Banned Books Awareness: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe

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When Abraham Lincoln met author Harriet Beecher Stowe, he said: “so this is the little lady who made this big war.”

The impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was tantamount to its popularity as the second best-selling book of the 19th century behind the Bible.

Published in 1852, it did indeed have great influence by giving a lifting wind to the abolitionist movement.  However, prosperous plantation owners had some influence too, and banned the book due to its anti-slavery themes.  Surprisingly, they were not alone in their decision.  Tsarist Russia did the same in objection to the book’s “undermining religious ideals” and presenting a model of equality.

Another subtheme was the moral authority of motherhood.  Stowe saw motherhood as the “ethical and structural model for all of American life,” and believed that only women had the moral authority to save the United States from slavery.  Critics have noted that Stowe’s female characters are often domestic clichés instead of realistic women.  Stowe’s novel nevertheless reaffirmed the importance of women’s influence and helped lay the seeds for the women’s suffrage movement several decades later.

Connecticut-born teacher Stowe wrote the novel as a response to the passage of the second Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 which declared that all runaway slaves be brought back to their masters.  Abolitionists nicknamed it the “Bloodhound Law” for the dogs that were used to track down runaway slaves.

The novel focuses on the character of Uncle Tom, a black slave around whom the lives of both fellow slaves and slave owners revolve.  The narrative depicts the reality of slavery, while at the same time asserting that Christian love can overcome something as destructive as slavery.

The book also helped popularize a number of stereotypes about black people, many of which continue to this day, such as “mammy” and the “pickaninny” stereotype of black children.  In recent years, the negative associations with Uncle Tom’s Cabin have overshadowed its historical impact.

Immediately upon publication, Uncle Tom’s Cabin outraged people in the South.  Southern novelist William Gilmore Simms declared the work “utterly false”, while others called it criminal or slanderous.

A bookseller in Mobile, Alabama was forced to leave town for selling the novel; and threatening letters were sent to Stowe herself.  On one horrific occasion she received a package containing a slave’s severed ear.

The novel has been the subject of attack from both sides of the political spectrum. Those on the conservative side object to the use of vulgar language while those on the left protest the use of the word “nigger”, as well as stereotyping the language and attitudes of blacks.  In 1984, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was classified as “forbidden” in a Waukegan, Illinois school district for its language.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is as much a socio-historical reference as it is a work of fiction.  It offers a snapshot in time of a period of great change in not just American history, but in human history.  The terms, dialogue, stereotypes, and situations were very real.  To be so guilt-ridden over those dark chapters that one resorts to revisionist history is a slap in the face of all those who fought so bravely, on both sides.  It is intellectually irresponsible to perform surgery on something that  is in perfect health.  I am again reminded of Sean Connery’s classic dialogue from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Colonel Vogel: What does the diary tell you that it doesn’t tell us?

Henry Jones: It tells me that goose-stepping morons like yourself should try reading books instead of burning them.

History exists so that we can learn from our mistakes, not hide from them out of some sense of shame, or outdated fear of change.  The only constant in life is change.

Sources: American Library Association, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Wikipedia, top10.co,

© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

3 thoughts on “Banned Books Awareness: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe

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