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THE STORY OF UNCLE TOM'S CABIN







by: Charles Dudley Warner
On the 29th of June, 1852, Henry Clay died. In that month the two
great political parties, in their national conventions, had
accepted as a finality all the compromise measures of 1850, and
the last hours of the Kentucky statesman were brightened by the
thought that his efforts had secured the perpetuity of the Union.

But on the 20th of March, 1852, there had been an event, the
significance of which was not taken into account by the political
conventions or by Clay, which was to test the conscience of the
nation. This was the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Was this
only an "event," the advent of a new force in politics; was the
book merely an abolition pamphlet, or was it a novel, one of the
few great masterpieces of fiction that the world has produced?
After the lapse of forty-four years and the disappearance of
African slavery on this continent, it is perhaps possible to
consider this question dispassionately.

The compromise of 1850 satisfied neither the North nor the South.
The admission of California as a free State was regarded by
Calhoun as fatal to the balance between the free and the slave
States, and thereafter a fierce agitation sprang up for the
recovery of this loss of balance, and ultimately for Southern
preponderance, which resulted in the repeal of the Missouri
Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska war, and the civil war. The
fugitive slave law was hateful to the North not only because it
was cruel and degrading, but because it was seen to be a move
formed for nationalizing slavery. It was unsatisfactory to the
South because it was deemed inadequate in its provisions, and
because the South did not believe the North would execute it in
good faith. So unstable did the compromise seem that in less than
a year after the passage of all its measures, Henry Clay and
forty-four Senators and Representatives united in a manifesto
declaring that they would support no man for office who was not
known to be opposed to any disturbance of the settlements of the
compromise. When, in February, 1851, the recaptured fugitive
slave, Burns, was rescued from the United States officers in
Boston, Clay urged the investment of the President with
extraordinary power to enforce the law.

Henry Clay was a patriot, a typical American. The republic and
its preservation were the passions of his life. Like Lincoln, who
was born in the State of his adoption, he was willing to make
almost any sacrifice for the maintenance of the Union. He had no
sympathy with the system of slavery. There is no doubt that he
would have been happy in the belief that it was in the way of
gradual and peaceful extinction. With him, it was always the
Union before state rights and before slavery. Unlike Lincoln, he
had not the clear vision to see that the republic could not endure
half slave and half free. He believed that the South, appealing
to the compromises of the Constitution, would sacrifice the Union
before it would give up slavery, and in fear of this menace he
begged the North to conquer its prejudices. We are not liable to
overrate his influence as a compromising pacificator from 1832 to
1852. History will no doubt say that it was largely due to him
that the war on the Union was postponed to a date when its success
was impossible.

It was the fugitive slave law that brought the North face to face
with slavery nationalized, and it was the fugitive slave law that
produced Uncle Tom's Cabin. The effect of this story was
immediate and electric. It went straight to the hearts of tens of
thousands of people who had never before considered slavery except
as a political institution for which they had no personal
responsibility. What was this book, and how did it happen to
produce such an effect? It is true that it struck into a time of
great irritation and agitation, but in one sense there was nothing
new in it. The facts had all been published. For twenty years
abolition tracts, pamphlets, newspapers, and books had left little
to be revealed, to those who cared to read, as to the nature of
slavery or its economic aspects. The evidence was practically all
in,--supplied largely by the advertisements of Southern newspapers
and by the legislation of the slaveholding States,--but it did not
carry conviction; that is, the sort of conviction that results in
action. The subject had to be carried home to the conscience.
Pamphleteering, convention-holding, sermons, had failed to do
this. Even the degrading requirements of the fugitive slave law,
which brought shame and humiliation, had not sufficed to fuse the
public conscience, emphasize the necessity of obedience to the
moral law, and compel recognition of the responsibility of the
North for slavery. Evidence had not done this, passionate appeals
had not done it, vituperation had not done it. What sort of
presentation of the case would gain the public ear and go to the
heart? If Mrs. Stowe, in all her fervor, had put forth first the
facts in The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which so buttressed her
romance, the book would have had no more effect than had followed
the like compilations and arraignments. What was needed? If we
can discover this, we shall have the secret of this epoch-making
novel.

