The Story of the Book
IT is to the Fugitive Slave Law that we owe "Uncle Tom's Cabin." This law, passed in 1850, first brought the iniquity of slavery prominently before the people of the North. It permitted slave-owners to follow runaway slaves into the Northern States, and commanded the people of those States to aid in their capture. But the sympathies of a nation cannot be controlled by law. The attempts to seize the dark-skinned fugitives led to riots and rescues. In various places negroes were taken by force from the officers and safely concealed. Several of the States passed laws to protect the negroes, and many persons organized to help the slaves secretly to Canada. This method became known as the "Underground Railroad," and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of trembling fugitives owed their safety to this peculiar system of travel, with its secret stations and midnight journeys.
It was to this law, as above said, that we owe "Uncle Tom's
Cabin." Mrs. Stowe lived in the midst of the events described. Her
residence in Cincinnati brought her into contact with the fugitives on
the first stage in their journey. Her own servants were threatened
with capture and had to fly for their liberty. She saw much and heard
more of the evils of slavery, learned to know the character of the
slave and of his master, heard many thrilling stories of slave life
and of the adventures and perils of fugitives, and her intense and
inative soul was stirred to its depths. She determined to show the world what the life of the slave really was, to depict its happy side, as well as its dark and cruel side, to paint alike the merciful and the merciless slave-holder, to put on record, in short, the peculiar institution in all its lights and shadows, and show the world what she had seen for herself, and what had burnt itself so deeply into her soul.
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" was in every sense a remarkable book—a book written from the heart and appealing to the heart. It was felt to be fair and truthful, to show the life of the slave in all its lights and shadows, and there was that in it which took the world by storm. People who took it up could not lay it down till they had finished reading it. They laughed over "Topsy," they cried over "Eva" and "Uncle Tom," but they ended with tears in their eyes and indignation in their hearts. No arguments nor denials could overcome its influence. It set in train a silent revolution, and was one of the great forces that led to the Civil War.
But we must return to the story of the book and tell how it came to be written. We have spoken of Mrs. Stowe's experiences in Cincinnati. They followed her after her removal to New England. The Fugitive Slave Law had stirred up excited feeling throughout the North. Even in Boston the colored people were in a panic of terror, and many were fleeing to Canada. Letters came to her, pitiful epistles, telling of the fear and despair arising from the law. One of these letters contained an earnest appeal to her, who was familiar with the subject and a skilled writer, to use her pen in defence of the slave.
"I will!" she cried, in an outburst of vital enthusiasm. "If I live, I will!"
It was no slight task to which she thus pledged herself. She was
not strong. She had around her a family of six children, one of them
an infant. Her husband had but a small salary, and she was burdened
with the cares of her household. But the subject had taken hold of her
mind and would not let go. A book seemed beyond her present ability,
but a series of sketches, giving in
fiction what she knew of slavery in fact, might do good work in the cause which she had at heart, and show to many honest souls the real character of that system which they ignorantly upheld.
At this interval, a chance volume of an anti-slavery magazine gave her the authentic story of how a slave woman with her child had escaped to freedom across the ice of the Ohio River. This was an event of dramatic interest, that was destined to prove one of the most thrilling in the book. There came to her also the story of a faithful slave who refused to escape from his trusting master, though he was about to be sold "down river." In this she found the first suggestion of Uncle Tom. The story of the book began, scene by scene, to take shape in her imagination. We have her own statement to the effect that "the first part of the book ever committed to writing was the death of Uncle Tom." She was at the communion table at the little Brunswick church when this scene, in all its pathetic completeness, rose in her mind, possessing her so vividly and absolutely that her weak frame shook with deep emotion, and she could scarcely keep back the tears which flooded her eyes. Hurrying home, she put on paper the scene which burned in her soul, and read it to her two young sons. The pathetic tale threw them into convulsive weeping, and one of them, through his tears, exclaimed: "Oh, mamma, slavery is the most cursed thing in the world."
That story was the key-note of the book. The other incidents gathered round it. Scenes, conversations, dramatic incidents took shape in her mind, and with a vividness that gave them actual life. Her soul was taken captive by the conception. "The book insisted upon getting itself into being, and would take no denial."
