uncle tom lives


The best-selling American novel of the nineteenth century, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, does not quite go away, much as many Americans, from black militants to white aesthetes, might wish it. Withina year of its publication, in March of 1852, it had sold three hundred thousand copies, in a country one-thirteenth its present size and—in a surprising show of Victorian globalization—more than two million in the rest of the world. Ten years later, in 1862, Abraham Lincoln allegedly greeted its diminutive author in the White House with the words “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!” The President’s subsequent abolition of slavery and the Union’s hard-won victory in the Civil War would seem to have taken the wind out of Stowe’s fiercely abolitionist novel of ideas, but its melodramatic images—the Kentucky slave Eliza’s flight across the ice-choked Ohio River, pursued by bloodhounds, with her son in her arms; the Louisiana slaveholder Simon Legree’s boastful villainy; fair-haired little Eva’s saintly death and the snaggle-headed black orphan Topsy’s reluctant reformation—persisted, though travestied, in popular plays, shows, films, figurines, and cartoons.

more from John Updike at The New Yorker here.