Harriet Beecher Stowe´s Uncle Tom´s Cabin: The Creation and influence of a masterpiece

©2013 Academic Paper 58 Pages


Harriet Beecher Stowe´s novel Uncle Tom´s Cabin, was one of the most controversial books, published in 1851/52 and put the debate on slavery more strongly in the center of public attention. It had great influence on other writers at that time. This paper deals with the writing and the publishing of Stowe´s masterpiece and the comparison with ist most popular stage adaptation by George L. Aiken. Similarities as well as differences will be presented as far as the structure, the characters and the themes are concerned.


Table Of Contents

Table of Contents

0. Introduction

2. The Writing and Publishing of Uncle Tom´s Cabin

3. Sources of Uncle Tom´s Cabin

4. Adaptations of the Novel
4.1. George Aiken´s Version of Uncle Tom´s Cabin

5. Critique on Uncle Tom´s Cabin
5.1. The North
5.2. The South
5.3. AntiUncle Tom Literature

6. Content of Uncle Tom´s Cabin

7. Comparison of Stowe´s Novel and Aiken´s Drama
7.1. Structure and Plot
7.2. Characters
7.2.2. Characters Added by Aiken
7.2.3. Characters in Both the Novel and the Drama
7.3. Themes

8. Conclusion

9. Bibliography

0. Introduction

“So you´re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war“ (Raabe 216)! With these words Abraham Lincoln is said to have greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe when she visited the white House in 1863. Without doubt, Uncle Tom´s Cabin, Stowe´s first antislavery novel, was one of the most controversial books when it was published in 1851/52. Although it certainly can´t be seen as the true reason for the Civil War that started in 1861, it nevertheless put the debate on slavery more strongly in the center of public attention.

This paper deals with this highly controversial book. First, the context of the writing as well as the publishing of Uncle Tom´s Cabin will be presented, and its sources will be outlined. For a better understanding of the circumstances, some biographical pieces of information about the author will be given beforehand. The next section will focus on the several stage adaptations of Uncle Tom´s Cabin, the one by George L. Aiken will already be treated in more detail. The mixed reactions towards Stowe´s novel in general will be delineated, too. After giving a summary of the content of Uncle Tom´s Cabin to establish the basis for a further analysis, the main part of this paper will deal with the comparison of the novel with Aiken´s most -as far as the structure, the characters and the themes are concerned. This paper will try to show that Aiken´s version of Uncle Tom´s Cabin comes very close to Stowe´s novel, but that he incorporated his own ideas as well to partly produce other effects, too.

1. Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on June 14, 1811. Her father Lyman Beecher, who was an influential minister of the Congregational Church and a rigorous Calvinist, was head of the household since Stowe´s mother had died early in 1816. Stowe, the seventh of nine children, was shaped by daily religious instructions and family worship. Religion decidedly played a central role in the life of her family. “Because of her father´s focus on his sons´ mental and intellectual preparation as future ministers, Harriet often felt neglected“ (Wurst 2449). Her sister Catherine became a strong influence in her life. When she was twelve years old, Stowe was put under the direction of her disciplinary sister at the Hartford Female Seminary, who “consecrated herself to the cause of female education“ (Adams 22).

In 1832, her family reunited and moved to Cincinnatti, Ohio (Adams 2123). Very soon she met Calvin E. Stowe, a biblical scholar, whom she married in 1836 (Wurst 2449). From then on she was busy caring for her growing family. The marriage produced seven children. During that time of her life, Stowe was still disappointed and unhappy. Not only was she controlled by her husband and her conduct regulated by him, but she had to live in poverty and was strongly bound to her household tasks. She felt constrained. What bothered her the most were her money problems. To help support the family financially, she dedicated herself to writing. Later in her life, Stowe would say that she primarily “wrote for money“ (Adams 25). Her husband supported her literary career, but her bad physical condition sometimes kept her from writing.

