Why Tolstoy, Lenin, Van Gogh, and America Were Hit by It

Granger Collection
Poster for an American stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1881


Harriet Beecher Stowe visited the White House during the late fall of 1862, ten years after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly. Easily the most popular American novel of the nineteenth century, the book encouraged abolitionists both in the United States and abroad. “It is no longer permissible to those who can read,” wrote George Sand, “not to have read it.” Stowe had come to Washington that wartime winter to visit her son Fred, a lieutenant in the Union Army stationed near the capital. She may also have intended, as it was later claimed, to lobby the President to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. After the two celebrated figures were introduced, Lincoln, with a twinkle in his eye, is said to have exclaimed, “Is this the little woman who made the great war?” It is charming to imagine the tall and ungainly President bending down to address Stowe, who was barely five feet tall, and acknowledging her leadership in the war effort.

The story of Lincoln’s famous greeting has attached itself, barnacle-like, to the novel as both endorsement and triumphant sequel. It has proved as resilient as the most memorable scenes of the novel itself: the escaped slave Eliza Harris leaping across the partially frozen Ohio River in her desperate bid for freedom; her husband, George, confronting his pursuers over a rocky pass; the Christ-like Uncle Tom submitting to his owner Simon Legree’s lethal whip rather than revealing the whereabouts of other fugitive slaves; and of course the demise of the angelic Little Eva, doling out locks of blond hair on her deathbed as reminders of a better land up above.

Lincoln’s remark was first mentioned in 1896, the year of Stowe’s death at age eighty-five, by her friend and biographer Annie Fields in an article in the Atlantic Monthly. One of Stowe’s sons, Charles Edward Stowe, who had unaccountably left the remark out of the first two editions of his own biography of his mother, despite his claim to have attended the White House reception, improved the wording in the version he published in 1911: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”1 Stowe’s subsequent biographers have freely embroidered the story for a hundred years, until it has become among the most familiar of all American literary anecdotes.

Does it really matter that Lincoln almost certainly never said any such thing? It takes only a moment’s thought to realize that the embattled President, even in jest, would have been highly unlikely to ascribe the cause of the Civil War to any Northerner. He always insisted, to the point of obsession, that the rebellious South started the war. As he stated in the Second Inaugural, “Both parties deprecated war; but one of…

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