American Politics, Religion, and Emotion; or, Why Uncle Tom’s Cabin was Popular© 2013, Sarah Lane
Harriet Beecher Stowe was a Caucasian, Christian woman born in Connecticut in 1811 (“Harriet”). Her colour, creed, and gender are worth mentioning considering how important they were in the context and reception of her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (UTC).
UTC was originally published serially in 1851 for an abolitionist newspaper called The National Era (Hochman 26-27). A year later the story was printed, in full, as a novel (2). One year prior to its original publication, the US Congress passed a bill known as the Fugitive Slave Act (Simkin, “Fugitive”). This law stated, in part, that runaway slaves had to be arrested and that anyone caught helping them would face criminal charges as well (Simkin, “Fugitive”). Stowe did not support this new law (Reynolds 118). In fact, her novel directly opposed it (117). Several characters within the text, for example, such as the Birds, aid escaped slaves in their journey to freedom despite the legal consequences. However, UTC did far more than just challenge the Fugitive Slave Act. It pulled the blinders off people’s eyes, forced Americans to acknowledge what was happening in their country, and called them all to action (Hochman 27). Many have even argued that UTC helped initiate the American Civil War and pave the way to emancipation through its impact on the general public (Reynolds x). Yet, UTC’s popularity didn’t end with the war. It continued to find success throughout the 19th century, because even after the war had ended, issues of segregation and racial equality still abounded (Hochman 9). Although the context of the day changed, readers still found reason to devour UTC and to be moved by the story it told.
Stowe grew up in a prominent Christian family (“Harriet”) that fought for an egalitarian religion based on a God who loved everyone (Reynolds 1). Religion played an important part in both the author’s life and in her work. She even went so far as to claim that UTC came to her from God (1). The way she weaves her Christian ideals throughout UTC helped sway many Christians to support antislavery (41). Stowe believed that African Americans had a great propensity for religion and that they were not inferior to any other race (38-39). She tried to demonstrate this throughout her novel by having black characters, including the protagonist, Uncle Tom, be the picture of a good, proper, and loving Christian. Although that type of depiction was extremely rare in Stowe’s time, much of the public embraced Uncle Tom and his companions (41-42). They sympathized with the characters and became emotionally invested in their story.
However, UTC was not loved by everyone. In fact, it received quite a lot of criticism, as did the author herself (Reynolds 150). One common complaint was that as a female writer, her work was overly emotional, and therefore, of lesser quality than books written by men (Fisch, “Uncle Tom” 103). However, it is the pathos of this novel that made it so unforgettable (Reynolds 88). UTC is steeped in emotion, written from real life emotional accounts, and thus, logically, evokes emotional responses from its readers (88). Stowe created her characters out of various combinations of real people and events (87). This is something she even mentions herself at the end of the novel and in her follow-up work, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Reynolds 87). Regardless of whether people agreed with it or not, the emotional framing and content of UTC were essential to its success.
Remarkably, in spite of her race, religion, and gender, Stowe was able to represent people of all colours, creeds, and genders fairly within her book. Her ability to give a voice to such a wide range of people is part of what made UTC so engaging to readers of all backgrounds.