The story of this book has often been told. It is in the nature
of a dramatic incident of which the reader never tires any more
than the son of Massachusetts does of the minutest details of that
famous scene in the Senate Chamber when Webster replied to Hayne.

At the age of twenty-four the author was married and went to live
in Cincinnati, where her husband held a chair in the Lane
Theological Seminary. There for the first time she was brought
into relations with the African race and saw the effects of
slavery. She visited slaveholders in Kentucky and had friends
among them. In some homes she saw the "patriarchal" institution
at its best. The Beecher family were anti-slavery, but they had
not been identified with the abolitionists, except perhaps Edward,
who was associated with the murdered Lovejoy. It was long a
reproach brought by the abolitionists against Henry Ward Beecher
that he held entirely aloof from their movement. At Cincinnati,
however, the personal aspects of the case were brought home to
Mrs. Stowe. She learned the capacities and peculiarities of the
negro race. They were her servants; she taught some of them;
hunted fugitives applied to her; she ransomed some by her own
efforts; every day there came to her knowledge stories of the
hunger for freedom, of the ruthless separation of man and wife and
mother and child, and of the heroic sufferings of those who ran
away from the fearful doom of those "sold down South." These
things crowded upon her mind and awoke her deepest compassion.
But what could she do against all the laws, the political and
commercial interests, the great public apathy? Relieve a case
here and there, yes. But to dwell upon the gigantic evil, with no
means of making head against it, was to invite insanity.

As late as 1850, when Professor Stowe was called to Bowdoin
College, and the family removed to Brunswick, Maine, Mrs. Stowe
had not felt impelled to the duty she afterwards undertook. "In
fact, it was a sort of general impression upon her mind, as upon
that of many humane people in those days, that the subject was so
dark and painful a one, so involved in difficulty and obscurity,
so utterly beyond human hope or help, that it was of no use to
read, or think, or distress one's self about it." But when she
reached New England the excitement over the fugitive slave law was
at its height. There was a panic in Boston among the colored
people settled there, who were daily fleeing to Canada. Every
mail brought her pitiful letters from Boston, from Illinois, and
elsewhere, of the terror and despair caused by the law. Still
more was the impressed by the apathy of the Christian world at the
North, and surely, she said, the people did not understand what
the "system" was. Appeals were made to her, who had some personal
knowledge of the subject, to take up her pen. The task seemed
beyond her in every way. She was not strong, she was in the midst
of heavy domestic cares, with a young infant, with pupils to whom
she was giving daily lessons, and the limited income of the family
required the strictest economy. The dependence was upon the small
salary of Professor Stowe, and the few dollars she could earn by
an occasional newspaper or magazine article. But the theme burned
in her mind, and finally took this shape: at least she would write
some sketches and show the Christian world what slavery really
was, and what the system was that they were defending. She wanted
to do this with entire fairness, showing all the mitigations of
the "patriarchal" system, and all that individuals concerned in it
could do to alleviate its misery. While pondering this she came
by chance, in a volume of an anti-slavery magazine, upon the
authenticated account of the escape of a woman with her child on
the ice across the Ohio River from Kentucky. She began to
meditate. The faithful slave husband in Kentucky, who had refused
to escape from a master who trusted him, when he was about to be
sold "down river," came to her as a pattern of Uncle Tom, and the
scenes of the story began to form themselves in her mind. "The
first part of the book ever committed to writing [this is the
statement of Mrs. Stowe] was the death of Uncle Tom. This scene
presented itself almost as a tangible vision to her mind while
sitting at the communion-table in the little church in Brunswick.
She was perfectly overcome by it, and could scarcely restrain the
convulsion of tears and sobbings that shook her frame. She
hastened home and wrote it, and her husband being away, read it to
her two sons of ten and twelve years of age. The little fellows
broke out into convulsions of weeping, one of them saying through
his sobs, 'Oh, mamma, slavery is the most cursed thing in the
world!' From that time the story can less be said to have been
composed by her than imposed upon her. Scenes, incidents,
conversations rushed upon her with a vividness and importunity
that would not be denied. The book insisted upon getting itself
into being, and would take no denial."

