Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), the biggest best seller of the nineteenth century after the Bible, is a central event in American history. By centering on and dramatizing the routine breakup of black families under slavery far more than the usual condemnations of slavery had done, Harriet Beecher Stowe elevated the slaves in the minds of people who had despised them as subhuman or who were just indifferent to their fate. The book aroused the most passionate indignation throughout the world against the special cruelty of American slavery, the worst in the Western world. It was the first work written in English to be translated into such remote languages as Illyrian or Wallachian. The heartbreak of families casually separated by slave traders and owners under economic pressure inflamed the universal audience for the book, especially among women whose prime belief was the Christian sacredness of family.
With one book, Mrs. Stowe became the conscience of her time for millions of Americans who had hated other antislavery writers for disturbing their lives and dividing the country to the point of civil war. Appealing directly to the reader to join her tumultuous feelings of pity and outrage, written as if in a trance (or so she claimed when in later life she said, “I did not write it. God wrote it. I merely did His dictation”), the book aroused the North and maddened the South.
Mrs. Stowe was throughout her life deeply involved in her family and in the Christian consciousness of family. Born in 1811 in Connecticut, she was the seventh child and fourth daughter of Lyman Beecher, New England’s most vociferous Evangelical clergyman. All her brothers (the best remembered was the flamboyant Henry Ward Beecher) were clergymen, her sisters married clergymen, she herself married an ordained minister, seminary professor, and polymath, Calvin Stowe, and was to bear six children. Harriet Stowe felt she needed to soften Lyman Beecher’s hardbottomed theology while retaining the enthusiasm with which Beecher propagated his gospel. His fellow Presbyterians tolerated slavery in the North and defended it in the South. But the influence of a father who spoke in the voice of ancestral Calvinism that could still terrify a descendant of the first Puritans in New England was hard to shake off. She believed most intensely in a personal savior. The death by drowning in 1857 of her oldest son, Henry, was to cause Harriet terrible anxiety about the uncertain state of his soul before death.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is founded on a “religion of the heart” natural to what Alfred North Whitehead was to call the “century of hope”—hope because every day seemed to bring still another invention that would surely advance mankind by freeing it from deadening manual labor. Harriet Stowe was consumed by a personal, achingly assured emotional religion that might also be called a nineteenth-century invention; it was so particularly and immediately addressed to the healing, redeeming power that she felt, as a Christian woman, directly in touch …
Copyright © Alfred Kazin 1994