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Uncle Tom's Cabin ad

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Everyone knows the old tale—when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe for the first time, he said, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.” While Stowe was physically small—she didn’t even reach five feet tall—she powerfully influenced the culture and political life of nineteenth century America. Her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, became one of the most widely read and deeply penetrating books of its time.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 10,000 copies in its first week and 300,000 by the end of the year, astronomical numbers for the mid-nineteenth century. By the end of the decade, more than two million copies had been sold. Not well-received in the South, the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger instructed his reviewer: "I would have the review as hot as hellfire, blasting and searing the reputation of the vile wretch in petticoats who could write such a volume." Outside of the South, however, the novel's impact was global rather than national. Among those who hailed it as a masterpiece were Ivan Turgenev, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy and George Eliot. It was Lenin's favorite book as a child.

For some 65 years after its debut, Uncle Tom's Cabin was frequently presented on stage. As late as 1913 there were "about four Uncle Tom's Cabin Companies on tour, and at least two of them… doing a good business." Although at first white actors usually played all the parts (rendering characters like the slaves Uncle Tom, Eliza, and Little Eva in blackface), later productions did feature African-American actors. Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Abbott and Costello, and even Felix the Cat performed in film adaptations.

Today, we think of the term “Uncle Tom” as a pejorative, and it is through the theatre and film that Uncle Tom became a literary figure synonymous with passive resistance, betrayal, and subservience. Stage adaptations removed all radical antislave messages and turned it into a minstrel show. By World War II, Uncle Tom had become a byword for subservience in the face of racial oppression. To Malcolm X, Uncle Tom was the man preaching reform when others were preaching revolution; the one who advocated peace instead of war; the person who urged others to stay at home instead of taking to the streets; the leader who preached racial equality instead of Black Power. Ultimately, Uncle Tom came “to represent the lackey, the moderate, the conciliator and the sell-out.”

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Uncle Tom's Cabin, the blockbuster of the 19th century

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