Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin

With the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852, the heretofore little-known New England regionalist writer Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), author of The Mayflower; or, Sketches of Scenes and Characters Among the Descendants of the Puritans (1843), became famous. But fame had always gone hand in hand with the Beecher family. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a prominent Congregationalist clergyman who in 1832 became president of the soon-to-be embattled Lane Theological Seminary; her sister Catharine Beecher was a pioneer in women's education and the best known domestic writer of the time; and her brother Henry Ward Beecher was a celebrated New York preacher. (Her husband, Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor of biblical literature at Lane when she married him in 1836, was rather more retiring.) Harriet Beecher Stowe became interested in the debate on slavery in the mid-1830s, when Theodore Dwight Weld and the other "Lane Rebels" challenged her father's authority, and in 1845 Stowe wrote her first antislavery sketch, "Immediate Emancipation." Uncle Tom's Cabin, serialized in the National Era between 1851 and 1852, was inspired in large part by her angry response to the Fugitive Slave Law, though her haunting depictions of slave mothers separated from their children may have been inspired by her grief at the death of her young son Samuel in 1849. The novel was widely read in the United States and abroad, selling approximately 350,000 copies during its first year in print, and around one million copies by the end of the decade. African Americans had a mixed but mostly positive response to the novel. Frederick Douglass, for example, thought the book a godsend that would help to inspire world-wide sympathy for the plight of the American slave; Martin Delany, however, found the novel to be racist and overly sympathetic to the colonizationists' agenda of shipping African-Americans to Africa. In a letter to William Lloyd Garrison printed in the 3 June 1853 issue of the Liberator, William Wells Brown praised Stowe, declaring that her novel "has come down upon the dark abodes of slavery like a morning's sunlight, unfolding to view its enormities in a manner which has fastened all eyes upon the 'peculiar institution,' and awakening sympathy in hearts that never before felt for the slave." Whatever their views on Stowe, it was difficult for African Americans writing in the wake of Uncle Tom's Cabin to ignore its images, rhetorical strategies, and ideas. In 1856 Stowe published a second antislavery novel, Dred; A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp.

Examine a sampling of Douglass' and Delany's debate on Uncle Tom's Cabin.

return to Contexts page

Introduction Biography Poems Critical Voices Teaching Approaches Bibliography