When two or three chapters were written she wrote to her friend,
Dr. Bailey, of Washington, the editor of The National Era, to
which she had contributed, that she was planning a story that
might run through several numbers of the Era. The story was at
once applied for, and thereafter weekly installments were sent on
regularly, in spite of all cares and distractions. The
installments were mostly written during the morning, on a little
desk in a corner of the dining-room of the cottage in Brunswick,
subject to all the interruptions of house-keeping, her children
bursting into the room continually with the importunity of
childhood. But they did not break the spell or destroy her
abstraction. With a smile and a word and a motion of the hand she
would wave them off, and keep on in her magician's work. Long
afterwards they recalled this, dimly understood at the time, and
wondered at her power of concentration. Usually at night the
chapters were read to the family, who followed the story with
intense feeling. The narrative ran on for nine months, exciting
great interest among the limited readers of the Era, and gaining
sympathetic words from the anti-slavery people, but without making
any wide impression on the public.

We may pause here in the narrative to note two things: the story
was not the work of a novice, and it was written out of abundant
experience and from an immense mass of accumulated thought and
material. Mrs. Stowe was in her fortieth year. She had been
using her pen since she was twelve years old, in extensive
correspondence, in occasional essays, in short stories and
sketches, some of which appeared in a volume called The Mayflower,
published in 1843, and for many years her writing for newspapers
and periodicals had added appreciably to the small family income.
She was in the maturity of her intellectual powers, she was
trained in the art of writing, and she had, as Walter Scott had
when he began the Waverley Novels at the age of forty-three,
abundant store of materials on which to draw. To be sure, she was
on fire with a moral purpose, but she had the dramatic instinct,
and she felt that her object would not be reached by writing an
abolition tract.

"In shaping her material the author had but one purpose, to show
the institution of slavery truly, just as it existed. She had
visited in Kentucky; had formed the acquaintance of people who
were just, upright, and generous, and yet slave-holders. She had
heard their views, and appreciated their situation; she felt that
justice required that their difficulties should be recognized and
their virtues acknowledged. It was her object to show that the
evils of slavery were the inherent evils of a bad system, and not
always the fault of those who had become involved in it and were
its actual administrators. Then she was convinced that the
presentation of slavery alone, in its most dreadful forms, would
be a picture of such unrelieved horror and darkness as nobody
could be induced to look at. Of set purpose, she sought to light
up the darkness by humorous and grotesque episodes, and the
presentation of the milder and more amusing phases of slavery, for
which her recollection of the never-failing wit and drollery of
her former colored friends in Ohio gave her abundant material."

This is her own account of the process, years after. But it is
evident that, whether consciously or unconsciously, she did but
follow the inevitable law of all great dramatic creators and true
story-tellers since literature began.

For this story Mrs. Stowe received from the Era the sum of three
hundred dollars. Before it was finished it attracted the
attention of Mr. J. P. Jewett, of Boston, a young and then unknown
publisher, who offered to issue it in book form. His offer was
accepted, but as the tale ran on he became alarmed at its length,
and wrote to the author that she was making the story too long for
a one-volume novel; that the subject was unpopular; that people
would not willingly hear much about it; that one short volume
might possibly sell, but that if it grew to two that might prove a
fatal obstacle to its success. Mrs. Stowe replied that she did
not make the story, that the story made itself, and that she could
not stop it till it was done. The publisher hesitated. It is
said that a competent literary critic to whom he submitted it sat
up all night with the novel, and then reported, "The story has
life in it; it will sell." Mr. Jewett proposed to Professor Stowe
to publish it on half profits if he would share the expenses.
This offer was declined, for the Stowes had no money to advance,
and the common royalty of ten per cent on the sales was accepted.

Mrs. Stowe was not interested in this business transaction. She
was thinking only of having the book circulated for the effect she
had at heart. The intense absorption in the story held her until
the virtual end in the death of Uncle Tom, and then it seemed as
if the whole vital force had left her. She sank into a profound
discouragement. Would this appeal, which she had written with her
heart's blood, go for nothing, as all the prayers and tears and
strivings had already gone? When the last proof sheets left her
hands, "it seemed to her that there was no hope; that nobody would
read, nobody would pity; that this frightful system, which had
already pursued its victims into the free States, might at last
even threaten them in Canada." Resolved to leave nothing undone
to attract attention to her cause, she wrote letters and ordered
copies of her novel sent to men of prominence who had been known
for their anti-slavery sympathies,--to Prince Albert, Macaulay,
Charles Dickens, Charles Kingsley, and Lord Carlisle. Then she
waited for the result.

