Today in Literary History – March 20, 1852 – “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is published

Harriet Beacher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published on March 20, 1852. Stowe was a New England school teacher, an ardent Christian and an active abolitionist. Parts of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had already been serialized in an abolitionist newspaper when the book was published.

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It was successful well beyond the publisher’s or Stowe’s expectations — 3,000 books were sold out on the first day alone and 300,000 were sold in the first year. It went on to become the biggest selling book in 19th century America after The Bible.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a huge impact on abolitionist sentiment in the north of the United States, and also in England where a million copies were sold.

There is an apocryphal story that when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beacher Stowe he said, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”

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The novel created an enormous controversy in America, being taken as a powerful denunciation of slavery in the North and as a baseless libel in the South. Stowe herself had never been to a Southern plantation and her characters and the illustrations in the book by Hammatt Billings have led to many racist stereotypes in later years – the acquiescent Uncle Tom, the loveable “mammy” and the nappy-headed “pickaninny” children like Topsy. The book is also criticized today by its use of stereotypical dialect and its depictions of blacks as often lazy.

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It’s rarely read today except by scholars but it still has a hold on the collective imagination. It is hard to find another novel which had such lofty goals and then fell so far out of favour.

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