Brian Alderson on the origins of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Not only eyebrows
but angry voices would be raised if Ms Esmée Mascall were to obtrude her 12 page infant “Vanguard Story Hour” reader (ca.1950) upon the readers of today. Under the title of Sambo and Topsy it recounts, with predictable two-colour illustrations, the adventure of “a little black boy” and his friend “a jolly little girl with big black eyes, and a big wide smile, and very white teeth.”
Ms. Mascall’s readers
may well have recognised her choice of Sambo’s name from a much-loved picture book of the time but I doubt if Topsy meant anything in particular and indeed, for many readers today she may be known only as a character from fiction: “displaying a white and brilliant set of teeth [with] woolly hair, braided in sundry little tails”. Her irruption thus in the twentieth chapter of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin occupies only a small part of that long book but, judging from many a dictionary of quotations, it appears to be the most memorable.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
was first published as a serial in the American magazine New Era in 1851-2 and on its subsequent appearance as a two-volume novel it became an instant bestseller, the first work from that country to achieve world renown. The fulcrum of the plot is Mr Shelby’s place in northern Kentucky not too far from the Ohio River across which is Cincinatti and the free states where slavery is outlawed.
We meet Mr Shelby, a “man of humanity”, who is having to negotiate the sale of Uncle Tom, who, though a slave, is a trusted and much-appreciated servant on the farm, for Mr Shelby is financially embarrassed. The slave-trader demands that, to meet Shelby’s desired price, he must throw in to the deal a quick and intelligent young boy, the son of Eliza, Mrs Shelby’s maid.
A hunt ensues,
for Eliza will not give up her son and she flees the house with him, hoping to walk to the river where she might find transport to get across to Ohio. It is a brave endeavour, particularly since the trader (cunningly misled by Eliza’s fellow slaves) is chasing her, and in one of the most graphic moments in the story she clambers across the waters on the ice-melt. On the northern shore good fortune attends her as she finds herself in a Quaker community which is a starting point for the “underground railroad” organised to carry escaped slaves to Canada. Although further danger awaits her as bounty hunters seek to capture her (for it is lawful to return escaped slaves to their owners) the railroad serves her well and, we learn later, she and her son (and indeed her slave husband too) find their way to Montreal.
This opening episode
which occupies the first third of the book is interpolated towards its end with Tom’s departure with the trader from his friendly plantation cabin on the start of their journey down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Thanks to his absorption in mastering a reading of the Bible the voyage ends well since a fellow passenger, a New Orlean slave-owner (also a “man of humanity”), is persuaded by his young daughter – appropriately named Evangeline – to take on Tom as a servant at his farm. However, a looked-for resolution is frustrated when, first, Evangeline dies (consumption, that great aid to Victorian plot-makers) and then her father is murdered and the slaves on his property are summarily despatched to the New Orleans slave warehouse where you may find “an abundance of husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and young children to be sold ‘separately or in lots to suit the convenience of the purchaser’”.
With the evil Mr Legree among the latter,
Tom’s fate is sealed. His natural humanity, coupled with his scriptural meekness under suffering, have no place on the Legree plantation and the harrowing scenes there end in Tom’s death in a cabin reserved for the victims of merciless beating. Whether the story might have finished then is a moot point but Stowe has contrived an ending that serves a more positive purpose and returns us again to the Shelbys from whom Tom was initially sold away. He had not been forgotten by them and their now grown son George has discovered his whereabouts and arrives at the plantation in time only to make a final farewell to a dear friend. He takes the corpse in order to make a decent burial and as we follow him on his return to Kentucky the narrator is able to bring several strands of the early episodes to a conclusion.
The forty-five chapters of the novel
can hardly be categorised as a story for children, although Stowe hoped for child readers, and, compared with another very long story with sermonizing in it: The Swiss Family Robinson, it has much to offer. From the opening discussion between Mr Shelby and the slave-trader there is a command of characterisation and dialogue that convinces throughout the very varied cast. This, coupled with the pace and drama of events, make for an adventure story but heightened by Stowe’s insistence on her abolitionist purpose (whose success eight years later is said to have been acknowledged by President Lincoln). The instant fame of the story was notable in Britain for the publishing, in the absence of copyright protection, of multiple London editions, the leading example from Messrs Cassell being garnished with a couple of dozen full-page etchings by George Cruikshank which would have enhanced its appeal to children. Within a year Routledge published the first of dozens of abridgments and adaptations, including polkas and quadrilles. It was The Juvenile Uncle Tom’s Cabin arranged for young readers by Mrs Catherine Crowe, with plates, but I fancy the little varmints would have preferred unarranged Stowe and masterly George.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His latest book The 100 Best Children’s Books, Galileo Publishing, 978-1903385982, £14.99 hbk, is out now.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is published by Wordsworth Classics, 978-1840224023, £2.50 pbk.