HOW "UNCLE TOM'S CABIN" WAS BUILT
AS a very little girl Mrs. Stowe had heard of the horrors of slavery from her aunt, Mary Hubbard, who had married a planter from the West Indies, and been unable to live on her husband's plantation because her health was undermined by the mental anguish that she suffered at the scenes of cruelty and wretchedness she was compelled to witness. She returned to the United States, and made her home with the Beechers. Of her Mrs. Stowe writes: "What she saw and heard of slavery filled her with constant horror and loathing. I often heard her say that she frequently sat by her window in the tropical night, when all was still, and wished that the island might sink in the ocean, with all its sin and misery, and that she might sink with it." The effect of such expressions on the mind of a sensitive child like Harriet Beecher may well be imagined.
When she was about twenty years old she
went to live in Cincinnati, on the very borders of
a slave State, and frequently visited Kentucky slave plantations, where she saw negro slavery in that mild and patriarchal form in which she pictures it in the opening chapters of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." At the time the Beechers were living in Cincinnati, her brother Charles was driven nearly distracted by trying to appropriate to himself his father's Calvinistic theology, and the study of Edwards on the Will. Filled with fatalism and despair, he gave up all hope of ever being able to preach, left Cincinnati, and took a position as clerk in a wholesale commission house in New Orleans that did business with the Red River cotton plantations. It was from him that Mrs. Stowe obtained the character of Legree. No character in the whole book was drawn more exactly from life. Charles Beecher and a young Englishman who was his traveling companion, while on a Mississippi steamboat going from New Orleans to St. Louis, actually witnessed the scene where the Legree of real life showed his fist and boasted that it was "hard as iron knocking down niggers, and that be didn't bother with sick niggers, but worked his in with the crop."
The scene in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in which the
Senator takes Eliza into his carriage, after her wild
flight over the Ohio River on the floating ice, and carries her on a dark and stormy night to a place of safety, is a description of an event that took place in Mrs. Stowe's own Cincinnati household.
She had in her family as a servant a young woman whose little boy was the original of the "little Harry" of the story. One day she came to Mrs. Stowe in great distress, and told her that her old master was in the city looking for her, and might at any moment appear and drag her back to slavery. That very night, dark and stormy though it was, Professor Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, who was at that time a student in Lane Seminary, took the woman and her child in the family carriage over just such roads as are described in the book, and brought them to the lonely farmhouse of a man named Van Sant, who ran one of the stations of the underground railroad. As they drove up to the house, Van Sant came out with a lighted candle in his hand, shielding the light from his eyes with his immense palm.
Professor Stowe sang out: "Are you the man who will shelter a poor woman and her child from slave-catchers?"
"I rather think I am," answered the big, honest fellow.
"I thought so," exclaimed Professor Stowe,helping the woman out of the carriage. So character after character, and scene after scene, in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" might be traced to the actual events and persons that inspired them years before the faintest notion of writing such a book had ever entered Mrs. Stowe's mind.
It was early in the month of May of the year
1850 that Mrs. Stowe, on her way to Brunswick,
Maine, reached the house of her brother, the Rev.
Edward Beecher, in Boston. She was weary and
physically exhausted with the long journey which
she had been compelled to make alone with the
whole charge of children, accounts, and baggage,
pushing her way through hurrying crowds, looking
out for trunks, and bargaining with expressmen
and hackmen. Yet in Boston there was no
rest for her. She had to buy furniture and household
supplies and have them packed and ready for
shipping by the Bath steamer, which she herself
was to take the following week, as on the whole
the easiest and cheapest way to reach Brunswick.
She had to save in every imaginable way, and to
keep a strict account of all money expended. As
a result she was able to write her husband, who was
ill in Cincinnati, that the whole expense of the
journey from Cincinnati to Brunswick would be only a trifle more than seventy-six dollars.