She had not long to wait. The success of the book was immediate.
Three thousand copies were sold the first day, within a few days
ten thousand copies had gone, on the 1st of April a second edition
went to press, and thereafter eight presses running day and night
were barely able to keep pace with the demand for it. Within a
year three hundred thousand copies were sold. No work of fiction
ever spread more quickly throughout the reading community or
awakened a greater amount of public feeling. It was read by
everybody, learned and unlearned, high and low, for it was an
appeal to universal human sympathy, and the kindling of this
spread the book like wildfire. At first it seemed to go by
acclamation. But this was not altogether owing to sympathy with
the theme. I believe that it was its power as a novel that
carried it largely. The community was generally apathetic when it
was not hostile to any real effort to be rid of slavery. This
presently appeared. At first there were few dissenting voices
from the chorus of praise. But when the effect of the book began
to be evident it met with an opposition fiercer and more personal
than the great wave of affectionate thankfulness which greeted it
at first. The South and the defenders and apologists of slavery
everywhere were up in arms. It was denounced in pulpit and in
press, and some of the severest things were said of it at the
North. The leading religious newspaper of the country, published
in New York, declared that it was "anti-Christian."

Mrs. Stowe was twice astonished: first by its extraordinary sale,
and second by the quarter from which the assault on it came. She
herself says that her expectations were strikingly different from
the facts. "She had painted slaveholders as amiable, generous,
and just. She had shown examples among them of the noblest and
most beautiful traits of character; had admitted fully their
temptations, their perplexities, and their difficulties, so that a
friend of hers who had many relatives in the South wrote to her:
'Your book is going to be the great pacificator; it will unite
both North and South.' Her expectation was that the professed
abolitionists would denounce it as altogether too mild in its
dealings with slaveholders. To her astonishment, it was the
extreme abolitionists who received, and the entire South who rose
up against it."

There is something almost amusing in Mrs. Stowe's honest
expectation that the deadliest blow the system ever suffered
should have been received thankfully by those whose traditions,
education, and interests were all bound up in it. And yet from
her point of view it was not altogether unreasonable. Her
blackest villain and most loathsome agent of the system, Legree,
was a native of Vermont. All her wrath falls upon the slave-
traders, the auctioneers, the public whippers, and the overseers,
and all these persons and classes were detested by the Southerners
to the point of loathing, and were social outcasts. The slave-
traders and the overseers were tolerated as perhaps necessary in
the system, but they were never admitted into respectable society.
This feeling Mrs. Stowe regarded as a condemnation of the system.

Pecuniary reward was the last thing that Mrs. Stowe expected for
her disinterested labor, but it suits the world's notion of the
fitness of things that this was not altogether wanting. For the
millions of copies of Uncle Tom scattered over the world the
author could expect nothing, but in her own country her copyright
yielded her a moderate return that lifted her out of poverty and
enabled her to pursue her philanthropic and literary career. Four
months after the publication of the book Professor Stowe was in
the publisher's office, and Mr. Jewett asked him how much he
expected to receive. "I hope," said Professor Stowe, with a
whimsical smile, "that it will be enough to buy my wife a silk
dress." The publisher handed him a check for ten thousand
dollars.

