An anniversary of a book that helped change the nation

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” celebrates its 160th anniversary on March 20. The anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe helped inspire the abolitionist cause in the 1850s and played an important part in the run-up to the Civil War.

Almost everyone knows of the book. Fewer have actually read it, which is too bad.

Stowe’s parents were abolitionists, and she herself had harbored fugitive slaves. A teacher and journalist, she got a look at slavery when she crossed the border into Kentucky from her home in Cincinnati. After Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, she decided to write her book.

The plotline depicts the reality of slavery while also suggesting that Christian love can overcome it. The main character, Tom, retains his integrity, defies white authority and refuses to betray his fellow slaves at the cost of his own life. His patience and humility in the face of degradation and brutality make him a heroic figure. In contrast, his tormenter, Simon Legree, the Northern slave dealer turned plantation owner, displays enormous cruelty.

Frederick Douglass, a friend of Stowe, consulted with her on the book and praised it after it came out.

On the other hand, the book outraged Southern whites. “They declared Stowe’s work to be criminal, slanderous and utterly false,” notes PBS’ “Africans in America.” “A bookseller in Mobile, Ala., was forced out of town for selling copies. Stowe received threatening letters and a package containing the dismembered ear of a black person.”

Only 5,000 copies of the first edition were printed. But the book had an immediate impact, selling out within a few days. By the end of the first year, it had sold 300,000 copies in the United States and 200,000 copies in England. The book was later translated into numerous languages and was adapted for the theater for audiences around the world.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, right behind the Bible. And the book’s impact is reinforced by the perhaps apocryphal quote attributed to President Lincoln when he met Stowe in 1862: “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”

Over the last 100 years, critics have seized on Tom’s character as being too submissive — hence the slander “Uncle Tom.” This negative association has somewhat obscured its historical impact. Some even consider the book “racist.”

That’s silly. Stowe was a vital ally in the fight against slavery. And for those who declare Uncle Tom a character to be ashamed of, you should read the book. He is a much more complex and positive character than you think.

Last April, as “commemorations” were going on across the South marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I joined dozens of average citizens, black and white, from across South Carolina — the state where the war began — to do a marathon reading of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” For those of us committed to racial equality, it remains a crucial text.

On this 160th anniversary of its publication, more public readings — and understandings — of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” are in order.

Kevin Alexander Gray is a writer and activist living in South Carolina. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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