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Uncle Tom's Cabin

UNCLE TOM'S CABIN

UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, an antislavery novel written by Harriet Beecher Stowe and published in book form in 1852. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln apocryphally referred to Harriet Beecher Stowe as "the little woman who started this big war," underscoring the enormous influence of Uncle Tom's Cabin; Or, Life Among the Lowly to antebellum audiences. Stowe claimed to have been inspired by grief over her baby's death in 1849 and resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Published serially in the National Era from 5 June 1851 to 1 April 1852 and in book form in March 1852, the novel sold 300,000 copies in the first year and more than a million by 1860. By 1900 it had spawned a theatrical tradition, inspired a market tie-in, and been translated into forty-two languages. Abolitionists thrilled to what Jane Tompkins has called the novel's "sentimental power," its emotional appeal, especially to middle-class women readers, to identify with black families separated by slavery (Sensational Designs, pp. 122–146). But the novel was viciously attacked by proslavery readers, even after Stowe defended the research on which she based the novel in A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853).

A later generation also attacked the novel, arguing that Stowe's stereotyped characters revealed her own historically conditioned racism. Indeed, for the African American author James Baldwin and others the term "Uncle Tom" came to imply a black person who pandered to a racist white power structure. More recently, Stowe's novel sparked an interest in uncovering other nineteenth-century women writers. Readers also noted the novel's geographical sweep from New Orleans to Canada, Paris, and Liberia; its Christian radicalism; and its relationship to slave narratives. The novel's popularity and its controversy have endured. For example, the 1956 film The King and I contains a Siamese version of the "Uncle Tom" plays that flooded American stages, and in the 1991 San Francisco Mime Troupe's acclaimed I Ain't Yo' Uncle, Stowe's characters confront their creator. Uncle Tom's Cabin continued to catalyze discussions about race in the United States in the twenty-first century.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hedrick, Joan. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Lowance, Mason I., Jr., Ellen E. Westbrook, and R. C. De Prospo, eds. The Stowe Debate: Rhetorical Strategies in "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

LisaMacFarlane

See alsoAntislavery ; Literature: Popular Literature .

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