As Borges observed, it is not the order in which books are written that most influences us; it is the order in which we read them. Case in point: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Today, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel is read–when it is read at all–as an assignment in middle or high school. We are introduced to it as part of an elementary-level education. What is more, many people who have never read the book believe they have a fair idea of its contents. They know it is a tract attacking the great American injustice: slavery. The book they imagine is polemical, high-toned, shrill and simplistic. (For many potential readers the very title is off-putting; Uncle Tom’s own name has become a slur.) If we’re willing to grant the book any virtues, they’re the kind we believe–or used to believe–instill moral rectitude in the young and naïve.
Much more than Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Poe’s fiction and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains frozen in the past, a blurry childhood memory. Many adults will have the experience of weighing their youthful impressions of Twain, Poe and Conan Doyle against their mature understanding. Not so with the tale of Uncle Tom, Eliza, Little Eva, Topsy and Simon Legree. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a moralizing tale, the kind of material adults blithely leave behind and rarely revisit.
Yet before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was dispensed with as a children’s tale, it was a social phenomenon and, arguably, the most influential novel in American history. Published in 1852, Stowe’s antislavery novel galvanized public opinion on a question that would become the major irritant behind the Civil War, which erupted less than a decade later. It sold more copies than any other book in American history (except, of course, the Bible). It was acclaimed by Northern abolitionists; it inspired denunciatory Southern anti-Uncle Tom’s Cabin novels that, preposterously, presented slavery as a benign institution. Almost like a religious text, the novel has proved peculiarly susceptible to distortion and misappropriation. For generations after the Civil War, the story’s success as a novel was outstripped by the popularity of theatrical adaptations, musicals and, at worst, minstrel shows, which departed drastically from Stowe’s intentions. In fact, there were “Tom shows” in the late 1800s and early 1900s that completely excised the story’s antislavery message. Throughout the early 1900s, the familiar characters were cheapened by overuse in product advertisements.
By the 1940s, when the book’s popularity waned, its time had come to die of overexposure. Yet Uncle Tom’s Cabin still casts a shadow. It is a piece of Americana; it is inseparable from the legacy of slavery and racism. To an extent, we are embarrassed by the novel, its subject matter (slavery, which our sophisticated minds are embarrassed to be reminded of) and its obvious artistic flaws–melodrama and sentimentality. The book’s reputation has also been undermined by a widespread confusion with some of the offensive theatrical adaptations. The perception lingers that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a blend of children’s fable and propaganda; it cannot be more. This is roughly the argument that James Baldwin makes in his famous 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” For Baldwin, then a young, ambitious writer who was himself no stranger to polemic, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the worst kind of exhortatory narrative. Looking at history backward, Baldwin was less impressed by the power with which Stowe decried slavery than he was dismayed by the limitations of her views on race, the human condition and the meaning of freedom.