Slave Narratives and Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe was not an active abolitionist herself, but had strong anti-slavery feelings and had grown up in an abolitionist home and harbored fugitive slaves. After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, Stowe decided to make a strong statement against slavery. In 1851 Stowe began publishing Uncle Tom's Cabin in serialized form in the National Era.

The response was enthusiastic, and people encouraged Stowe to publish the work in book form. In two days 5,000 copies were sold. By the end of the first year, 300,000 copies had been sold in America alone; in England 200,000 copies were sold.

Uncle Tom's Cabin had a great impact. The character Uncle Tom is an African American who retains his integrity and refuses to betray his fellow slaves at the cost of his life. Remaining true to his Christian beliefs even with the brutal treatment, made him a hero to whites. In contrast, his tormenter, the Northern slave-dealer turned plantation owner, enraged them.

Southerners were outraged, and declared the work to be criminal and false. Stowe received threatening letters and a package containing the dismembered ear of a black person. Southerners reacted by writing their own novels depicting the happy lives of slaves.

Most black Americans responded positively to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Most black abolitionists saw it as a tremendous help to their cause. Some, however, opposed the book, seeing Uncle Tom's character as being too submissive

It is ironic that the book which contributed most to the anti-slavery cause should have gained the reputation it has today as a racist work. Uncle Tom, though he defies white authority to save his fellow slaves, is the model of Christian humility. It also encouraged the image of the submissive, childlike black man—also exaggerated in theatre productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Like most white writers of her day, Harriet Beecher Stowe could not escape the racism of the time. Because of this, her work has some serious flaws, which in turn have helped perpetuate damaging images of African Americans.

Source: Slave Narratives and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Copyright © 1998, 1999 WGBH Educational Foundation

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