While many of our readers are rightly concerned with the upcoming Civil War sesquicentennial, a few might remember another important set of Civil War-era anniversaries: the 160th anniversary of the serialization and book-format publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. The most successful North American novel of the nineteenth century and a work that was instrumental in mobilizing Northern opposition to slavery, the opening chapters of Stowe's most famous work first appeared in the June 5, 1851 issue of the National Era, a national newspaper headquartered in Washington, DC. Forty installations later, Stowe's story had run its course, and her work was a topic of discussion in every corner of the United States. One observer even found hard-bitten California gold miners eagerly discussing the trials and adventures of Uncle Tom, Eliza, and many of the author's other memorable characters. But the world was not yet done with Stowe's work. For those who missed Uncle Tom's Cabin in its serial format, or who simply wished to revisit the novel in its entirety, a two-volume book edition became available on March 20, 1852.
For any number of reasons (a few of them valid, many decidedly less so), Uncle Tom's Cabin has fallen from public favor in the last half-century. Once a staple of adolescent reading, the novel is now more often visited as a useful documentary testament to middle-class culture and opinion in the antebellum North. I had the recent good fortune to encounter the novel in the fabulous Norton edition - edited, annotated, and introduced by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Over the weekend, I hope to put together a couple of additional posts on the book, its value to modern readers and historians, and its meaning to contemporaries - but in the meantime, I'd like to direct your attention to a wonderful resource I discovered after finishing the novel.
'Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture' is a multimedia archive put together by University of Virginia professor of English, Dr. Stephen Railton. An invaluable asset to readers interested in understanding the book's historical context and legacy, the archive includes information pertaining to Stowe's cultural, literary, and political milieu, the text of the novel itself, manuscript pages in Stowe's handwriting, and a variety of other sources. Perhaps the most interesting documents are the contemporary book reviews - from the breathlessly positive notice in The Christian Examiner to the downright scathing review in The Southern Literary Messenger. Also interesting, in a grimly visceral way, is the variety of ways in which illustrators chose to depict scenes from the book. Some, like this depiction of Topsy from an 1897 edition, are glaringly offensive and indulge in some of the period's most pernicious racial stereotypes.
Others, however, like this 1922 depiction of George Harris's personal declaration of independence, lend the novel's characters of color a decided degree of dignity.
More thoughts to follow; in the meantime, please enjoy exploring this excellent resource.