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from Howells, James, Bryant and Other Essays
William Lyon Phelps
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1924

UNCLE TOM'S CABIN

  Although it is rather the fashion to call American Literature second rate, some of it has enjoyed a world-wide popularity, and exerted a universal influence. Benjamin Franklin, Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, H. W. Longfellow, R. W. Emerson, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Joel Chandler Harris, Mark Twain, are known and read in most European and some Asiatic languages. In addition to books by these men, there is one American novel that continues to have a steady sale and is read every year in the uttermost parts of the earth. Although Uncle Tom's Cabin was written as propaganda, it has long survived the institution it attacked, and it is probable that future generations will regard it as a prime favourite. What is the cause of the seemingly eternal vitality of this story?


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  Harriet Beecher was born at Litchfield, Conn., 14 June 1811. Her father, the Rev. Lyman Beecher, was a distinguished man, and would conceivably be more famous to-day if he had not been overshadowed by his daughter the novelist, and by his son Henry Ward Beecher. When she was twenty-one, her father moved to Cincinnati. There she, with her sister, started a school for girls. In Cincinnati her father was President of a Theological Seminary; and in 1836, Harriet was married to Calvin Stowe, a professor in the institution. They lived in Cincinnati till 1850. Her life was a chronic fight against poverty and sickness, with the importunate problem of bringing up a family on a microscopic income. She did much hackwork. She wrote articles for newspapers, and small magazines; she published a geography; she worked day and night.

  Ohio was a border-state, where she saw continually one aspect of the slavery question. Her father and her husband were strong anti-slavery men, and the daily family conversation was largely devoted to passionate discussions. The house was a refuge for runaway slaves; and some that had


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been freed became in a way members of the family.

  "I was a child in 1820," she once wrote, "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 in his congregation. I well 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 which indelibly impressed my heart and made me what I am from my very soul, the enemy of all slavery. Every brother I have has been in his sphere a leading anti-slavery man. As for myself and 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 liberated slaves into a family school, and taught them with my own children, and it has been the influence


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that we found in the church and by the altar that has made us do all this."

  In 1850, her husband became a professor in Bowdoin College, Maine, which had previously given to American Literature Hawthorne and Longfellow, and was soon to see one of its alumni President of the United States. In the year of their arrival the Fugitive Slave Law brought the topic of slavery to the boiling point. A member of the family wrote to her: "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." This letter excited Mrs. Stowe, and after reading it aloud, she said, "I will write something. I will if I live."

  Her son tells the famous story of the conception of Uncle Tom.

  "It was in the month of February (1851) that Mrs. Stowe was seated at communion service in the college church at Brunswick. Suddenly, like the unrolling of a picture, the scene of the death of Uncle Tom passed before her mind. So, strongly was she affected that it was with difficulty she could keep from weeping aloud. Immediately on returning home she took pen and paper and wrote out


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the vision which had been, as it were, blown into her mind as by the rushing of a mighty wind. Gathering her family about her she read what she had written. Her two little sons of ten and twelve years of age broke into convulsive weeping, one of them saying through his sobs, 'Oh, Mamma! slavery is the most cruel thing in the world.' Thus Uncle Tom was ushered into the world, and it was, as we said at the beginning, a cry, an immediate, an involuntary expression of deep, impassioned feeling. Twenty-five years afterwards Mrs. Stowe wrote a letter to one of her children, of this period of her life: 'I well remember the winter you were a baby and I was writing Uncle Tom's Cabin. My heart was bursting with the anguish excited by the cruelty and injustice our nation was showing to the slave, and praying God to let me do a little, and to cause my cry to be heard. I remember many a night weeping over you as you lay sleeping beside me, and I thought of the slave mothers whose babes were torn from them.'”

  A weekly journal called The National Era, devoted to the campaign against slavery, whose editor was a personal friend of Mrs.