Before Mrs. Stowe had a response to the letters accompanying the
books privately sent to England, the novel was getting known
there. Its career in Great Britain paralleled its success in
America. In April a copy reached London in the hands of a
gentleman who had taken it on the steamer to read. He gave it to
Mr. Henry Vizetelly, who submitted it to Mr. David Bogue, a man
known for his shrewdness and enterprise. He took a night to
consider it, and then declined it, although it was offered to him
for five pounds. A Mr. Gilpin also declined it. It was then
submitted to Mr. Salisbury, a printer. This taster for the public
sat up with the book till four o'clock in the morning, alternately
weeping and laughing. Fearing, however, that this result was due
to his own weakness, he woke up his wife, whom he describes as a
rather strong-minded woman, and finding that the story kept her
awake and made her also laugh and cry, he thought it might safely
be printed. It seems, therefore, that Mr. Vizetelly ventured to
risk five pounds, and the volume was brought out through the
nominal agency of Clarke & Company. In the first week an edition
of seven thousand was worked off. It made no great stir until the
middle of June, but during July it sold at the rate of one
thousand a week. By the 20th of August the demand for it was
overwhelming. The printing firm was then employing four hundred
people in getting it out, and seventeen printing-machines, besides
hand-presses. Already one hundred and fifty thousand copies were
sold. Mr. Vizetelly disposed of his interest, and a new printing
firm began to issue monster editions. About this time the
publishers awoke to the fact that any one was at liberty to
reprint the book, and the era of cheap literature was initiated,
founded on American reprints which cost the publisher no royalty.
A shilling edition followed the one-and-sixpence, and then one
complete for sixpence. As to the total sale, Mr. Sampson Low
reports: "From April to December, 1852, twelve different editions
(not reissues) were published, and within the twelve months of its
first appearance eighteen different London publishing houses were
engaged in supplying the great demand that had set in, the total
number of editions being forty, varying from fine illustrated
editions at 15s., 10s., and 7s. 6d. to the cheap popular editions
of 1s. 9d. and 6d. After carefully analyzing these editions and
weighing probabilities with ascertained facts, I am able pretty
confidently to say that the aggregate number of copies circulated
in Great Britain and the colonies exceeds one and a half
millions." Later, abridgments were published.

Almost simultaneously with this furor in England the book made its
way on the Continent. Several translations appeared in Germany
and France, and for the authorized French edition Mrs. Stowe wrote
a new preface, which served thereafter for most of the European
editions. I find no record of the order of the translations of
the book into foreign languages, but those into some of the
Oriental tongues did not appear till several years after the great
excitement. The ascertained translations are into twenty-three
tongues, namely: Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch,
Finnish, Flemish, French, German, Hungarian, Illyrian, Italian,
Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, modern Greek, Russian, Servian,
Siamese, Spanish, Swedish, Wallachian, and Welsh. Into some of
these languages several translations were made. In 1878 the
British Museum contained thirty-five editions of the original
text, and eight editions of abridgments or adaptations.

The story was dramatized in the United States in August, 1852,
without the consent or knowledge of the author, and was played
most successfully in the leading cities, and subsequently was
acted in every capital in Europe. Mrs. Stowe had neglected to
secure the dramatic rights, and she derived no benefit from the
great popularity of a drama which still holds the stage. From the
phenomenal sale of a book which was literally read by the whole
world, the author received only the ten per cent on the American
editions, and by the laws of her own country her copyright expired
before her death.


The narrative of the rise and fortunes of this book would be
incomplete without some reference to the response that the author
received from England and the Continent, and of her triumphant
progress through the British Isles. Her letters accompanying the
special copies were almost immediately replied to, generally in
terms of enthusiastic and fervent thankfulness for the book, and
before midsummer her mail contained letters from all classes of
English society. In some of them appeared a curious evidence of
the English sensitiveness to criticism. Lord Carlisle and Sir
Arthur Helps supplemented their admiration by a protest against
the remark in the mouth of one of the characters that "slaves are
better off than a large class of the population of England." This
occurred in the defense of the institution by St. Clare, but it
was treated by the British correspondents as the opinion of Mrs.
Stowe. The charge was disposed of in Mrs. Stowe's reply: "The
remark on that subject occurs in the dramatic part of the book, in
the mouth of an intelligent Southerner. As a fair-minded person,
bound to state for both sides all that could be said, in the
person of St. Clare, the best that could be said on that point,
and what I know IS in fact constantly reiterated, namely, that the
laboring class of the South are in many respects, as to physical
comfort, in a better condition than the poor in England. This is
the slaveholder's stereo-typed apology; a defense it cannot be,
unless two wrongs make one right."

In April, 1853, Mr. and Mrs. Stowe and the latter's brother,
Charles Beecher, sailed for Europe. Her reception there was like
a royal progress. She was met everywhere by deputations and
addresses, and the enthusiasm her presence called forth was
thoroughly democratic, extending from the highest in rank to the
lowest. At Edinburgh there was presented to her a national penny
offering, consisting of a thousand golden sovereigns on a
magnificent silver salver, an unsolicited contribution in small
sums by the people.