She found her brother Edward and his wife greatly agitated over the Fugitive Slave Bill, which was at the time being debated in Congress. This law not only gave the slave-holder of the South the right to seek out and drag back into slavery any colored person that he claimed as his property, but commanded the people of the free States to assist in this pitiless business. Doctor Edward Beecher had been the intimate friend and supporter of Lovejoy, who had not long before been murdered by a pro-slavery mob for publishing an Anti-Slavery paper. The most frequent topic of conversation while Mrs. Stowe was in Boston was this proposed law, and as the result her soul was all on fire with indignation and grief over what she felt to be a new enormity and wrong about to be inflicted by the slave power on an innocent and defenseless race.
On the eve of her departure for Brunswick
she wrote to her old friend of Hartford school days,
Georgiana May, now Mrs. Sykes: "I am wearied
and worn out with seeing to bedsteads, tables,
chairs, mattresses, and with thinking about shipping
my goods, and making out accounts, and I
have my trunk yet to pack to go on board the Bath steamer this evening.
"I beg you to look up Brunswick on the map; it is about half a day's ride in the cars from Boston. I expect to reach there by the way of Bath by to-morrow forenoon. There I have a house engaged and kind friends who offer every hospitable assistance. Come, therefore, to see me, and we will have a long talk in the pine woods, and knit up the whole history from the place where we left it." On her arrival in Brunswick, Mrs. Stowe was treated to an instructive if depressing lesson in New England weather. She says: "After a week of most incessant northeast storm, most discouraging and forlorn to the children, the sun has at length come out. . . . There is a fair wind blowing, and every prospect, therefore, that our goods will arrive from Boston, and that we shall be in our own house by next week."
In a letter written the following December to her sister-in-law, Mrs. George Beecher, we have in her own words a graphic and amusing picture of that first spring and summer in Brunswick:—
"Is it really true that snow is on the ground
and Christmas coming, and I have not written unto
thee, most dear sister? No, I don't believe it! I
haven't been so naughty—it's all a mistake. Yes, written I must have,—and written I have, too,— in the night watches as I lay on my bed—such beautiful letters—I wish you had only gotten them; but by day it has been hurry, hurry, and drive, drive, drive! or else the calm of the sickroom, ever since last spring.
"...I put off writing when your letter first came because I meant to write you a long letter,—a full and complete one; and so the days slipped by, and became weeks, and then my little Charley came.*
"Sarah, when I look back, I wonder at myself, not that I forgot anything that I should remember, but that I have remembered anything. From the time that I left Cincinnati with my children to come forth to a country that I knew not of, almost to the present time, it has seemed that I could scarcely breathe, I was so pressed with care. My head dizzy with the whirl of railroads and steamboats; then ten days' sojourn in Boston, and a constant toil and hurry in buying my furniture and equipments; and then landing in Brunswick in the midst of a drizzly, inexorable northeast storm, and beginning the
work of getting in order a deserted, dreary, damp old house. All day long, running from one thing to another, as for example thus:—
"Mrs. Stowe, how shall I make this lounge, and what shall I cover the back with first?'
"Mrs. Stowe. 'With the coarse cotton in the closet.'
"Woman. 'Mrs. Stowe, there isn't any more soap to clean the windows. Where shall I get soap?'
"Mrs. Stove. 'Here, Hattie, run up to the store and get two bars.'
"'There is a man below wants to see Mrs. Stowe about the cistern.'
"'Before you go down, Mrs. Stowe, show me how to cover this round end of the lounge.'
"'There's a man up from the station, and he says that there is a box that has come for Mrs. Stowe, and it's coming up to the house; will you come down and see about it?'
"'Mrs. Stowe, don't go till you have shown
the man how to nail the carpet in the corner.
He's nailed it all crooked; what shall he do?
The black thread is all used up; what shall I do
about putting gimp on the back of that sofa?
Mrs. Stowe, there is a man come with a lot of pails
and tinware from Furbish; will you settle the bill now?'
"'Mrs. Stowe, here is a letter just come from Boston inclosing that bill of lading; the man wants to know what he shall do with the goods. If you will tell me what to say, I will answer the letter for you.'
"'Mrs. Stowe, the meat-man is at the door. Had n't we better get a little beef-steak or something for dinner?'
"'Shall Hattie go to Boardman's for some more black thread?'