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Stowe, was being printed at Washington. Whittier had contributed poems to its pages. As fast as she wrote the manuscript, Mrs. Stowe sent thither the sheets, and Uncle Tom's Cabin thus appeared in installments in 1851-52. Like many another famous novel, it attracted eager and general attention during its progress in the periodical, and it was published in book form before the serial was concluded. Within four months Mrs. Stowe was paid ten thousand dollars. In an age before the era of best sellers, her novel sold over 300,000 copies the first year. Mrs. Stowe travelled in Europe, and was received everywhere as a famous author; she visited the Brownings in Italy. On her return, her husband became professor in Andover Theological Seminary, where the students called their house Uncle Tom's Cabin. In 1863 they took up their permanent residence in Hartford, where she died 1 July 1896, at the age of 85. After the war, she spent many winters in Florida, living in the South for the first time.

  In an interview with Mr. Alba Honeywell, published in the Springfield Republican in December 1914, the vigourous man, aged 93,


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holding in his hand a copy of the first edition of the book, gave his visitor the following information: "I sold the first published copy of this book. Some of the folks have been making quite a fuss about it of late. I was then on the editorial staff of the Standard in New York City. This, you remember, was the organ of the American anti-slavery society and the official publication of the liberal party, as the abolitionists were known. Uncle Tom's Cabin had been published serially in the National Era at Washington in 1851 and 1852, attracting wide attention. It was brought out in book form by John P. Jewett & Co., Boston publishers, in the latter part of 1852. The very first installment which came from their press was shipped to the Standard office and I happened to be standing by when the consignment was opened. A gentleman whose sympathies were strongly against slavery had been haunting the office for several days waiting to buy the first copy. I picked one out of the lot and sold it to him."

  This novel has never known a period of neglect. Shortly before the author's death, the publishers got out a new edition of 100,000


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copies, which were sold in a few weeks. By 1878 it had been translated into twenty languages. Shortly after the book first appeared, it was dramatised; for seventy years it has held the stage with no sign of diminishing popularity, and it is perhaps the favourite American play. It would be difficult to say how many companies are acting it at this moment, but there are many. (The name of the original adapter is George L. Aiken, and those who are interested in the origin and text of the dramatic version may be referred to the work by Montrose J. Moses, Representative Plays by American Dramatists.)

  Like Barnum's circus, the advent of this play to a one-night stand is preceded by a morning parade, which whets the curiosity of the crowd. In the South, it means a general holiday. A northern tourist a few years ago, after ringing in vain for the bell-boy, in the hotel, asked the clerk what was the matter, and was told, "You are not acquainted with the South, sir. When I said Uncle Tom's Cabin was in town, that was sufficient explanation as to the whereabouts of every coloured man, woman and child for ten miles around. They are all packed out on Main


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Street to see the big parade, and you couldn't get one of them to work until it passes if you gave them a dollar for each minute. If it doesn't pass pretty soon you will go without your dinner, for every cook and waiter is outside, watching for the first band. Order them to work? Well, I guess not. It would start a riot, and every one from the dishwasher to the head waiter would walk out on us and we'd be boycotted." The tourist found the streets jammed and the trees and telegraph posts crowded with pickaninnies. When Little Eva appeared, the mammies cried, "Dah now! Ah could kiss dat child to deff." Little Eva was chewing gum.

  The last time I saw the play was in a New England town. At the death of Little Eva, half the audience were in tears, while the rest were laughing. Those who came to weep, did so in the rainiest fashion; those who came to scoff remained for the same purpose, and thus got their money's worth. It is a national institution. The late Hopkinson Smith declared that it should be suppressed, but the people love it too well to part with it, and the national common sense and good humour can be relied on to receive it in the proper spirit.


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  Uncle Tom's Cabin was more effective in arousing anti-slavery sentiment than the works of Garrison, Phillips, Whittier, Lowell, than all the congressmen and all the tracts. It was concrete. It had the eternal advantage of a story over an essay or an oration. It did not talk about the condition of the African race; it gave the world living persons. It appealed to the heart rather than to the head, to sentiment rather than reason. Everyone knows that although human beings have the capacity to reason, they seldom use it. The road to influence is through the feelings; and in times of great national crises, reason and judgment are abandoned. Furthermore, the novel directed its attack against the weakest point in the defence of slavery, and the worst abuse of the system—the breaking up of negro families by sale.