At a reception in Stafford House, London, the Duchess of
Sutherland presented her with a massive gold bracelet, which has
an interesting history. It is made of ten oval links in imitation
of slave fetters. On two of the links were the inscriptions
"March 25, 1807," the date of the abolition of the slave-trade,
and "August 1, 1838," the date of the abolition of slavery in all
British territory. The third inscription is "562,848--March 19,
1853," the date of the address of the women of England to the
women of America on slavery, and the number of the women who
signed. It was Mrs. Stowe's privilege to add to these
inscriptions the following: "Emancipation D. C. Apl. 16, '62;"
"President's Proclamation Jan. 1, '63;" "Maryland free Oct. 13,
'64;" "Missouri free Jan. 11, '65;" and on the clasp link,
"Constitution amended by Congress Jan. 31, '65. Constitutional
Amendment ratified." Two of the links are vacant. What will the
progress of civilization in America offer for the links nine and
ten?

One of the most remarkable documents which resulted from Uncle Tom
was an address from the women of England to the women of America,
acknowledging the complicity in slavery of England, but praying
aid in removing from the world "our common crimes and common
dishonor," which was presented to Mrs. Stowe in 1853. It was the
result of a meeting at Stafford House, and the address, composed
by Lord Shaftesbury, was put into the hands of canvassers in
England and on the Continent, and as far as Jerusalem. The
signatures of 562,848 women were obtained, with their occupations
and residences, from the nobility on the steps of the throne down
to maids in the kitchen. The address is handsomely engrossed on
vellum. The names are contained in twenty-six massive volumes,
each fourteen inches high by nine in breadth and three inches
thick, inclosed in an oak case. It is believed that this is the
most numerously signed address in existence. The value of the
address, with so many names collected in haphazard fashion, was
much questioned, but its use was apparent in the height of the
civil war, when Mrs. Stowe replied to it in one of the most
vigorous and noble appeals that ever came from her pen. This
powerful reply made a profound impression in England.

This is in brief the story of the book. It is still read, and
read the world over, with tears and with laughter; it is still
played to excited audiences. Is it a great novel, or was it only
an event of an era of agitation and passion? Has it the real
dramatic quality--the poet's visualizing of human life--that makes
works of fiction, of imagination, live? Till recently, I had not
read the book since 1852. I feared to renew acquaintance with it
lest I should find only the shell of an exploded cartridge. I
took it up at the beginning of a three-hours' railway journey. To
my surprise the journey did not seem to last half an hour, and
half the time I could not keep back the tears from my eyes. A
London critic, full of sympathy with Mrs. Stowe and her work,
recently said, "Yet she was not an artist, she was not a great
woman." What is greatness? What is art? In 1862 probably no one
who knew General Grant would have called him a great man. But he
took Vicksburg. This woman did something with her pen,--on the
whole, the most remarkable and effective book in her generation.
How did she do it? Without art? George Sand said, "In matters of
art there is but one rule, to paint and to move. And where shall
we find conditions more complete, types more vivid, situations
more touching, more original, than in Uncle Tom?" If there is not
room in our art for such a book, I think we shall have to stretch
our art a little. "Women, too, are here judged and painted with a
master hand." This subtle critic, in her overpoweringly tender
and enthusiastic review, had already inquired about the capacity
of this writer. "Mrs. Stowe is all instinct; it is the very
reason that she appears to some not to have talent. Has she not
talent? What is talent? Nothing, doubtless, compared to genius;
but has she genius? I cannot say that she has talent as one
understands it in the world of letters, but she has genius as
humanity feels the need of genius,--the genius of goodness, not
that of the man of letters, but of the saint." It is admitted
that Mrs. Stowe was not a woman of letters in the common
acceptation of that term, and it is plain that in the French
tribunal, where form is of the substance of the achievement, and
which reluctantly overlooked the crudeness of Walter Scott, in
France where the best English novel seems a violation of
established canons, Uncle Tom would seem to belong where some
modern critics place it, with works of the heart, and not of the
head. The reviewer is, however, candid: "For a long time we have
striven in France against the prolix explanations of Walter Scott.
We have cried out against those of Balzac, but on consideration
have perceived that the painter of manners and character has never
done too much, that every stroke of the pencil was needed for the
general effect. Let us learn then to appreciate all kinds of
treatment, where the effect is good, and where they bear the seal
of a master hand."

