Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin Study Guide

Harriet Beecher Stowe is considered by many to have written the most influencial American novel in history. When she met President Lincoln in 1862, he reportedly called her "the little lady who started this big war." Indeed, Uncle Tom's Cabin was the first social protest novel published in the United States. In analyses of Uncle Tom's Cabin, many critics feel that Stowe's writing was deeply influenced by the fact that her father, husband, and brothers were all ministers. Because she was a woman and therefore could not preach, Stowe let her Christianity inspire her first, most important and influencial novel. Stowe was also inspired by her personal experience with the antislavery movement during her childhood on the northern side of the Ohio River, a border between slave states and freedom. With the urging of her sister-in-law, Stowe decided to use her writing skills to further the abolitionist, or anti-slavery, cause. Thus, Uncle Tom's Cabin was born.

It began as a series of stories throughout 1851-52 for the National Era, a Washington abolitionist newspaper. Upon its publication in 1852 by the Boston publishing company Jewett, Uncle Tom's Cabin became so popular that it sold more copies than any book before that with the acception of the Bible. Stowe toured the United States and Europe to speak against slavery and wrote A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin a year later, in 1853, to provide documentation of the truth upon which her novel is based.

Today, Uncle Tom's Cabin is valued because it raises still pertinent issues of racism in the United States, as well as inspiriring feminist thought on the role of women and the conjunction of race and sex. Some criticize the novel, however, for being racist because of its sentimental and stereotypical characterizations of slaves. The triumph of the novel is not that it shows the widespread experience of slavery in the South, but rather that it portrays the personal tragedies the system caused. So too, Uncle Tom's Cabin challenged Northerners to end their hypocrisy and recognize their participation in the propagation of slavery. Moreover, it argued that slaves were not property, but human beings with emotions like those of the readers. For this reason, Stowe chose to portray intimate stories to show the harm being done to individual humans. To the modern reader, Uncle Tom's Cabin may appear over-sentimental and preachy, but Stowe wanted to inspire a strong emotional reaction of indignation in her readers.