Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the first American book to sell more than one million copies. It earned its author international fame, admiration in the northern United States, and the scorn of most Southern commentators. The novel enjoyed popular accolades as it swept through persons at home, circulating libraries, and was passed along from reader to reader. Northern literary critics, in addition to the general public, were equally enthusiastic. Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “the only book that found readers in the parlor, the nursery, and the kitchen in every household.” International literary figures such as George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, and Victor Hugo praised the novel as a masterpiece. President Lincoln is claimed to have told Harriet Beecher Stowe when she was visiting the White House: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” The book also generated a variety of products: engravings, figurines, plates, busts, embossed spoons, and other memorabilia.
Among the derivative items generated by the popularity of the novel were a large number of dramas and other stage interpretations of Stowe’s work. (None of these theatrical versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was approved by the author. Mid-nineteenth-century copyright laws were weak or non-existent during this period.)
The literary establishment eventually abandoned Uncle Tom’s Cabin, calling it melodramatic, sentimental, and a pedestrian work. However, accusations of the Uncle Tom character as obsequious, shuffling, and servile are not characteristics found in the novel, but rather in stage performance adaptations. Professor Amanda Claybaugh, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, states that the “servile old Uncle Tom … exists nowhere in the novel; he is a creature of the so-called “Tom shows.”
The “Tom shows” were popular immediately following the Civil War. Hundreds of troupes called “Tommers” traveled the world to put on minstrel shows filled with singing and dancing that portrayed African Americans as subservient and simple homespun characters. The subject of slavery in these shows was barely visible. For the most part, African Americans were portrayed by white actors in blackface who spoke with an exaggerated dialect.
As Professor Claybaugh observes: “ In the novel, Tom is not only a devout Christian, but also a vigorous and capable man, the father of young children, the superintendent of his master’s farms …. When Legree tortures him to learn the whereabouts of two escaped slaves, Tom dies rather than reveal them. It was the Tom shows’ debt to minstrelsy that transformed this heroic character into a weak and feeble-minded old man, shuffling and grinning at even those who oppress him…. Such a Tom exists nowhere in the novel.”
Had she lived to see the popular but distorted representations of her work, Harriet Beecher Stowe would have been outraged. Perhaps she would have recalled what she once said when asked why she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “I wrote what I did as a woman, as a mother. I was oppressed and broken-hearted with the sorrow and injustices I saw.” The real Uncle Tom lives on today in the pages of Stowe’s powerful novel.