It must be admitted to the art critic that the book is defective
according to the rules of the modern French romance; that Mrs.
Stowe was possessed by her subject, and let her fervid interest in
it be felt; that she had a definite purpose. That purpose was to
quicken the sense of responsibility of the North by showing the
real character of slavery, and to touch the South by showing that
the inevitable wrong of it lay in the system rather than in those
involved in it. Abundant material was in her hands, and the
author burned to make it serviceable. What should she do? She
might have done what she did afterwards in The Key, presented to
the public a mass of statistics, of legal documents. The evidence
would have been unanswerable, but the jury might not have been
moved by it; they would have balanced it by considerations of
political and commercial expediency. I presume that Mrs. Stowe
made no calculation of this kind. She felt her course, and went
on in it. What would an artist have done, animated by her purpose
and with her material? He would have done what Cervantes did,
what Tourgenieff did, what Mrs. Stowe did. He would have
dramatized his facts in living personalities, in effective scenes,
in vivid pictures of life. Mrs. Stowe exhibited the system of
slavery by a succession of dramatized pictures, not always
artistically welded together, but always effective as an
exhibition of the system. Cervantes also showed a fading feudal
romantic condition by a series of amusing and pathetic adventures,
grouped rather loosely about a singularly fascinating figure.

Tourgenieff, a more consummate artist, in his hunting scenes
exhibited the effect of serfdom upon society, in a series of
scenes with no necessary central figure, without comment, and with
absolute concealment of any motive. I believe the three writers
followed their instincts, without an analytic argument as to the
method, as the great painter follows his when he puts an idea upon
canvas. He may invent a theory about it afterwards; if he does
not, some one else will invent it for him. There are degrees of
art. One painter will put in unnecessary accessories, another
will exhibit his sympathy too openly, the technique or the
composition of another can be criticised. But the question is, is
the picture great and effective?

Mrs. Stowe had not Tourgenieff's artistic calmness. Her mind was
fused into a white heat with her message. Yet, how did she begin
her story? Like an artist, by a highly dramatized scene, in which
the actors, by a few strokes of the pen, appear as distinct and
unmistakable personalities, marked by individual peculiarities of
manner, speech, motive, character, living persons in natural
attitudes. The reader becomes interested in a shrewd study of
human nature, of a section of life, with its various refinement,
coarseness, fastidiousness and vulgarity, its humor and pathos.
As he goes on he discovers that every character has been perfectly
visualized, accurately limned from the first; that a type has been
created which remains consistent, which is never deflected from
its integrity by any exigencies of plot. This clear conception of
character (not of earmarks and peculiarities adopted as labels),
and faithful adhesion to it in all vicissitudes, is one of the
rarest and highest attributes of genius. All the chief characters
in the book follow this line of absolutely consistent development,
from Uncle Tom and Legree down to the most aggravating and
contemptible of all, Marie St. Clare. The selfish and hysterical
woman has never been so faithfully depicted by any other author.

Distinguished as the novel is by its character-drawing and its
pathos, I doubt if it would have captivated the world without its
humor. This is of the old-fashioned kind, the large humor of
Scott, and again of Cervantes, not verbal pleasantry, not the
felicities of Lamb, but the humor of character in action, of
situations elaborated with great freedom, and with what may be
called a hilarious conception. This quality is never wanting in
the book, either for the reader's entertainment by the way, or to
heighten the pathos of the narrative by contrast. The
introduction of Topsy into the New Orleans household saves us in
the dangerous approach to melodrama in the religious passages
between Tom and St. Clare. Considering the opportunities of the
subject, the book has very little melodrama; one is apt to hear
low music on the entrance of little Eva, but we are convinced of
the wholesome sanity of the sweet child. And it is to be remarked
that some of the most exciting episodes, such as that of Eliza
crossing the Ohio River on the floating ice (of which Mr. Ruskin
did not approve), are based upon authentic occurrences. The want
of unity in construction of which the critics complain is
partially explained by the necessity of exhibiting the effect of
slavery in its entirety. The parallel plots, one running to
Louisiana and the other to Canada, are tied together by this
consideration, and not by any real necessity to each other.