"'Mrs. Stowe, this cushion is an inch too wide for the frame; what shall we do now?'
"'Mrs. Stowe, where are the screws of the black-walnut bedstead?'
"'Here's a man has brought in those bills for freight; will you settle them now?'
"'Mrs. Stowe, I don't understand using this great needle. I can't make it go through the cushion; it sticks in the cotton.'
"Then comes a letter from my husband, saying
that he is sick abed, and all but dead; don't ever
expect to see his family again; wants to know how
I shall manage in case I am left a widow; knows
that we shall get into debt and never get out;
wonders at my courage; thinks that I am very sanguine; warns me to be prudent, as there won't be much to live on in case of his death, &c., &c., &c. I read the letter, and poke it into the stove, and proceed. . . .
"Some of my adventures were quite funny; as,
for example, I had in my kitchen elect no sink,
cistern, or any other water privileges, so I bought
at the cotton factory two of the great hogsheads
that they bring oil in, which here in Brunswick
are often used for cisterns, and had them brought
up in triumph to my yard, and was congratulating
myself on my energy, when, lo and behold! it
was discovered that there was no cellar door except
the one in the kitchen, which was truly a
straight and narrow way down a long flight of
stairs. Hereupon, as saith John Bunyan, 'I fell
into a muse'—how to get my cisterns into my
cellar. In the days of chivalry I might have
got me a knight to make me a breach through
the foundation walls; but that was not to be
thought of now, and my oil hogsheads standing
disconsolately in the yard seemed to reflect no
great credit on my foresight. In this strait, I fell
upon a real honest Yankee cooper, whom I besought,
for the reputation of his craft and mine,
to take my hogsheads in pieces, and carry them down in staves, and set them up again, which the worthy man actually accomplished in one fair summer forenoon, to the great astonishment of us Yankees. When my man came to put up the pump, he stared very hard to see my hogsheads thus translated and standing as innocently and quietly as could be in the cellar. Then I told him in a very quiet and mild way how I got them taken to pieces and put together again, just as if I had been always in the habit of doing such things.
"Professor Smith came down and looked very hard at them, and then said, 'Well, nothing can beat a willful woman!'
"In all my moving and fussing Mr. Titcomb
has been my right-hand man. This same John
Titcomb, my very good friend, is a character peculiar
to Yankeedom. He is part owner and landlord
of the house I rent, and connected by birth
with all the best families in town,—a man of real
intelligence and good education, a great reader,
and quite a thinker. . . . Whenever a screw was
loose, a nail to be driven, a lock to be mended,
a pane of glass to be set,—and these cases were
manifold,—he was always on hand. My sink,
however, was no fancy job, and I believe that
nothing but a very particular friendship would have moved him to undertake it. . . . How many times I have entered his shop, and seated myself in one of the old rocking-chairs, and first talked of the news of the day, the railroad, the last proceedings in Congress, the probabilities about the millennium, and thus brought the conversation by little and little round to my sink; because, till the sink was done, the pump could not be put up, and we couldn't have any rain water. Sometimes my courage quite failed me to introduce the subject, and I would talk of everything else, turn and get out of the shop, and then come back, as if a thought had just struck my mind, and say:—
"'Mr. Titcomb, about that sink?'
"'Yes, ma'am; I was thinking about going down street this afternoon to look out stuff for it.'
"'Yes, sir, if you would be good enough to get it done as soon as possible; we are in great need of it.'
"'I think there's no hurry. I believe we are going to have a dry time now, so that you could not catch any water, and you won't need the pump at present.'
"'These negotiations extended from the first of June to the first of July, and at last my sink was completed, as also was a new house-spout, concerning which I had divers communings with Deacon Dunning of the Baptist Church.
"Also, during this time, good Mrs. Mitchell and myself made two sofas, or lounges, a barrel-chair, divers bedspreads, pillow-cases, pillows, bolsters, mattresses; we painted rooms; we revarnished furniture; we—what didn't we do?
"Then came Mr. Stowe, and then came the eighth of July, and my little Charley. I was really glad for an excuse to lie in bed, for I was full tired, I can assure you. Well, I was what folks call very comfortable for two weeks, when my nurse had to leave me.