Mrs. Stowe did not yet know that she was writing a book. In her
view it was to be a story of moderate length, and she wrote to the
editor of The National Era, of Washington,
saying that she was writing a tale that would probably be long enough
to run through several numbers of his paper. The editor was her friend
and knew her powers, and he eagerly asked for the story.
But instead of weeks, it ran on for months, the story forcing its author to go on with it, so that nine months passed before its limited but highly-interested audience among the readers of the Era reached its final chapter. Many of the anti-slavery people heard of and read it with sympathy, but to the public at large it remained almost unknown.
The work was produced under the pressure of cares that would have discouraged any less ardent writer, yet in spite of all home distractions each weekly installment was ready and sent off in time. The writing was done by Mrs. Stowe, mostly in the mornings, on a little writing desk in a corner of the dining-room of the Brunswick cottage, amid countless interruptions springing from household demands and from the importunities of her children, who would burst impetuously into the room and interrupt her labors with their childish questions and wants. Her power of self-absorption was wonderful. It seems impossible that such a work could have been produced under such circumstances. Yet the pen kept on in its busy journey, the children were dismissed with a smile and word, and the sorrows of Uncle Tom and the antics of Topsy alike came into being on the written page in the midst of endless distractions. The power of concentration displayed has rarely been equalled. In the evening, what she had written during the day was read to the assembled family, who followed with the deepest interest the progress of the story.
In beginning this story, Mrs. Stowe did not dream of any large
profits likely to arise from it. Her hopes were of the humblest. At
all events, she certainly never imagined that it would lift herself
and her family above the straitened circumstances in which they had
hitherto dwelt. From the editor of the Era
she received three hundred dollars, and this she probably looked upon
as the end of her profits. It is true that, while it was still being
issued as a serial, Mr. J. P. Jewett, a young publisher of Boston,
offered to issue it in book form. But he felt disposed to withdraw his
offer when the story unrolled to what he deemed wearisome length. He
wrote to the author that this would not
do; the story was too long; it could not be issued as a one-volume book; the subject was too unpopular for a two-volume book to sell; the people would not read so long a story on a theme for which they cared so little.
Mrs. Stowe replied that she had not made the story, that it was its own author and she had not the power to stop it in its course. Mr. Jewett still hesitated. A critic, whom he asked to read it, sat up all night at its perusal, and reported, "The story has life in it; it will sell." Mr. Jewett now offered to publish it on half profits if Mr. Stowe would bear half the expense. The professor replied that he had not the necessary money, and in the end the publisher made up his mind to try the venture, offering the usual ten per cent. royalty.
In this business arrangement Mrs. Stowe took no part and felt no special interest. It was the effect of the work in which she was interested, not its possible profits. Her thoughts, her soul, had gone into it, as an appeal to the world for the slave, and in deep discouragement she said "it seemed to her there was no hope; that nobody would hear, nobody would read, nobody would pity." Yet, she did all she could, writing letters and ordering copies of the book to be sent to anti-slavery leaders abroad, such men as Prince Albert, Macaulay, Dickens, Kingsley and others.
While she thus worked, the book came out. It seemed as if the world had been eagerly waiting for it. Its success was phenomenal from the start. By the day of issue, orders for three thousand copies bad been received. A few days passed and ten thousand copies were sold. A new edition had to be printed with all speed, and eight presses were kept running night and day in a vain effort to keep up with the demand. Before a year had elapsed the sales reached three hundred thousand copies. Rarely has there been such a success. Everybody, high and low, rich and poor, was reading the book and taking its lesson to heart. Public feeling was stirred to its depths. It appealed to the sympathies of the whole community, and carried before it a high wave of anti-slavery sentiment throughout the land.
It was not alone its theme. People had heard much
of the evils of slavery. It was its power as a novel that carried it with such rapidity through the land and impressed its lesson on the hearts of the community. At first it swept all before it. Praise was almost universal. But when the advocates of the slavery system saw its effect, detraction began, and a fierce opposition arose. The South and its sympathizers took up arms against the book. Denunciations were uttered in pulpit and issued in the press, and even the leading religious paper of the land, a journal of New York, spoke of it as "anti-Christian."