There is no doubt that Mrs. Stowe was wholly possessed by her
theme, rapt away like a prophet in a vision, and that, in her
feeling at the time, it was written through her quite as much as
by her. This idea grew upon her mind in the retrospective light
of the tremendous stir the story made in the world, so that in her
later years she came to regard herself as a providential
instrument, and frankly to declare that she did not write the
book; "God wrote it." In her own account, when she reached the
death of Uncle Tom, "the whole vital force left her." The
inspiration there left her, and the end of the story, the weaving
together of all the loose ends of the plot, in the joining
together almost by miracle the long separated, and the discovery
of the relationships, is the conscious invention of the novelist.

It would be perhaps going beyond the province of the critic to
remark upon what the author considered the central power of the
story, and its power to move the world, the faith of Uncle Tom in
the Bible. This appeal to the emotion of millions of readers
cannot, however, be overlooked. Many regard the book as effective
in regions remote from our perplexities by reason of this grace.
When the work was translated into Siamese, the perusal of it by
one of the ladies of the court induced her to liberate all her
slaves, men, women, and children, one hundred and thirty in all.
"Hidden Perfume," for that was the English equivalent of her name,
said she was wishful to be good like Harriet Beecher Stowe. And
as to the standpoint of Uncle Tom and the Bible, nothing more
significant can be cited than this passage from one of the latest
writings of Heinrich Heine:--

"The reawakening of my religious feelings I owe to that holy book
the Bible. Astonishing that after I have whirled about all my
life over all the dance-floors of philosophy, and yielded myself
to all the orgies of the intellect, and paid my addresses to all
possible systems, without satisfaction like Messalina after a
licentious night, I now find myself on the same standpoint where
poor Uncle Tom stands,--on that of the Bible! I kneel down by my
black brother in the same prayer! What a humiliation! With all
my science I have come no further than the poor ignorant negro who
has scarce learned to spell. Poor Tom, indeed, seems to have seen
deeper things in the holy book than I. . . . Tom, perhaps,
understands them better than I, because more flogging occurs in
them; that is to say, those ceaseless blows of the whip which have
aesthetically disgusted me in reading the Gospels and the Acts.
But a poor negro slave reads with his back, and understands better
than we do. But I, who used to make citations from Homer, now
begin to quote the Bible as Uncle Tom does."

The one indispensable requisite of a great work of imaginative
fiction is its universality, its conception and construction so
that it will appeal to universal human nature in all races and
situations and climates. Uncle Tom's Cabin does that.
Considering certain artistic deficiencies, which the French
writers perceived, we might say that it was the timeliness of its
theme that gave it currency in England and America. But that
argument falls before the world-wide interest in it as a mere
story, in so many languages, by races unaffected by our own
relation to slavery.

It was the opinion of James Russell Lowell that the anti-slavery
element in Uncle Tom and Dred stood in the way of a full
appreciation, at least in her own country, of the remarkable
genius of Mrs. Stowe. Writing in 1859, he said, "From my habits
and the tendency of my studies I cannot help looking at things
purely from an aesthetic point of view, and what I valued in Uncle
Tom was the genius, and not the moral." This had been his
impression when he read the book in Paris, long after the whirl of
excitement produced by its publication had subsided, and far
removed by distance from local influences. Subsequently, in a
review, he wrote, "We felt then, and we believe now, that the
secret of Mrs. Stowe's power lay in that same genius by which the
great successes in creative literature have always been achieved,--
the genius that instinctively goes to the organic elements of
human nature, whether under a white skin or a black, and which
disregards as trivial the conventions and fictitious notions which
make so large a part both of our thinking and feeling. . . . The
creative faculty of Mrs. Stowe, like that of Cervantes in Don
Quixote and of Fielding in Joseph Andrews, overpowered the narrow
specialty of her design, and expanded a local and temporary theme
with the cosmopolitanism of genius."

A half-century is not much in the life of a people; it is in time
an inadequate test of the staying power of a book. Nothing is
more futile than prophecy on contemporary literary work. It is
safe, however, to say that Uncle Tom's Cabin has the fundamental
qualities, the sure insight into human nature, and the fidelity to
the facts of its own time which have from age to age preserved
works of genius.





Next: STRIVINGS OF THE NEGRO PEOPLE

Previous: THE AWAKENING OF THE NEGRO



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