"During this time I have employed my leisure
hours in making up my engagements with newspaper
editors. I have written more than anybody
or I myself would have thought to be possible. I
have taught an hour a day in our school, and I
have read two hours every evening to the children.
The children study English history in school, and
I am reading Scott's historical novels with them
in their order. To-night I finish 'The Abbot,' and
shall begin 'Kenilworth' next week. Yet I am con-
stantly pursued and haunted by the idea that I don't do anything.
"Since I began this note, I have been called off at least a dozen times: once for the fish-man, to buy a codfish; once to see a man who had brought me some barrels of apples; once to see a book agent; then to Mrs. Upham's to see about a drawing I promised to make for her; then to nurse the baby; then into the kitchen to make a chowder for dinner; and now I am at it again, for nothing but deadly determination enables me ever to write; it is rowing against wind and tide."
While all this was going on in Brunswick, her brother's family in Boston were consumed with righteous indignation over the workings of the Fugitive Slave Law.
Mrs. Stowe received letter after letter from Mrs.
Edward Beecher and other friends, picturing the
heartrending scenes which were the inevitable results
of the enforcement of this inhuman law. Cities
were better adapted than the country to the work of
capturing escaped slaves, and Boston, called the
"Cradle of Liberty," opened her doors to slave-hunters.
The sorrow and anguish caused was indescribable.
Families were broken up. Some of the hunted
ones hid in garrets and cellars. Others fled to the
wharves and embarking in ships, sailed for Europe. Others tried to make their way to Canada. One poor fellow who had long been supporting his family well as a crockery merchant, when he got word that his master was in the city seeking him, set out in midwinter to walk to Canada, as he dared not take a public conveyance, and froze both his feet on the journey. They had to be amputated.
Mrs. Edward Beecher, writing of this period to Mrs. Stowe's youngest son, says:—
"I had been nourishing an Anti-Slavery spirit since Lovejoy was murdered for publishing in his paper articles against slavery and intemperance, when our home was in Illinois. These terrible things that were going on in Boston were well calculated to rouse up this spirit. What can I do? I thought. Not much myself, but I know one who can. So I wrote several letters to your mother, telling her of the various heartrending events caused by the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. I remember distinctly saying in one of them: 'Now, Hattie, if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is!"'
A daughter of Mrs. Stowe well remembered her whole life long the scene in the little parlor in Bruns-
wick when this letter was received and read. Mrs. Stowe read it aloud to the assembled family, and when she came to the words, "I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is," rising from her chair, and crushing the letter in her hand, she exclaimed, with an expression on her face that stamped itself permanently on the minds of her children:—
"God helping me, I will write something. I will if I live."
This purpose, though then definitely formed, could not be immediately carried out. In a letter written in the month of December, 1850, she refers to the matter in a way that shows how it weighed upon her mind:—
"Tell sister Katy that I thank her for her letter, and will answer it. As long as the baby sleeps with me nights, I can't do much at anything; but I will do it at last. I will write that thing if I live.
"What are folks in general saying about the slave law, and the stand taken by Boston ministers in general, except Edward?
"To me it is incredible, amazing, mournful! I
feel that I should be willing to sink with it, were
all this sin and misery to sink in the sea. . . . I
wish father would come on to Boston and preach on the Fugitive Slave Law, as he once preached on the slave trade, when I was a little girl in Litchfield. I sobbed aloud in one pew, and Mrs. Judge Reeve in another. I wish some Martin Luther would arise to set this community right."
At this time Mrs. Stowe was not an Abolitionist, nor did she ever become one after the Garrisonian type. She remembered hearing her father say about Garrison and Wendell Phillips that they were like men that would burn their houses down to get rid of the rats. She was virtually in sympathy with her father on the subject of slavery, and had unlimited confidence in his judgment. What Doctor Beecher thought of the Abolitionists, he expressed with a vigor and clarity that left no doubt as to his position. He said:—
"I regard the whole Abolition movement, under
its most influential leaders, with its distinctive maxims
and modes of feeling, and also the whole temper,
principles, and action of the South in justification
of slavery, as a singular instance of infatuation
permitted by Heaven for purposes of national retribution.
