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 beginning of the novel, is a smaller but characteristic success of portraiture whose vividness prefigures the incidents that follow. The reality of Shelby and Haley, you might say, dirties the air sufficiently to allow for our eventual belief in Little Eva, the daughter of the slave-owning St. Clare family of New Orleans, saintly, sickly, and doomed. Eva belongs so fully to Victorian stereotype that all her gestures appear to be written in capitals; and the same is true of her black counterpart, the slave child Topsy, whose ungovernable impishness can only be healed by love and trust.
But this is to look ahead in a plot that Americans no longer know as they once did from stage and screen and pantomime. The bargain that gives Uncle Tom to Haley has also included a five-year-old slave child, Harry, and thereby threatened to separate Harry from his adoring mother, Eliza. Meanwhile, Eliza’s husband, George Harris, has made a break for freedom by the Underground Railroad. Before Haley can come to claim Harry, Eliza flees with him; and they are helped to freedom first by an ordinary liberty-loving citizen, Mr. Symmes, who admires her pluck and courage; then by the kindly Mrs. Bird and her husband, Senator Bird; and finally by the members of a Quaker community. So Eliza and Harry pass over to freedom and a reunion with George Harris in Canada.
The rebels from slavery, however, have a subordinate place in a story whose main emphasis always falls on the tragedy of Uncle Tom. From Haley, Tom is first sold into the keeping of Augustine St. Clare, the owner of a picturesque New Orleans estate. There he soon becomes the constant companion of the gentle child of the St. Clare family, Eva, who, like him, has fully absorbed and come to preach the doctrine of the Sermon on the Mount. This idyllic interval closes with the death of Eva, followed by the sudden death of Augustine—at which, given over to the mercies of Augustine’s uncaring wife, Tom is sold to a cruel master, Simon Legree. Having taken note of Tom’s intelligence, Legree means to have him serve as an overseer; but he reckons that Tom needs hardening, and so he is sent to work in the cotton fields with the other slaves. Even when offered a chance to escape with a female slave, Cassy, Tom insists on his obligation to stay and suffer. Legree, without cause, blames Tom for the flight of Cassy and another slave; and when Tom will not confess, Legree orders him beaten and tormented continually. After his death, the story closes a second time with the success of Cassy’s escape and her discovery that Eliza Harris is her long-lost child.
To readers of Victorian fiction and especially of three novels by Dickens—Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and The Old Curiosity Shop—Stowe’s borrowings from a familiar stock of sentimental and grotesque characters were part of a well-understood vocabulary. The danger, for Stowe, lay in the temptation to portray the contest over slavery wholly as a battle between men of good will and men of malignant selfishness, the Brownlows and Cheerybles of this world and the Gradgrinds and M’Choakumchilds. The Dickens touch is everywhere in the book: Mrs. Bird, for example, of whom we have an early glimpse “superintending the arrangements of the table, ever and anon mingling admonitory remarks to a number of frolicsome juveniles, who were effervescing in all those modes of untold gambol and mischief that have astonished mothers ever since the flood.”
The same tones are laid on thickly in the festive scene of dinner at the Quaker settlement where Eliza Harris takes shelter with Harry: “Even the knives and forks had a social clatter as they went on to the table; and the chicken and ham had a cheerful and joyous fizzle in the pan, as if they rather enjoyed being cooked than otherwise.” Yet for all its conventionality of form and imitativeness of texture, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a fever-dream of injustice that draws the reader irresistibly on.
Edmund Wilson, in his essay on Stowe in Patriotic Gore, captured this quality better than any other commentator:
Out of a background of undistinguished narrative, inelegantly and carelessly written, the characters leap into being with a vitality that is all the more striking for the ineptitude of the prose that presents them…. The Shelbys and George Harris and Eliza and Aunt Chloe and Uncle Tom project themselves out of the void. They come before us arguing and struggling, like real people who cannot be quiet.
The spirit of the divided country, Wilson thought, had been given by Stowe “the form of a flock of lamenting and ranting, prattling and preaching characters, in a drama that demands to be played to the end.” Indeed, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of those works of fiction, like The Pilgrim’s Progress, whose claim on the reader intensifies rather than slackens from a foreknowledge of its ending.
At the heart of the novel are two scenes of slave trading, and two deaths. When the seller in the opening scene, Mr. Shelby, unloads Eliza and Harry along with Uncle Tom, the buyer Haley says of himself: “I’ve got just as much conscience as any man in business can afford to keep,—just a little, you know, to swear by, as ‘t were.” In that one stroke he comes alive. By contrast, the good people in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, those who give the protest speeches, are always in peril of sinking under the weight of their own worthiness. When George Harris cries out, “My master! and who made him my master?”—it is understood that he will have more to say in the same vein, not because his wife needs to hear it, but because Stowe wants the reader to listen.
The second scene of trading occurs at an auction, and it has the authority and immediacy of a news report. This is a panorama, where the bargain of Haley and Shelby had been a domestic tableau. But the private and public auctions are arranged alike to sharpen our horror at the deaths around which the book is plotted. These latter scenes belong to characters who are physically opposite but morally identical: Uncle Tom and Little Eva. The Underground Railroad may save a few of the fortunate, like George and Eliza Harris; but Tom and Eva are proofs of the rule that slavery kills. In the moral scheme of Stowe’s novel—though not in any strict relation of cause and effect—these two must die so that George and Eliza can live. Both sacrificial heroes are Christlike; and they are felt to be so by the other characters. A white female could not safely be taken to embody a goodness like Eva’s except in her childish state: a full-grown Eva, after all, would have derived her guilt-ridden privilege from the profits of slavery, or else would have devoted an active life to opposing the evils of slavery, and neither position is suited to the patient suffering of a Christian saint. Similarly, a proud and energetic Tom could not have turned the other cheek forever.
These two between them exemplify the mystery of atonement. They exist in order to forgive; and if one asks what must be forgiven, the answer is the crime of slavery itself. Yet strong as the resemblance is, Tom and Eva differ in the manner of their deaths. Eva passes away decorously, from a wasting sickness. Tom, on Simon Legree’s Louisiana plantation, is tortured to death—punished beyond the reach of a reason for the sake of inflicting pain—after he has refused to flog a fellow slave and refused to assist in the hunt for two escaped slaves. (He also declines an opportunity to murder his vicious master, saying, “Good never comes of wickedness. I’d sooner chop my right hand off.”) As Stowe presents it, torture is a physical intensification of slavery, as slavery itself is a drawing out, over time, of the domination made manifest in torture. Before he dies, Tom asks Legree to spare his body in order to save his own soul from eternal damnation: “My troubles’ll be over soon; but, if ye don’t repent, yours won’t never end.” Legree, who hates Tom with “the native antipathy of bad to good,” for a moment hesitates but he does not relent, and by the time the enlightened young master George Shelby, the son of Arthur, arrives on the scene to buy him back, Tom has fixed his gaze on a glory beyond this world: “The Lord’s bought me, and is going to take me home,—and I long to go. Heaven is better than Kintuck.”