  The adverse feeling aroused in the South is shown in the contemporary periodicals in that quarter, many of which were quoted in an interesting article published in The Bookman in 1903, by Arthur Bartlett Maurice, from which my citations are made. It is well known that in response to the attacks upon the veracity of the book, Mrs. Stowe published


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a key. This brought down a general castigation from the Southern Literary Messenger, June 1853, in which Mrs. Stowe is not only condemned as a disseminator of incendiary falsehoods, but as an immoral writer. What would the reviewer have thought could he have foreseen the novels published in the twentieth century by "female pens"?

It is a horrible thought that a woman should write, or a lady read such productions as those by which a celebrity has been acquired. Are scenes of license and impurity, and ideas of loathesome depravity and habitual prostitution to be made the cherished topics of the female pen, and the familiar staple of domestic consideration for promiscuous conversation? Is the mind of woman to be tainted, seduced, contaminated, and her heart disenchanted of its native purity of sentiment by the unblushing perusal, the free discussion and the frequent imitation of such thinly veiled pictures of corruption? It is sufficiently disgraceful that a woman should be the instrument of disseminating the vile stream of contagion, but it is intolerable that Southern women should defile themselves by bringing the putrid waters to their lips.

  The New Orleans Weekly Picayune, 30 August 1852, "viewed with alarm" the proposed dramatisation of the story:


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It is stated in Eastern papers that an experienced writer in Boston is engaged in dramatising the abolition novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. The gross misrepresentations of the South which have been propagated so extensively through the press with the laudations of editors, politicians and pious fanatics of the pulpit, are to be presented in tableaux, and the lies they contain acted by living libellers before crowds of deluded spectators. The stage is to be employed in depicting to the people of the North the whole body of the people of the South living in a state of profligacy, cruelty and crime, tyrants who fear not God and cruelly oppress their fellow-creatures, and the drama is thus enlisted among the promoters of sectional hatred, a teacher and preacher of national discord, whose end inevitably would be the disruption of the Union.

  The Southern Quarterly Review, January 1853, condemned the book in terms that do not need to be modified today, for they are well within the truth.

To disprove slanders thus impudently uttered and obstinately persevered in is impossible unless those who are to judge the question had some little insight into the facts of the case, and could know something of our habits and our laws, thus being enabled to judge of the respective worth of the testimony brought before them. So far from this being the case in the present question, not only is


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our cause prejudged, but our very accusers assume to be our judges. . . . To such as are willing to hear both sides we have endeavoured to invalidate Mrs. Stowe's testimony by proving that so far from being well acquainted with our habits and manners she has probably never set foot in our country, and is ignorant alike of our manners, feelings, and even habits of language. She makes her Southern ladies and gentlemen talk in rather vulgar Yankee English, her Louisiana negroes all talk "Kentuck."

  Mr. Maurice's valuable article, which is a contribution to the history of critical opinion, gives extensive quotations from Northern book-reviews, not all of which were favourable, and from newspapers and magazines in England. It is clear from a perusal of these that the whole world was talking about Uncle Tom's Cabin, and that its literary impression abroad was as wide if not as deep as its moral effect at home. It is interesting to observe that Garrison's anti-slavery paper, The Liberator, was cold and almost hostile to Mrs. Stowe's novel. Was he jealous? Reformers have seldom been good at co-operation.

  Finally, to take one more bit from Mr. Maurice, the large number of foreign translations was playfully alluded to by Oliver


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Wendell Holmes in a poem he wrote for the author's seventieth birthday:

If every tongue that speaks her praise,
For whom I shape my tinkling phrase,
Were summoned to the table,
The vocal chorus that would meet,
Of mingled accents, harsh or sweet,
From every land and tribe, would beat,
The polyglots of Babel.