God never raised up such men as Garrison and
others like him as the ministers of his
mercy for purposes of peaceful reform, but only
as the fit and fearful ministers of his vengeance upon a people incorrigibly wicked."
These words were written in 1838, and show how
true was the prophetic sense of Lyman Beecher.
Garrison was at this time preaching secession and
praying for the dissolution of the Union, and calling
the Constitution of the United States a "Covenant
with Death and an Agreement with Hell."
No true Abolitionist should vote or have anything
to do with the Government as then constituted.
In this sense, neither Mrs. Stowe nor her husband
were Abolitionists. Mrs. Stowe wished to be more
than fair to the South. She intended to be generous.
She made two of Uncle Tom's three masters
men of good character, amiable, kind, and generous.
She tried to show that the fault was not with
the Southern people, but with the system. A friend
of hers, who had many friends in the South, wrote
to her: "Your book is going to be the great
pacificator; it will unite North and South." Mrs.
Stowe did not expect that the Abolitionists would
be satisfied with the story, but she confidently expected
that it would be favorably received in the
South. Great was her surprise, then, when from
the whole South arose a storm of abuse, while the
Abolitionists received her with open arms. Mr.
Garrison wrote: "I measure the value of Abolition literature by the abuse it brings. Since 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' has been published, all the defenders of slavery have let me alone and are spending their strength in abusing you."
It was in the winter of 1850 that she wrote to her husband, who was in Cincinnati, giving a picture of her life in the old, wind-swept castle of a house in Brunswick.
"Sunday night I rather watched than slept. The wind howled, and the house rocked, just as our old Litchfield house used to do. . . I am projecting a sketch for the Era on the capacity of liberated blacks to take care of themselves. Can't you find out for me how much Willie Watson has paid for the liberation of his friends? Get any items of that kind that you can pick up in Cincinnati. . . .
"When I have a headache, and feel sick, as I do to-day, there is actually not a place in the house where I can lie down and take a nap without being disturbed. Overhead is the schoolroom; next door is the dining-room, and the girls practice there two hours a day on the piano. If I lock my door and lie down, some one is sure to be rattling the latch before two minutes have passed. . . .
"There is no doubt in my mind that our expenses this year will come two hundred dollars, if not three, beyond our salary. We shall be able to come through notwithstanding; but I don't want to feel obliged to work as hard every year as I have this. I can earn four hundred dollars a year by writing; but I don't want to feel that I must, when weary with teaching the children, and tending the baby, and buying provisions, and mending dresses, and darning stockings, sit down and write a piece for some paper."
Again she writes:—
"Ever since we left Cincinnati to come here,
the good hand of God has been visibly guiding
our way. Through what difficulties have we been
brought! Though we knew not where means were
to come from, yet means have been furnished at
every step of the way, and in every time of need.
I was just in some discouragement with regard to
my writing, thinking that the editor of the Era
was overstocked with contributors and would not
want my services another year, and, lo, he sends
me one hundred dollars, and ever so many good
words with it. Our income this year will be
seventeen hundred dollars in all, and I hope to bring
our expenses within thirteen hundred." At the
time she wrote these words she had no idea or conception of writing such a serial story as "Uncle Tom's Cabin." It is true that she was determined to write something to make the whole nation feel that slavery was an " accursed thing," but what she was to write had not, in the dimmest outline, as yet formed itself in her mind.
About the last of January, 1850, she went to Boston to visit her brother Edward, and there she met, for the first time, the Rev. Josiah Henson. She heard his story of his escape from slavery. He remembered seeing his own father lying on the ground, bruised, bloody, and dying from the blows of a white overseer, because, mere slave and "nigger" that he was, he had pretended that the mother of his children was his wife, and had tried to defend her from an indecent assault that this same overseer had attempted on her person. What struck her most forcibly in Henson's story was the sweet Christian spirit of the man, as manifested even when he spoke of injuries calculated to rouse a human being to a frenzy of vindictive revengefulness.
