Langston Hughes called "Uncle Tom's Cabin" America's "first protest novel." Harriet Beecher Stowe first published the novel in 1852, as an outcry against slavery after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850.
When Stowe visited President Lincoln in 1862, he greeted her by saying: "So, this is the little lady who wrote the big book that made this great war." With 300,000 copies sold in the first year, the book was a bestseller. How could it not be, when the nation was being split apart over the issue of slavery?
Stowe's work became an important dramatization for the abolitionist cause, helping the masses to understand the more emotive aspects of the debate over slavery.
What It Was All About
In Chapter 1 of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Stowe writes, "So long as the law considers all these human beings, with beating hearts and living affections, only as so many things belonging to the master... so long it is impossible to make anything beautiful or desirable in the best-regulated administration of slavery."
In her "Preface" to "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Stowe explains that she wanted to "awaken sympathy," and "show their wrongs and sorrows." But, in writing her novel of protest, she accomplished much more than simply awaken her readers. Her passionate critique had a substantial influence on perceptions of slavery in America and around the world.
Although the novel was immensely popular, not everyone applauded the novel. Critics dismissed the novel as abolitionist propaganda, and challenged the validity of the Stowe's depictions of slavery. For her source material, Stowe had drawn from slave narratives, along with other stories she'd heard and read. Frederick Douglass was no doubt helpful, as well. Not only did she draw from his "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," but she also wrote to him in 1851 and requested further details.
In "Our Land, Our Time," Joseph Conlin says that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was banned in the South, which isn't surprising considering the extreme emotions the book was invoking in its readers. As a rebuttal to many of the charges against "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Stowe published her "Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin" in 1853, and she published "Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp" in 1856.
When Elizabeth Barrett Browning read "Uncle Tom's Cabin," she wrote,
"Her book is quite a sign of the times, power. For myself, I rejoice in the success both as a woman and a human being. Oh, and is it possible that you think a woman has no business with questions like the question of slavery. Then she had better use the pen no more. She had better subside into slavery and concubinage herself, I think, as in the times of old, shut herself up with the Penelopes in the 'woman's apartment,' and take no rank among thinkers and speakers."
Stowe's little book of protest lived far beyond her life. In fact, it has now taken on a life of its own, although the conception of her work is quite the opposite of what she might have hoped for... Now, "Uncle Tom" has come to represent a negative, even racist image. Stowe's religiosity and sentimentality are no longer applauded.
Perhaps, that's the way with protest literature. Books don't change, like society does. What once was thought to be acceptable depictions of people in literature is now thought to be racist and wrong. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" long ago joined the ranks of banned classics like "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "To Kill a Mockingbird
," and "Gone With the Wind
." I guess we could say that Stowe helped to bring about a much greater change than she ever could have imagined.