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LITERARY/ HISTORICAL INFORMATION
In April 1851 Harriet Beecher Stowe sent Dr. Gamaliel Bailey, editor of an anti-slavery weekly in Washington, The National Era, the first chapter of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Over the next nine months, forty-one serial episodes of the novel appeared in the weekly magazine.
In March 1852, the episodes were published as a book, published by J.P Jewett in Boston. By the following year approximately two and a half million copies were sold. It is still one of the most popular works of fiction published and the most widely translated books in the world. President Lincoln once credited it with the comment that it had provoked the Civil War.
In Stowe's Preface to Uncle Tom's Cabin, she states the following:
"The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system so necessarily cruel and unjust as to defeat and do away the good effects of all that can be attempted for them, by their best friends, under it."
The sources for the novel is, to a large extent, second hand. A slave narrative, The Life of Josiah Henson, is one reputed source. Theodore Weld's volume, American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, is yet another. The most important narrative dealing with the slave trade, however, and which no doubt influenced Stowe, was Frederick Douglass' autobiography published in 1845, titled Narrative of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.
In 1851, Stowe wrote to Frederick Douglass, whose narrative she had studied, asking for information on which she could base aspects of her book. She also based her novel on the stories she had heard from her friends. She heard the story of a slave woman crossing the Ohio. The Eliza incident in Uncle Tom's Cabin is based on this incident. To some extent, she had direct knowledge of the condition of the slaves. While Douglass was escaping from his enslavement, Stowe was teaching ex-slaves in the school founded by her elder sister. Often when the facts in her novel were challenged, she assembled evidence to support her work. "A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin" is a collection of defenses, published a year after the novel.
The sentimentality of Uncle Tom's Cabin led to much of its success in the nineteenth century. This very same sentimentality has led to its being marginalized in the twentieth century. More recently the novel has come under attack for being patronizing. The character of Uncle Tom, in particular, has been viewed as demeaning because he is the "good" slave, the submissive victim of years of abuse. In The Way of the New World, Addison Gayle Jr. spoke of Uncle Tom as a "meek mannered, mild, brainless, man child." Even in 1851, when the book was published, black abolitionists were not united in their praise. They claimed Uncle Tom was too passive, a charge brought up by recent black writers as well.
There are strong religious overtones in the novel. Tom gains salvation because he has moral incorruptibility and the strength to suffer. Stowe's critics have hinted that she wanted to liberate the slave socially and re-enslave him spiritually. However, it is inconceivable that Stowe could have ever considered salvation as a form of enslavement. It is more likely the truth that she found in the novel a perfect instrument for her social concerns as well as her artistic ambitions. That religion is such a vital part of the novel is natural, given the author's life and upbringing.