Shortly after this visit to Boston, Mrs. Stowe
was seated in her pew in the college church at
Brunswick during the communion service. She
was alone with her children, her husband having gone away to deliver a course of lectures. Suddenly, like the unrolling of a picture scroll, the scene of the death of Uncle Tom seemed to pass before her. At the same time, the words of Jesus were sounding in her ears: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." It seemed as if the crucified, but now risen and glorified Christ, were speaking to her through the poor black man, cut and bleeding under the blows of the slave whip. She was affected so strongly that she could scarcely keep from weeping aloud.
That Sunday afternoon she went to her room,
locked the door, and wrote out, substantially as it
appears in the published editions, the chapter
called "The Death of Uncle Tom." As sufficient
paper was not at hand, she wrote a large part of
it in pencil on some brown paper in which groceries
had been delivered. It seemed to her as if
what she wrote was blown through her mind as
with the rushing of a mighty wind. In the evening
she gathered her little family about her and
read them what she had written. Her two little
boys of ten and twelve burst into tears, sobbing
out, " Oh, mamma, slavery is the most cruel thing
in the world!" This was the beginning of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." She was not apparently conscious of what she had done, nor did she immediately consider making use of the fragment she had written.
In an introduction to "Uncle Tom's Cabin," written late in life, Mrs. Stowe refers to the incident of Eliza's flight over the ice as the first "salient point" in the story. She also refers to the incident as though she had learned of it for the first time in the pages of an Anti-Slavery magazine. As a matter of fact, it was an actual occurrence during her residence in Ohio. She had known and had often talked with the very man who helped Eliza up the bank of the river. This was years before she had ever thought of writing such a book as "Uncle Tom's Cabin." No one is entirely reliable as a witness to events long past. Furthermore, in Mrs. Stowe's case, the great burden of so many overtaxed years had by this time made her memory more treacherous than she or her family realized. Professor Stowe, who was still living at the time, called attention to these and other inaccuracies, but for some reason not known they were never corrected.
At the time this occurred Mrs. Stowe's mind
was apparently so absorbed by pressing domestic duties that what she had written was laid one side and for the time forgotten. She did not even show it to her husband, on his return from his lecture trip. One day she found him dissolved in tears over the bits of brown paper on which she had written the first words of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Largely at his suggestion, she determined to write a serial story, the climax of which was to be the death of Uncle Tom. Some weeks slipped by before she wrote the first instalment of the proposed novel. In the mean time she had written to Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the National Era, an Abolition paper published in Washington, District of Columbia, that she contemplated a serial story under the title, "Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly," and asking if it would be acceptable to the Era.
Neither Mrs. Stowe nor her husband had the
remotest idea of the unique power and interest of
the story that was being written. Nor, indeed,
did it dawn upon either of them until after the
publication of the first edition in book form.
Professor Stowe was a very emotional man, and
was accustomed to water his wife's literary efforts
liberally with his tears; so the fact that he
had wept over the bits of brown paper had for them no unusual portent. As to pecuniary gain, he often expressed the hope that she would make money enough by the story to buy a new silk dress.
It was a jolly, rollicking household in Brunswick,
and Mrs. Stowe was herself full of fun. It
was during the writing of "Uncle Tom's Cabin"
that there occurred the following incident characteristic
of the family life. Professor Stowe was at
heart one of the most genial of men; but, being
of an exceedingly nervous temperament, he was
liable to go off at half cock on the slightest provocation,
and become for the time being unpleasantly peppery.
One day he bought a dozen eggs
to set under a brooding hen, with a view to producing
an unusually fine lot of chickens. Without
disclosing his purpose he hid the eggs, as he
thought securely, in the wood-shed. One of the
children discovered them, and bore them in triumph
into the house. Mrs. Stowe was on the
point of sending to the store for eggs, and looking
upon this discovery as providential, took
them and had them cooked. Upon returning from
one of his lectures, the Professor felt himself
the most abused of men when he sought his eggs
and found them not, and vented his wrath upon his innocent household in a format once dramatic and picturesque. Then off he went to another lecture, in a forbidding frame of mind.