Altogether, Stowe spent about eighteen years in Cincinnatti. Although it was a period of poverty and distress, it was nevertheless a period rich in observation and experience (Anthony 117). “It was there that she first visited a plantation in neighboring Kentucky and was introduced directly to issues of slavery, because in Cincinnatti, there were many freed and fugitive slaves“ (Wurst 2449). On the plantation, Stowe saw the life of the slaves in their cabins. To the impressions she gained there those of her brother, who had been to New Orleans and ascended the Red River, were added (Anthony 117). In Cincinnatti she also became familiar with the abolitionist movement and the “underground railroad.“ Although these experiences had a deep impact on her, it took her several years to digest these things and write about them (Ellis 1247). “It was not until her return to New England in 1850 during the discussion over the Fugitive Slave Law, that her antislavery feeling became intense“ (Anthony 117).

Before she left Cincinnatti for her home New England, she suffered a stroke of fate. In 1849 her oneyearold son Samuel Charles died of cholera. “It was at his dying bed and at his grave,“ Stowe wrote of Charley in a letter, “that I learned what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her“ (Stowe (2007) 21). One year later she started writing Uncle Tom´s Cabin at Brunswick. The novel was published in 1851/52, followed by A Key to “ Uncle Tom´s Cabin “ in 1853. Three years later she wrote Dred: A Tale of Great Dismal Swamp, another antislavery novel, published in 1856. The pen forever remained her most powerful antislavery weapon (Hedrick 906/07). Legend has it, that when Stowe came to the White House in 1862, president Abraham Lincoln greeted her as “´the little lady who wrote the book that made this big war!`“ It is more than doubtful that the book caused the Civil War, but, nevertheless, the legend shows that Stowe had become a famous public figure, and that Uncle Tom´s Cabin exercised a great influence on public opinion (Adams 8/9).

After the Civil War, Stowe was again busy writing books, mainly New England and society novels. She poured forth a steady stream of fiction publishing on the average almost a book a year until she ended her literary career in 1878 (Anthony 119). Throughout her career she used literature to have a political voice, and shape public opinion. “She urged the nation to civil disobedience, challenged religious orthodoxy, and dared to discuss incest – all in the name of motherhood, Christianity, and democracy“ (Hedrick 908). Never did she have the success she had with Uncle Tom´s Cabin again. Her eventual conviction that her bestselling novel was written by God has been much ridiculed (Wagenknecht 162). However, one has to keep in mind that in her final years, her mind at times wandered. She died on July 1, 1896 in Litchfield, Connecticut (Wurst 2450).

2. The Writing and Publishing of Uncle Tom´s Cabin

When Stowe began writing her famous novel she was about forty years old and in poor shape. She had been living in poverty with her family for a long time, was sick and exhausted from trying to fulfil her roles as a good wife, mother, and housewife. She had been subservient for all her life, felt miserable, and even compared her situation to that of a slave (Adams 44). In her own words, Uncle Tom´s Cabin was “her declaration of independence, … her emancipation proclamation“ (Adams 27). “Into Uncle Tom´s Cabin … Mrs. Stowe was able to pour her whole life … .“ Before the book´s success, she was harassed by debt and unknown; after it, she was wealthy and famous (Adams 45/46). And Uncle Tom´s Cabin made her more than just famous – it made her immortal.

Before she wrote Uncle Tom´s Cabin, Stowe had already published stories in which she treated the issue of slavery, e.g. “The Freeman´s Dream: A Parable“. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of these works was rather weak. “Compared with this crude effort, Uncle Tom´s Cabin would be a masterpiece of persuasion“ (Gossett 89). After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, which was part of the Compromise of 1850, Stowe at last set out to write an antislavery novel. It is said that her sisterinlaw, Mrs Edward Beecher, exerted the final influence on Stowe when writing a letter to her toward the end of 1850. She is quoted as saying, “´Now, Hattie, if I could just use the pen as you can, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is`“ (Anthony 117). Reading the passage aloud to her family, Stowe “rose from her chair, crushed the letter in her hand, and … said, `I will write something. I will if I live`“ (Gossett 90). And so she did, although it wasn´t easy for her. Still she had to care for her children and the house in Brunswick, Maine, where she had been living since the spring of 1850. And she was all alone, her husband Calvin being away in Cincinnatti. To him she wrote that she was thinking of writing a sketch for the National Era (Gossett 8791). It wasn´t long afterward that Stowe imagined the character of Uncle Tom. There are different stories about how she imagined his death scene. Once she said that during a communion service in Brunswick, “she had what she could only describe as a ´vision` of the scene which illustrated the worst possible evil of slavery – death by torture“ (Gossett 91). Another time she said that the scene arose before her when she was lying down to rest after lunch one day. “In the introduction to the 1879 edition of Uncle Tom´s Cabin, Stowe told how she had written the whipping scene of Uncle Tom before anything else in the novel … “ (Gossett 92).