Briton and Frenchman, Swede and Dane,
Turk, Spaniard, Tartar of Ukraine
Hidalgo, Cossack, Cadi,
High Dutchman and Low Dutchman too,
The Russian serf, the Polish Jew,
Arab, Armenian and Manchoo,
Would shout, "We know the lady!"

  How many know what cadi means? I had to look it up.

  In the North, Mrs. Stowe was praised for her fairness and impartiality, because she had represented the varying fortunes of Uncle Tom with various masters and localities; in the South she was condemned for exaggeration, slander, and falsehood. This is quite natural; had the Northern reviewers lived in the South, they would have said exactly what the Southerners said, and vice


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versa. Practically all our political, and many of our moral and religious opinions, are merely a matter of geography. This ought not to be so, but it is. Being so, we ought to have sympathy even with those we are compelled to fight. There were certainly just as sincere Christian ministers in the South as in the North, but they supported the institution of slavery, which to the Northerners seemed anti-Christian. Had the young men who fought for the Union been born and brought up in the South, they would all have fought against it. This is the reason why murderous animosities cool after many years, and we no longer call the Southerners traitors.

  The reason why slavery had to go was because it was an anachronism. The spirit of the times was too much for it; not only could not this country exist half slave and half free, but slavery itself could not exist any longer in a country that called itself both civilised and Christian. Personally, although I am a Yankee of the Yankees, I have as much intellectual and moral respect for Southerners as for Northerners. The Southerners have never "repented" that they


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fought in the Confederate army; they are proud of it. They have statues to Confederate generals all over the South—why not? In following such leadership, they did what they sincerely believed to be their duty. It is a tragedy that abstract questions in politics and in morals have to be settled by bloody strife, but that is the method preferred by the majority of human beings; perhaps in the future men will find a better way, and perhaps not. To bring about such an improvement, there will have to be a prodigious rise in the general level of intelligence, and Christian precepts will have to be taken seriously.

  To the statements that Uncle Tom's Cabin was a collection of lies, Mrs. Stowe issued a Key, which contained verifying footnotes to the material she used in her story. On this Key two observations may justly be made. The fact that special cases such as she cited had actually happened, did not prevent the book from being false. It was false as a picture of the general conditions of the slavery regime. On the other hand, the strength of her indictment consisted in this: her enemies could not deny that what she pictured might


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happen. Legree was a hideous exception, granted; but where he did flourish, there was no remedy. Suppose a slave-holder got drunk, and beat his slaves; he might regret his behaviour after he became sober, but that did not help his victim, nor was there any way in which he could be punished. Hopkinson Smith said that whenever a master was known to be cruel, his neighbours ostracised him; that may have acted as a deterrent in some cases, but there was no redress for those who had been injured. When you see a drunken man driving a horse, you respect the horse more than the man; but your respect does not help the horse.

  The whole question, still hotly debated, as to whether the slaves were "better off" than their descendants in freedom, depends entirely upon whether you consider the blacks as human beings or as animals. A dog is better off in slavery than in freedom; nothing is more pitiable than a free dog. But men? There is a story told of a runaway slave in the fifties, who was asked several questions by a man in Ohio. "You were badly treated?" "Oh, no, master was very kind." "You were cold and hungry?" "No,


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indeed; we always had clothes to wear, good shelter, and good food." "Then you were a fool to run away." "Well, Sir, my place there is vacant; you can have it if you like it."

  There is also a story told of a coloured man a few years ago, who being penniless and hungry, called at house after house in Boston, sent in his card, "Mr. Henry Brown," was received politely, but when he made his request, was with equal politeness, refused assistance. Finally, he happened to call at a place where a man lived who had moved up from the South; when this gentleman saw the negro in his drawing-room, he cried, "What the hell do you mean by sending in a visiting card, with Mister Brown on it? If you're hungry, go down into the kitchen, and the cook will give you anything you want." And Mr. Brown ejaculated, "Thank God! I've found one of my own people!"

