The Fever Dream of Mrs. Stowe

The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin

by Harriet Beecher Stowe, edited with an introduction and notes by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Hollis Robbins
Norton, 480 pp., $39.95

The death of Uncle Tom, the good husband and gentle slave who epitomizes the Christian virtues of charity and self-sacrifice, came to Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1851 in a sudden “vision” that inspired the writing of the book over many months. She was thirty-nine, and known already as a gifted observer. Stowe had recently witnessed the death of her youngest child, “the most beautiful and most loved” of seven children, as she described him; there were “circumstances,” she said, “about his death of such peculiar bitterness” that for the first time she was made to understand the feelings of a slave mother from whom a child at any moment could be snatched away. She believed that her private tragedy was the incitement for the book; but it had a longer and public background.

Stowe came from a family that embodied the New England conscience at its unappeasable height. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was the Congregationalist minister in Litchfield, Connecticut (William Lloyd Garrison was a member of the congregation). In 1832, he had been offered a position as head of Lane Theological Seminary; the family went with him to Cincinnati, and it was there that Harriet Beecher heard firsthand stories about slavery in Kentucky, and saw its uneasy aftermath in the lives of freed men and women. As a member of the Semi-Colon Club, she came to know distinguished men of abolitionist views, including Salmon Chase, the future chief justice, and the professor and widower with whom she fell in love, Calvin Stowe.

In writing a book against slavery, then, she was confirming the traditions in which she had been raised; but no one predicted her success. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was serialized in an antislavery magazine, the National Era, between June 8, 1851, and April 1, 1852. A first edition sold five thousand copies in four days. Within a year, more than 300,000 copies had been sold in the United States, and more than two million in the world. The national debate on the spread of slavery in the 1850s often seemed to depend on an argument about whether Stowe’s portrayals were true to life.

“We hate,” wrote Keats, “poetry that has a palpable design upon us”; but Stowe was born into the age of Dickens and Browning, when high imagination and a moral message were felt to be compatible. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is in one sense a work of public speech; and it suffers from the defects of pace and economy of an author whose dramatic sense was always weak; yet she managed here to produce a sensational plot without the help of a single surprise. The slave trader, Haley, “a man of leather” who appears on the opening page of the book, and the cruel plantation owner Simon Legree are singular triumphs of melodramatic allure: characters separable from their context, who seem to embody situations in themselves. The lukewarm Kentucky slave owner Arthur Shelby, who trades Uncle Tom to Haley in order to keep his other property at the…

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