As she had planned it, Uncle Tom´s Cabin first appeared as a serial in the antislavery journal National Era. At the beginning she had no intention of writing a novel. To Gamaliel Bailey, the publisher of the newspaper, she wrote that she thought of her story extending through four issues of the weekly journal. In the same letter she explained that it would be a series of sketches about the “patriarchal institution,“ and that the incidents described would have occurred in the sphere of her observation or her personal knowledge. Stowe was paid $300 for the story and received additional $100, as her story in the end didn´t extend through four, but through more than thirty issues of the National Era (Gossett 97). The journal printed Stowe´s story from June 5, 1851, to April 1, 1852 (Wurst 2451). In 1852 Uncle Tom´s Cabin was published in book form by J. P. Jewett (Hedrick 907). There were two volumes, “with a woodcut of a negro cabin as the frontispiece“ (Anthony 117). Within the first week of its publication, ten thousand copies were sold. “The first edition, consisting of 5,000 copies, was bought out in just two days … “ (Hill 53). Within a year, the story sold more than threehundred thousand copies solely in the United States. The sales in Europe were not less phenomenal. In one year, forty different editions were published in Great Britain and its colonies; overall, 1.5 million copies were sold. The story was translated into dozens of languages and dialects. In Germany, a total of seventyfive editions were printed. Even in Italy, Stowe had great success with her first novel, although it was banned by the Catholic Church (Hill 53). Not only was Uncle Tom´s Cabin translated into many languages, and were hundreds of editions printed all over the world, but it was immediately put on stage, and “embodied in popular culture in the form of songs, toys, and figurines“ (Hedrick 907).

3. Sources of Uncle Tom´s Cabin

People have agreed on Theodore Weld´s American Slavery As It Is (1839) being a major source for Stowe´s antislavery novel. In the preface to the 1878 edition of her book she explicitly acknowledges the use of Weld´s wellknown propaganda book for abolition (Adams 57). American Slavery As It Is was “a collection of excerpts from legal documents, advertisements, and statements from slaveholders“ (Wurst 2450).

Stowe owed much to Weld, but she made use of other sources as well. Uncle Tom´s Cabin shares similarities with other abolitionist novels, e.g. with Richard Hildreth´s The Slave: or Memoirs of Archy Moore (1836). The character of Archy reminds one of George Harris, and the cruel overseer of the novel is a Northerner – just like Legree. Cassy suggests an appropriate comparison with Eliza, and there is even a character similar to Uncle Tom, namely the slave Thomas. Both Uncle Tom and Thomas are of unmixed African blood, gentle, and pious Christians. Although several common features can be recognized, Stowe never admitted acquaintance with Hildreth´s antislavery novel (Adams 57; Gossett 154).

The autobiography of Josiah Henson[1] has also been identified as an authentic source for parts of Uncle Tom´s Cabin. His character can well be compared with that of Uncle Tom. Henson himself claims to have provided Stowe with the originals of George Harris, Eliza, Topsy, Legree, St. Clare and Eva in the persons of friends and particular acquaintances. In fact, Stowe knew Henson´s autobiography very well (Adams 56). Still, opinion is deeply divided on this issue. Some people think that Stowe simply copied certain things from other books and built on the reports of others, while other people are sure that she derived her materials mainly from personal experience and observation. It is said that when Stowe visited a plantation in Kentucky in 1833, she observed everything and thereby got all she needed for the depiction of the Shelby plantation (Wagenknecht 157). As far as the characters are concerned, among other things, it is assumed that the human original of Topsy was a black girl named Celeste, whom the Beechers came to know in Cincinnati. The human original of Eliza is supposed to have been a fugitive, whom Stowe´s father had helped (Adams 56). Nevertheless, several originals have been suggested for the different characters. It is not clear which source is the right one.

