Uncle Tom's Cabin has exerted an influence equaled by few other novels in history. Upon publication, Uncle Tom's Cabin ignited a firestorm of protest from defenders of slavery (who created a number of books in response to the novel) while the book elicited praise from abolitionists. As a best-seller, the novel heavily influenced later protest literature.
Contemporary and world reaction
Uncle Tom's Cabin outraged people in the American South. The novel was also roundly criticized by slavery supporters.
Acclaimed Southern novelist William Gilmore Simms declared the work utterly false, while others called the novel criminal and slanderous. Reactions ranged from a bookseller in Mobile, Alabama, who was forced to leave town for selling the novel to threatening letters sent to Stowe (including a package containing a slave's severed ear). Many Southern writers, like Simms, soon wrote their own books in opposition to Stowe's novel.
Some critics highlighted Stowe's paucity of life-experience relating to Southern life, saying that it led her to create inaccurate descriptions of the region. For instance, she had never been to a Southern plantation. However, Stowe always said she based the characters of her book on stories she was told by runaway slaves in Cincinnati. It is reported that "She observed firsthand several incidents which galvanized her to write [the] famous anti-slavery novel. Scenes she observed on the Ohio River, including seeing a husband and wife being sold apart, as well as newspaper and magazine accounts and interviews, contributed material to the emerging plot."
In response to these criticisms, in 1853 Stowe published A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, an attempt to document the veracity of the novel's depiction of slavery. In the book, Stowe discusses each of the major characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin and cites "real life equivalents" to them while also mounting a more "aggressive attack on slavery in the South than the novel itself had." Like the novel, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin was also a best-seller. However, while Stowe claimed A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin documented her previously consulted sources, she actually read many of the cited works only after the publication of her novel. A major part of the Key was Stowe's critique of how the legal system supported slavery and licensed owners' mistreatment of slaves. Thus, Stowe put more than slavery on trial; she put the law on trial. This continued an important theme of Uncle Tom's Cabin—that the shadow of law brooded over the institution of slavery and allowed owners to mistreat slaves and then avoid punishment for their mistreatment. In some cases, as Stowe pointed out, it even prevented kind owners from freeing their slaves.
Despite these criticisms, the novel still captured the imagination of many Americans. According to Stowe's son, when Abraham Lincoln met her in 1862 Lincoln commented, "So this is the little lady who started this great war." Historians are undecided if Lincoln actually said this line, and in a letter that Stowe wrote to her husband a few hours after meeting with Lincoln no mention of this comment was made. Since then, many writers have credited this novel with focusing Northern anger at the injustices of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law and helping to fuel the abolitionist movement. Union general and politician James Baird Weaver said that the book convinced him to become active in the abolitionist movement.
Uncle Tom's Cabin also created great interest in the United Kingdom. The first London edition appeared in May 1852 and sold 200,000 copies. Some of this interest was because of British antipathy to America. As one prominent writer explained, "The evil passions which Uncle Tom gratified in England were not hatred or vengeance [of slavery], but national jealousy and national vanity. We have long been smarting under the conceit of America—we are tired of hearing her boast that she is the freest and the most enlightened country that the world has ever seen. Our clergy hate her voluntary system—our Tories hate her democrats—our Whigs hate her parvenus—our Radicals hate her litigiousness, her insolence, and her ambition. All parties hailed Mrs. Stowe as a revolter from the enemy." Charles Francis Adams, the American minister to Britain during the war, argued later that "Uncle Tom's Cabin; or Life among the Lowly, published in 1852, exercised, largely from fortuitous circumstances, a more immediate, considerable and dramatic world-influence than any other book ever printed."
A French edition, translated by M. L. Carion (or by [Anne-]Louise Swanton-Belloc? (1796–1881)), appeared by 1853 published in Cambrai and in Paris. By 1857, the novel had been translated into 20 languages, including two independent translations into Slovene just one year after its original publication, which started the since-then uninterrupted dialogue between American authors and Slovene translators and readers. Later, it was translated into almost every major language, including Chinese (with translator Lin Shu creating the first Chinese translation of an American novel in 1901) and Amharic (with the 1930 translation created in support of Ethiopian efforts to end the suffering of blacks in that nation). The book was so widely read that Sigmund Freud reported a number of patients with sado-masochistic tendencies who he believed had been influenced by reading about the whipping of slaves in Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Literary significance and criticism
As the first widely read political novel in the United States, Uncle Tom's Cabin greatly influenced development of not only American literature but also protest literature in general. Later books which owe a large debt to Uncle Tom's Cabin include The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.
Despite this undisputed significance, Uncle Tom's Cabin has been called "a blend of children's fable and propaganda." The novel has also been dismissed by a number of literary critics as "merely a sentimental novel," while critic George Whicher stated in his Literary History of the United States that "Nothing attributable to Mrs. Stowe or her handiwork can account for the novel's enormous vogue; its author's resources as a purveyor of Sunday-school fiction were not remarkable. She had at most a ready command of broadly conceived melodrama, humor, and pathos, and of these popular sentiments she compounded her book."
Other critics, though, have praised the novel. Edmund Wilson stated that "To expose oneself in maturity to Uncle Tom's Cabin may ... prove a startling experience." Jane Tompkins states that the novel is one of the classics of American literature and wonders if many literary critics aren't dismissing the book because it was simply too popular during its day.
Over the years scholars have postulated a number of theories about what Stowe was trying to say with the novel (aside from the obvious themes, such as condemning slavery). For example, as an ardent Christian and active abolitionist, Stowe placed many of her religious beliefs into the novel. Some scholars have stated that Stowe saw her novel as offering a solution to the moral and political dilemma that troubled many slavery opponents: whether engaging in prohibited behavior was justified in opposing evil. Was the use of violence to oppose the violence of slavery and the breaking of proslavery laws morally defensible? Which of Stowe's characters should be emulated, the passive Uncle Tom or the defiant George Harris? Stowe's solution was similar to Ralph Waldo Emerson's: God's will would be followed if each person sincerely examined his principles and acted on them.
Scholars have also seen the novel as expressing the values and ideas of the Free Will Movement. In this view, the character of George Harris embodies the principles of free labor, while the complex character of Ophelia represents those Northerners who condoned compromise with slavery. In contrast to Ophelia is Dinah, who operates on passion. During the course of the novel Ophelia is transformed, just as the Republican Party (three years later) proclaimed that the North must transform itself and stand up for its antislavery principles.
Feminist theory can also be seen at play in Stowe's book, with the novel as a critique of the patriarchal nature of slavery. For Stowe, blood relations rather than paternalistic relations between masters and slaves formed the basis of families. Moreover, Stowe viewed national solidarity as an extension of a person's family, thus feelings of nationality stemmed from possessing a shared race. Consequently, she advocated African colonization for freed slaves and not amalgamation into American society.
The book has also been seen as an attempt to redefine masculinity as a necessary step toward the abolition of slavery. In this view, abolitionists had begun to resist the vision of aggressive and dominant men that the conquest and colonization of the early 19th century had fostered. In order to change the notion of manhood so that men could oppose slavery without jeopardizing their self-image or their standing in society, some abolitionists drew on principles of women's suffrage and Christianity as well as passivism, and praised men for cooperation, compassion, and civic spirit. Others within the abolitionist movement argued for conventional, aggressive masculine action. All the men in Stowe's novel are representations of either one kind of man or the other.