Uncle Tom’s Cabin Revisited

In The Nation, Darryl Lorenzo Wellington reviews The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin and looks at the history of perhaps the most influential American novel ever.

Much more than Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Poe’s fiction and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains frozen in the past, a blurry childhood memory. Many adults will have the experience of weighing their youthful impressions of Twain, Poe and Conan Doyle against their mature understanding. Not so with the tale of Uncle Tom, Eliza, Little Eva, Topsy and Simon Legree. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a moralizing tale, the kind of material adults blithely leave behind and rarely revisit.

Yet before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was dispensed with as a children’s tale, it was a social phenomenon and, arguably, the most influential novel in American history. Published in 1852, Stowe’s antislavery novel galvanized public opinion on a question that would become the major irritant behind the Civil War, which erupted less than a decade later. It sold more copies than any other book in American history (except, of course, the Bible). It was acclaimed by Northern abolitionists; it inspired denunciatory Southern anti-Uncle Tom’s Cabin novels that, preposterously, presented slavery as a benign institution. Almost like a religious text, the novel has proved peculiarly susceptible to distortion and misappropriation. For generations after the Civil War, the story’s success as a novel was outstripped by the popularity of theatrical adaptations, musicals and, at worst, minstrel shows, which departed drastically from Stowe’s intentions. In fact, there were “Tom shows” in the late 1800s and early 1900s that completely excised the story’s antislavery message. Throughout the early 1900s, the familiar characters were cheapened by overuse in product advertisements.