Other great writers of that time seem to have influenced Stowe, too. The character of Eva shows some similarities with Charles Dickens´ Nell. Topsy suggests comparison with Pearl of Nathaniel Hawthorne´s masterpiece The Scarlet Letter. “Neither Hawthorne nor Stowe was convinced that children are inherently innocent“ (Gossett 132/33).

Some themes of Uncle Tom´s Cabin have their source from very personal events in the life of Stowe. “In her depiction of Eva´s death, she may owe something to family accounts of her own mother´s death. Lyman Beecher had seen the moment of Roxana´s dying as her grand entrance into heaven“ (Gossett 143).

Stowe as a professional writer used all the sources she could use to write Uncle Tom´s Cabin. The most important sources were probably her own experience and observations. Only because of that was she able to write her novel with such a passion like she did.

4. Adaptations of the Novel

“Despite the popularity of Stowe´s novel, most Americans probably got their Uncle Tom experience from one of the myriad performances on stage“ (Richards 371). Stowe´s novel was complex. The melodramatic scenes and the vivid characters in Uncle Tom´s Cabin provided great material for dramatic productions (Toll 90). Therefore, it is not surprising that at about the same time, when the novel was published in book form, there were several adaptations of Uncle Tom´s Cabin with which Stowe had no connection – never did a playwright seek for her permission to bring a play based on the content of her famous novel on the stage – and from which she gained no profit. “Some scripts followed a simple theme and were almost sketches; other versions lasted as long as five hours and included some fifty scenes“ (Meserve 113). Be that as it may, these adaptations misrepresented her novel to such a degree “that it still controls some people´s reactions to the author“ (Adams 7). Weak copyright laws in the United States provided for the novel´s title, characters, and plot devices being taken and used in different ways. All across the nation theaters put on socalled “Tom shows.“ Most of the productions didn´t have anything in common with the original novel except the title or the names of the characters e.g. (Gardner 165). “By 1900 there were twelve different playscripts in print and probably many more pirated and adapted versions were staged but never published“ (Hill 53). As a matter of fact, some of the versions were well performed into the 20th century. About fifty troups toured the United States in 1879, and there were still twelve companies which performed Uncle Tom´s Cabin in 1927 (Bordman 685). Even in England, people were scrambling to get Uncle Tom´s Cabin on the stage. Eight versions of the play are solely recorded in London during 1852. No other play can show a comparable variety in the stage versions. Not without good reason does the play deserve the title “The World´s Greatest Hit“ (Meserve 108, 11213). Those who don´t completely agree with that must at least acknowledge that “Uncle Tom´s Cabin was one of the most important documents in American dramatic history.“ Every major American actor or actress had played one of the characters from the famous novel (Miller 22).

In the United States, Charles Western Taylor brought the first important version to the stage. His play had its premiere at New York´s National Theatre in August 1852. It was the first abolitionist document to reach the stage, and, besides, there was a second novelty: for the first time, blacks appeared as leading characters in a drama (Miller 22). Before, the stage Negro had the character of a clownish servant and was spoofed (Meserve 73). Clifton Tayleure put a popular version on stage in Detroit in October 1852. H. J. Conway´s version, which was the most famous proSouthern version of Uncle Tom´s Cabin, ran in Boston for two hundred nights, and was eventually staged by the famous showman P. T. Barnum at his multimedia museum in New York in November 1853. Barnum claimed that Conway´s version would give a “´true picture of negro life in the South`“ by showing the cruelties of the institution of slavery without unjustly elevating blacks above the white race in morals or intellect. The production had a happy ending with Uncle Tom being finally rescued from cruel Legree´s plantation (Richards 369; Toll 91). A few years later there were four rival productions solely in New York, with or without a happy ending. Many of these productions of the drama “carried a chorus of authentic blacks to sing and dance plantation and jubilee songs and to perform socalled Negro specialities“ (Hill 56).


[1] An escaped slave who escaped to Ontario, Canada in 1830.


Type of Edition
ISBN (Softcover)
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508 KB
Publication date
2013 (June)
Harriet Beecher Uncle Tom's Cabin slavery George L. Aiken

Title: Harriet Beecher Stowe´s Uncle Tom´s Cabin: The Creation and influence of a masterpiece
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58 pages