"Pa's mad!" observed one of the children.
"I tell you what we'll do, children; when he comes back to dinner, we will make him laugh and he'll get all over it," said Mrs. Stowe, with a roguish twinkle in her eye. The Professor returned, and found the dinner on the table, ready and waiting, but not one of the family visible. While speculating on this unusual state of affairs, he heard a very human imitation of the cackling of hens proceeding from the wood-shed. It made up in vigor what it lacked in genuineness. On investigation, he found his wife and all the children, and even Rover, the dog, perched on a beam, after the manner peculiar to hens. He burst into laughter, and they all trooped into the house and had a very jolly time at dinner.
"Uncle Tom's Cabin " began as a serial in the
National Era, June 5, 1851, and in July of the
same year Mrs. Stowe wrote as follows to Frederick
Douglass: "You may perhaps have noticed
in your editorial readings a series of articles that
I am furnishing for the Era, under the title
of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly.'
"In the course of my story the scene will fall upon a cotton plantation. I am very desirous, therefore, to gain information from one who has been an actual laborer on one, and it occurred to me that in the circle of your acquaintance there might be one who would be able to communicate to me such information as I desire. I have before me an able paper written by a Southern planter, in which the details and modus operandi are given from his point of sight. I am anxious to have something more from another standpoint. I wish to make a picture that shall be graphic and true to nature in its details. Such a person as Henry Bibb, if in the country, might give me just the kind of information I desire. You may possibly know of some other person. I will subjoin to this letter a list of questions, which in that case you will do me a favor by inclosing to the individual, with the request that he will at earliest convenience answer them. . . ."
Then, after a vigorous defense of churches and ministers whom Douglass had assailed, she continues:—
"I am a minister's daughter, and a minister's
wife, and I have had six brothers in the ministry (one is in Heaven); I certainly ought to know something of the feelings of ministers on this subject.
"I was a child in 1820, when the Missouri question was agitated, and one of the strongest and deepest impressions on my mind was that made by my father's sermons and prayers, and the anguish of his soul for the poor slave at that time. I remember his preaching drawing tears down the hardest faces of the old farmers of his congregation.
"I remember his prayers, morning and evening, in the family for 'poor, oppressed, bleeding Africa,' that the time of her deliverance might come; prayers offered with strong crying and tears, prayers that indelibly impressed my heart, and made me, what I am, the enemy of all slavery. . . .
"Every brother I have has been in his sphere
a leading Anti-Slavery man. One of them, Edward,
was to the last the bosom friend and counselor of
Lovejoy. As for myself and my husband, we have
for the last seventeen years lived on the border of
a slave state, and we have never shrunk from the
fugitives, and we have helped them with all we
had to give. I have received the children of lib-
erated slaves into a family school, and taught them with my own children. . . ."
In a letter written to Mrs. Follen in February, 1853, after the publication of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Mrs. Stowe throws additional light on the way in which that Cabin was built out of the sorrows and experiences of her own life. Speaking of her life in Cincinnati, she writes:—
"A number of poor families settled in our vicinity,
from whom we could occasionally obtain domestic
service. About a dozen families of liberated
slaves were among the number, and they became
my favorite resort in cases of emergency. If any
one wants to see a black face look handsome, let
them be left, as I have been, in feeble health, in
oppressive weather, with a sick baby in arms, and
two or three other little ones in the nursery, and
not a servant in the whole house to do a single
turn. Then, if they could see my good old Aunt
Frankie coming with her honest, bluff, black face,
her long strong arms, her chest as big and stout
as a barrel, and her hilarious, hearty laugh, perfectly
delighted to take one's washing, and do it
at a fair price, they would appreciate the beauty
of black people. My cook, Eliza Buck, was a regular
epitome of slave life in herself,—fat, gentle,
easy, loving, and lovable, always calling my very modest house and door-yard 'The Place,' as if it had been a plantation with seven hundred hands on it. She had lived through the whole sad story of a Virginia-raised slave's life. In her youth she must have been a very handsome mulatto girl. Her voice was sweet, and her manners refined and agreeable. She was raised in a good family as a nurse and seamstress. When the family became embarrassed, she was suddenly sold on to a plantation in Louisiana. She has often told me how, without any warning, she was suddenly forced into a carriage, and saw her little mistress screaming and stretching her arms from a window toward her as she was driven away. She has told me of scenes on the Louisiana plantation, and she has often been out at night by stealth, ministering to poor slaves who had been mangled and lacerated by the lash. Then she was sold into Kentucky, and her last master was the father of all her children. On this point she always maintained a delicacy and reserve that seemed to me remarkable. She always called him her husband, and it was not till after she had lived with me some years that I discovered the real nature of the connection. I shall never forget how sorry I felt for her, nor my
feelings at her humble apology, 'You know, Mrs. Stowe, slave women cannot help themselves.' She had two very pretty quadroon daughters, with her hair and eyes,—interesting children, whom I instructed in the family school with my own children. Time would fail to tell you all that I learned incidentally of the slave system in the history of various slaves who came into my family, and of the underground railway, which, I may say, ran through our house."