Mrs. Stowe was amazed. She had not dreamed of such a sale, nor of such bitter denunciations. She had tried to write mildly and justly, had painted some of the slave-holders as men of noble character, had made evident the difficulty of their situation, and had laid the lash of indignant feeling only on the slave-traders, the public whippers, the overseers, those whom the Southerners themselves despised, even while they had to endure them as a necessity of the situation. But the authoress did not fully understand what she had done. She had dealt the whole system a deadly blow, and could not reasonably hope it would be received with thankfulness.
In one respect, however, Mrs. Stowe was more than satisfied. The cash returns from the book exceeded her wildest expectation. Four months after publication, Mr. Stowe called on the publisher, telling him that he hoped to receive enough to buy his wife a silk dress. Mr. Jewett, in reply, handed him a check for ten thousand dollars.
This was for the American sale. For the millions of books sold
abroad the authoress received nothing. The story of the career of
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" in England is interesting. The first copy reached
London in April, a gentleman having brought it with him as reading
matter on the steamer. He gave it to a friend, who offered it for five
pounds to an enterprising publisher. It was declined with thanks. A
second publisher also declined it. The third, a Mr. Salisbury, read it
the night through, finding in it abundant matter for tears
and laughter. Then, not sure but that he was growing weak minded, he woke his wife and set her to reading the book. As it brought tears and laughter from her he thought it might be safe to print.
It proved indeed a safe venture, though it moved slowly till June was well gone. But during July the demand reached a thousand a week, and before August a deluge of orders came in. Four hundred people and seventeen printing machines, in addition to hand-presses, were employed in preparing the book, of which one hundred and fifty thousand copies were sold in a marvelously brief time. A new publisher now issued an edition, and the printing world, awakening to the fact that anyone was at liberty to print the book, issued edition after edition, till, before the year ended, twelve were on the market, and before the end of 1853 forty different editions had been issued in London, varying in price from the most sumptuous illustrated edition at 15s. to the cheapest popular edition at 6d. It is stated that, in all, more than a million and a half of copies were circulated in Great Britain and her colonies.
This immense demand stimulated the publishers of other nations, and translations began to appear on the Continent. As the years went on, the book was translated into languages far removed from civilized Europe, such as Arabic, Siamese and Chinese. In all, sixty-eight translations, into twenty-three different languages, are on record, namely: Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Flemish, French, German, Hungarian, Illyrian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Modern Greek, Russian, Servian, Siamese, Spanish, Swedish, Wallachian, and Welsh. Truly, it proved a work for the world, and, from China to America, all nations wept over the sorrows of Uncle Tom and laughed at the antics of Topsy and the shocked austerity of Miss Ophelia.
In addition to the full editions, there were abridgments, adapted
to the use of children, and dramatizations, of which the first
appeared in the United States in 1852, without the knowledge or
consent of the author, and made a most successful run in the leading
cities, and afterward in those of Europe. Yet all this vast popularity brought the author nothing but fame. Her profits were restricted to the ten per cent. paid her by Mr. Jewett, and from the great returns from the drama not a penny came to her purse.
Fame came to her, if nothing more. In her European journey, in 1853, all classes united to do her honor; her presence called forth universal enthusiasm; while in Scotland a penny offering was collected among the people, and a thousand guineas presented to the author during her visit to Edinburgh. In London a valuable bracelet was presented her by the Duchess of Sutherland, its oval links being made in imitation of slave fetters, on several of which were inscribed the dates of notable events in the history of the emancipation of negro slaves. More significant of the general feeling was an address from the women of England to the women of America, in which they prayed for aid to free the world from "our common crimes and common dishonor." To this were appended no less than 562,848 signatures, of all classes, from the highest nobility to the lowest kitchen maid. Twenty-six massive volumes were formed from the signatures, each fourteen inches high, nine wide and three thick, the whole enclosed in an oak case. Certainly no author, before or since, ever had such recognition of national sympathy.
Such is the story of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," briefly told. Some critics have claimed that it is not a great book, and that Mrs. Stowe was not a great woman. That depends on what is called greatness. Certainly, the book was written as all great books are written. The subject possessed the author and heated her mind to the white heat of production. She saw and felt her characters, lived in her scenes, and in the mingled gloom and humor of her work, produced a picture of the world as it is, inhabited by people that truly live and breathe on her pages. It may not fully respond to the canons of criticism, but it is instinct with genius, and the verdict of the world is surely of far more weight than the decision of a narrow-visioned anatomist of words and phrases.