Tag Archives: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

The greatest American novel

It’s difficult to argue with the claim that no American novel has had more psychological, social, and political impact that Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And no 19th-century American novel continues to be debated to this very day like Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s classic indictment of slavery.

David S. Reynolds certainly makes those claims and more in his Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America, a survey of the novel — how it was written and published, the impact it had, and its continuing effects.

No book in American history molded public opinion more powerfully than Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Published in 1852, it set sales records for American fiction. An international sensation, it was soon translated into many languages. The Boston preacher Theodore Parker declared that it was ‘more an event than a book, and has excited more attention than any book since the invention of printing.'” (p. xi)

Sales of the book were certainly phenomenal — 300,000 copies in its first year, a number three times that of the previous American best-sellers. The public, however, had been primed for the book because it had already appeared as a 40-part serialization in the newspaper The National Era, beginning in June 1851. Dwarfing its audience in American was the number of copies sold — more than a million — in the United Kingdon in its first year. Also in that year, it was translated into nine languages, and more translations followed in the subsequent years.

Commentators at the time recognized that its actual readership far exceeded its sales because a favorite past-time of home life was to read books aloud to friends and family (the audiobook of the 19th century).

Suffice it to say that Uncle Tom’s Cabin took over the American mind (and many minds beyond America’s shores), and the novel has held its grip on a portion of that mind ever since. Immediately after its publication, the debate about slavery — and ultimately the debate about America — was never the same.

Reynolds’ book is a fascinating look inside a fascinating and important phenomenon in the history of the nation.


Thomas Dixon: a writer on the wrong side of history

Sometimes a successful writer, both in his life and in his writing, gets it all wrong. Such was the case with Thomas Dixon.

Dixon was born in 1864 in North Carolina and grew up during the Reconstruction era as an unreconstructed Southerner. He attended Wake Forest and later Johns Hopkins, where he befriended a young Woodrow Wilson. He got into politics, practiced law, and eventually became a Baptist minister. He accepted an offer from a larger church in Boston where his fame and popularity grew. He moved from there to New York in 1889, and by 1895 he had given up the pastorate to be fulltime on the lecture circuit. He was thought to be the most popular lecturer in the nation at the time.

In 1901, while on a lecture tour, Dixon attended a theatrical version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He cried at the performance, not out of sympathy for the characters in the play but out of anger for what he thought was Stowe’s misrepresentation of the South. He vowed then and there — 50 years after Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published — to get even and to set the record straight.

Dixon decided that he would write a sequel to Uncle Tom’s Cabin but would do so from the South’s point of view.

Dixon’s novel, The Leopard’s Spots, was published in 1902, and his fame — in addition to the tenor of the times — made it a best-seller. Dixon followed that success with another novel, The Clansman, in 1903 and still another in 1909, The Traitor. All were virulently racist books that played on the fear white people had of blacks and the supposed evils of miscegenation. All were highly popular with the reading public.

They were so popular that movie director D.W. Griffith used them to make his early epic, The Birth of a Nation. The film reflected the racist views of Dixon’s novels.

One of the people who shared these views was Woodrow Wilson, Dixon’s old friend from Johns Hopkins. The two had stayed in touch over the years. When The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, Wilson sponsored a private showing in the White House and is reported to have said the file was “like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so true.”

Dixon’s writing undoubtedly had an impact, confirming the stereotypes and prejudices of many of his readers. But his work never came close to undoing the mighty fortress of accuracy, logic, and emotion that Harriet Beecher Stowe built.

Dixon inadvertently paid tribute to Stowe in the Leopard’s Spots when he wrote:

A little Yankee woman wrote a book. The single act of that woman’s will caused the war, killed a million men, desolated and ruined the South, and changed the history of the world.

And it drove Dixon to spend much of his life and intellect trying, unsuccessfully, to counter all that.

Margaret Fuller packed more than a lifetime into her 40 short years

What I mean by the Muse is that unimpeded clearness of the intuitive powers, which a perfectly truthful adherence to every admonition of the higher instincts would bring to a finely organized human being. It may appear as prophecy or as poesy. … and should these faculties have free play, I believe they will open new, deeper and purer sources of joyous inspiration than have as yet refreshed the earth.
Let us be wise, and not impede the soul. Let her work as she will. Let us have one creative energy, one incessant revelation. Let it take what form it will, and let us not bind it by the past to man or woman, black or white.

Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, 1845


Margaret Fuller, born in 1810, has these “firsts” to her credit

  • first full-time book reviewer in American journalism
  • first woman allowed to use the library at Harvard College
  • first female foreign correspondent for a major newspaper in the U.S.

Margaret Fuller, watercolor by Jim Stovall © 2017

But that is just the beginning to understanding and appreciating this remarkable woman who thought far ahead of her time.

Margaret Fuller was as smart as any man around her. In an age when the educational and professional opportunities were limited, Fuller elbowed her way into the top intellectual circles of her day with a depth of knowledge and understanding could not match. Her personality could be grating. She was assertive in an age when women were supposed to be demure. She talked when most women would have stayed silent. She showed up in public places when most women would have stayed home.

She was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, into a family that valued education and had an extensive library. She had some periods of formal education at various schools, but in the main, her education was directed by her father and conducted by herself. By the time she was in her late 20s, her family had moved to Groton, Mass., her father had died, and her financial troubles — which would plague her for the rest of her life — had begun.

But she had begun an intellectual journey that would take her a long way in a very short time.

She had met Ralph Waldo Emerson and those who would become known as the Transcendentalists, America’s first literary movement. In fact, she was so involved with them that they asked her to edit their publication, The Dial, and she did so, contributing a number of articles of her own. To sustain herself financially, she began teaching, and in 1839, she began a series of Conversations, seminars in which women were invited to discuss the status of females in modern society. During all of this time, she wrote extensively — articles, essays, reviews, and books.

Fuller knew most of the major literary figures of the day including Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Edgar Allen Poe, who called her a “busy-body” when she intervened with him for a friend.

Horace Greeley

Her writing caught the attention of Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, who invited in 1846 her to move to New York and become a columnist and reviewer. Before doing that, however, Greeley encouraged her to expand her writings on gender inequality into a book. She did so, and the book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, became a founding document of modern feminism. Her subsequent work at the Tribune as a reviewer and columnist greatly expanded her audience for her radical views on gender equality.

Those radical views included abolitionism (the freeing of slaves) and suffrage (the right of women to vote).

In August 1846, she sailed for Europe. She had been hired to tutor the son of a wealthy Quaker family, but she continued to write for Greeley’s Tribune. As such, she became American journalism first female foreign correspondent. Her travels took her to Italy where she met and fell in love with Giovanni Ossoli, an Italian nobleman of no particular wealth or intellectual virtue. He was involved in the Roman revolution of the period, however, and Fuller sent dispatches about that movement to the Tribune, thus becoming American journalism’s first female war correspondent.

Fuller and Ossoli had a son, but there is no record that they were ever married. In 1850, they returned to America on board a merchant ship. As it approached Fire Island, New York, the ship was caught in a violent hurricane. Fuller, Ossoli, and their son were killed, and their bodies were never recovered. A cobbled-together anthology of her works after her death was a best-seller in the 1850s until it was replaced at the top of the charts by Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Here’s another sample of her writing:

We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man. Were this done, and a slight temporary fermentation allowed to subside, we should see crystallizations more pure and of more various beauty. We believe the divine energy would pervade nature to a degree unknown in the history of former ages, and that no discordant collision, but a ravishing harmony of the spheres, would ensue.
Yet, then and only then will mankind be ripe for this, when inward and outward freedom for Woman as much as for Man shall be acknowledged as a right, not yielded as a concession.

Another first should be added to Margaret Fuller’s list of credits at the beginning of this piece:

She was America’s first female public intellectual. Her mind and her pen never stopped, and her life was too short.


Fuller’s life has inspired several biographies, which are amply cited in a 2013 New Yorker article on Fuller’s life by Judith Thurman: An Unfinished Woman | The New Yorker

Thanks to https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Margaret_Fuller#Woman_in_the_Nineteenth_Century_.281845.29 for the quotations in this piece.