Later in this same letter she connects intimately
the writing of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" with her
own griefs and bereavements. "I have been the
mother of seven children, the most beautiful and
most loved of whom lies buried near my Cincinnati
residence. It was at his dying bed and
at his grave that I learned what a poor slave
mother may feel when her child is torn away
from her. In these depths of sorrow, which
seemed to me immeasurable, it was my only
prayer to God that such anguish might not be
suffered in vain. There were circumstances about
his death of such peculiar bitterness, of what
seemed almost cruel suffering, that I felt that I
could never be consoled for it, unless this crushing
of my own heart might enable me to work
out some great good to others. l allude to this here, for I have often felt that much that is in that book, 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' had its root in the awful scenes and bitter sorrows of that summer. It has left now, I trust, no trace on my mind except a deep compassion for the sorrowful, especially for mothers who are separated from their children."
Such is Mrs. Stowe's own account of where and how she gained the material and the inspiration for writing "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The book came as the ripe fruit of her whole life experience up to the time when she wrote the first words on the rough pieces of brown paper.
It was written mostly in Brunswick, Maine. Some of the chapters were written in Boston, while she was visiting her brother, Edward Beecher, and part of the concluding chapter in Andover. Begun as a serial in the National Era, June 5, 1851, and announced to run for but three months, it was not completed till April 1, 1852, and was published in book form March 20 of the same year.
John P. Jewett, a young publisher of Boston,
made overtures for the publication of "Uncle
Tom's Cabin" in book form long before it was
finished as a serial in the National Era. The contract was finally signed March 13, 1852. Not long before this, Mr. Jewett wrote Mrs. Stowe, expressing the fear that she was making the story too long for one volume. He reminded her that the subject was unpopular, and that, while one short volume might possibly sell, two volumes might prove a fatal obstacle to the success of the book. Mrs. Stowe replied that she did not make the story, that the story made itself, and that she could not stop till it was done.
Mr. Jewett offered her either ten per cent on all
sales, or half profits with half the risk in case the
venture proved unprofitable. Professor and Mrs.
Stowe had for their business adviser Mr. Philip
Greeley, who had formerly been Collector of the
Port of Boston and was then a member of Congress.
On this matter, without reading the story,
he strongly advised them to accept the ten per
cent on all sales, and to take no risk whatever in
the enterprise. He reasoned that the subject was
very unpopular, and that a book written by a
woman could not be expected to have a very large
sale in any case. Doctor Stowe took the first copy
of the first edition to the railroad station and put
it into Mr. Greeley's hands just as he was leaving
for Washington. Greeley was a sedate and self-contained man,—a characteristically unemotional New Englander. Afterward he wrote to Professor Stowe that he began the book shortly after the train pulled out of the station, and that as he read he began to cry. He was humiliated. He had never before shed tears over a novel, still less over the work of a woman. Yet after he had begun it, he could not stop reading, nor could he keep the tears back as he read. Consequently, on reaching Springfield, he left the train and went to a hotel, took a room, and sat up till he finished the book in the early hours of the morning.