The strength of Uncle Tom's Cabin is its ability to illustrate slavery's effect on families, and to help readers empathize with enslaved characters. Stowe's characters freely debated the causes of slavery, the Fugitive Slave Law, the future of freed people, what an individual could do, and racism. Writing in the 1950s, poet Langston Hughes called the book a "moral battle cry for freedom."
According to legend, Abraham Lincoln greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862 by saying "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." Whether the story is true or not, the sentiment underscores the public connection between Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Civil War.
The Civil War rose from a mixture of causes including regional conflicts between North and South, economic forces, and humanitarian concerns for the welfare of enslaved people. The four year war pitted one section of the country against another and almost destroyed the United States.
Uncle Tom's Cabin contributed to the outbreak of war by personalizing the political and economic arguments about slavery. Stowe's informal, conversational writing style inspired people in a way that political speeches, tracts and newspapers accounts could not. Uncle Tom's Cabin helped many 19th-century Americans determine what kind of country they wanted.
Immediately after its publication, Uncle Tom's Cabin was both lauded as an achievement and attacked as inaccurate:
Stowe responded to her critics by writing The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, an annotated bibliography of her sources. Researching and writing The Key reinforced Stowe's anti-slavery sentiments and turned her into an abolitionist. Her second anti-slavery novel, Dred, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), was much more forceful and advocated an immediate end to slavery. During the Civil War, Stowe criticized British businesses that continued to trade with Southern cotton suppliers, and was impatient with President Lincoln's willingness to postpone freeing people held in slavery.
Uncle Tom's Cabin made Stowe an international celebrity. When she traveled to Britain in 1853 to secure copyright protection for her novel Dred, she was rushed excitedly by crowds on the streets and invited by nobility to their estates. She was presented with a 26 volume leather bound petition signed by British women living all over the world, including the Duchess of Sutherland, the Countess of Shaftsbury, and chambermaids and bakers' wives, begging their American sisters to immediately abolish slavery.
Stowe was invited to anti-slavery rallies, where she hid behind Victorian propriety and had her husband or her brother present comments on her behalf. Queen Victoria was eager to meet the famous author, but was urged by advisors not to receive such a controversial figure. Instead, as Stowe's sister Mary related in a letter, the Queen arranged to pass Stowe's carriage on the road, so the two women could silently nod to each other.
Stowe's three European tours brought her similar acclaim. She was welcomed by ex-patriot American writers in Italy and forged long term friendships.
The power of her celebrity and influence made other social reform groups appeal for her support. Sometimes she agreed, as when she contributed editorials to the New York newspaper, The Independent, or sent items to anti-slavery fund-raising fairs. Other times she declined, as when she refused Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony's request to edit their women's suffrage newspaper The Revolution.
To learn more about Uncle Tom's Cabin, visit the website Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture.
Uncle Tom's Cabin struck a nerve and found a permanent place in American culture. Translated into more than sixty languages, it is known throughout the world. After a century and a half this classic anti-slavery novel remains an engaging and powerful work, read in college and high school courses dealing with literature, history, and issues of race and gender.
Pulitzer prize-winning author Jane Smiley notes that literature should help us face responsibilities not avoid them. Stowe's words changed the world: her bravery as she picked up her pen inspires us to believe in our own ability to effect positive change. Uncle Tom's Cabin, with its compelling story, challenges us to confront America's complicated past and connect it to today's issues.