The main take-away for me personally was the demonstration of how slavery ripped apart slave families.  When you look at society today and problems with families and crime etc., there is no way you can disregard the impact that slavery had on the perpetrators and victims.   For that reason I think it's incumbent on a modern reader to really grasp the way that slaves were separated from spouses and children with impunity by slave owners.  That, and the fact that Slaves were not "people" for the purposes of the Justice system, and could thus not testify about excesses committed by slave owners.

  The sheer success of Uncle Tom's Cabin as a novel among purchasers of Novels can be seen as a major catalyst for the more "social problem" oriented Authors of the mid 19th century.  If you look at the next Novel that will be reviewed here, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South- you can see a writer who is in the mainstream of popular British Literature- a biographer of Charlotte Bronte, for God's sakes, who certainly must have read and reacted to Uncle Tom's Cabin.  North and South was published three years after Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Like Uncle Tom's Cabin, North and South grapples with an "Issue" but it is the issue of Factory worker/owner relations, rather then slavery.

 I imagine the popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin must have been a shock to the established taste makers of 19th century London.  I can almost imagine Elizabeth Gaskell reading it in her study and having a light bulb go on.

1 comment:

Stumblin' said...

The Topsy image is apparently from a C20th edition, do you know the dates and can you provide the publisher's details?

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