"UNCLE TOM'S CABIN"
HARRIET BEECHER STOWE'S "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was without doubt the most influential American novel published in the middle of the last century. In all probability, the author's conscience in regard to the slave question was first awakened while residing for one year in Cincinnati, Ohio. There, she listened to many incidents of cruelty to the colored bondsmen. These episodes remained in her memory after she had moved to Brunswick, Maine, and one in particular impressed her deeply. It concerned itself with the simple honor and loyalty of a Negro slave who preferred to remain in servitude rather than violate a trust. The character of "Uncle Tom" was eventually modelled after this slave.
The facts tend to show that the book was written for a twofold purpose: first, as a sermon picturing the evils of slavery, second, as a means of securing money to meet her household expenses; for at that time the family funds were exceedingly low. At any rate, Mrs. Stowe crammed enough fear, pity, humility and love into her story, so that its appeal to the sentimental emotions almost assured its success at the outset. In the vernacular of today, theatrical managers would term it "sure-fire stuff." Another advantage in its favor was that it dealt with a grave and timely subject. And so the story of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which was begun in Maine and completed in Andover, Mass., was finally dispatched to the "National Era," an abolition magazine published in Washington. It was accepted for serial publication by the editor who honored the writer with three hundred dollars.
In the meantime, J. P. Jewett, a Boston publisher, solicited
the book rights. He offered Mrs. Stowe fifty percent of the profits if she would agree to pay one half of the publishing costs, but this offer was refused and she was content merely to receive a contract on a ten percent royalty basis. The first month ten thousand copies were sold and then like a mighty cyclone the book swept the entire world. Its sales within six months of publication ran into millions. Both as a work of propaganda and as a financial success, Mrs. Stowe more than realized her original intentions and she lived to see her tale translated into twenty-one different languages. In each country it started endless discussion.
During all this activity, the authoress had neglected to secure a dramatic copyright for her story. Perhaps this was due to her inborn dislike for the theatre, for she sincerely believed the stage to be a harmful influence upon people. Her book fell under the watchful eyes of at least a dozen individuals who adapted the novel into play form. The first and most popular version of that day was the one of George L. Aiken, a Boston actor who had a flair for dramatizing sensational stories. This was done in six acts, with eight tableaux and thirty scenes.
On the night of September 27th, 1852, the first performance of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was presented on the stage of the Troy Museum in Troy, New York, with Aiken in the cast. It proved a vivid and gripping play and ran for one hundred nights in Troy—a record that has never been duplicated in the theatrical history of that city. The following year, it moved to the National Theatre in New York City and played more than three hundred twenty-five performances, proving the greatest dramatic event of the decade.
Since the passing of these many years, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" remains the good old reliable stage vehicle for countless stock, tent and showboat proprietors who have found that Harriet Beecher Stowe's story still retains a box office lure.