  The Southern people have as a rule treated the negroes more kindly and far more intimately than they are treated in the North; but when it comes to anything like political equality, the matter is not even debatable.

  During the twenty-five years that I


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been teaching American Literature to college undergraduates, I have observed a remarkable change in the attitude of the students from the South. In the late 'nineties, when I first included Uncle Tom's Cabin as part of the required work, on which every member of the class had to write a critical theme, I remember what one warm-hearted young gentleman from a Southern State wrote: "After I had finished this book, I kicked it out of the room, kicked it down stairs, kicked it out of the dormitory, and shall never read it again." There were some other vigourous denunciations, which all seemed to me natural enough. But of late years the attitude has been so different, that it would often be impossible to tell by the theme what part of the country was represented by the writer. The young men from the South never believe that it is a fair picture of what slavery was; but they read it with interest, often with enthusiasm, and judge it fairly.

  Was there a real Uncle Tom, and if so, who was he? In March 1903, the newspapers quite generally printed a dispatch with an illustration of the cabin, announcing that the


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original of Mrs. Stowe's portrait had recently died at Paint Lick, Kentucky, aged 111. His name was Norman Argo, and he belonged to General Samuel Kennedy, a planter of Howard county, and at one time a member of the State Legislature. It was announced also that Mrs. Stowe had obtained much material for her story from the Kennedy plantation.

  One of my pupils at Yale in the class of 1905, Mr. Nathaniel B. Sewell, of Kentucky, wrote me the following statement:

Half a dozen states have laid claim to the original Uncle Tom. Mrs. Stowe herself said that she had been impressed by many slaves possessing her hero's three most salient characteristics—devotion to master, honesty, and piety. But in Garrard County, Kentucky, where Mrs. Stowe frequently visited while her home was in Ohio, it is maintained to this day that her model hero was Uncle Tom Kennedy, the slave of a Bluegrass planter. Just fifty years after the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, I saw this original in Paint Lick, a rambling, Kentucky village, and certainly an odd little old negro be was. His garb consisted of coarse cowhide shoes without heels, trousers several inches too long, and goodness knows how many sizes too large, a coat large enough for an overcoat, a cotton-plaid shirt open at the collar, and a tall, battered


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white hat. His body was stooped and shrunken, and his withered face fringed with white whiskers; a striking picture of the humble, old-time darky. No one appeared to remember when he was otherwise than "Uncle Tom, and a mighty good old nigger." When spoken to by a white man, he removed the old white hat, bowed his head, and answered with great deference. His life had been a hard one, but he thought the Lord had been good to him in permitting him to live so long and in keeping his faith strong. He acknowledged the smallest favour, whether a kind word or a coin, with a fervent, "Gawd bless ye, Mas'r! Gawd bless ye!" He spoke with modest pride of Mrs. Stowe's visits to the home of his master long before the war. That she had been led by Providence to use him as an instrument for the deliverance of his race, he never doubted. But Uncle Tom's memory seemed decidedly treacherous. Sometimes he thought himself a hundred years old, again a hundred ten, then a hundred twenty-five. No one doubted his being the oldest man in the country round, and I heard no one accuse him of being a humbug.
Since the war, he had earned a scant living by doing odd jobs about the village, receiving occasional pieces of money from strangers and many kindnesses from the family and friends of his old master. In no sense does tradition make of him the remarkable character that Mrs. Stowe made of her hero; but I have heard since his death, which occurred several years ago, that the people, white


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and black, for many miles around, came to his funeral and scores of white people wept at his grave.

  What is the literary value of Uncle Tom's Cabin? This is still a matter of hot dispute. In an, interview in the New York Sun, 6 February 1898, Mr. Howells spoke of it in the highest terms. To him it was always a great novel. Professor Brander Matthews, who was born in New Orleans, has written of it with enthusiasm. Others can see in it only sensationalism, melodrama, sentimentality, and crass crudity.

  To judge of the merits of the work, one should look at her other stories; some of them are worthless, but there are a few which show not a little creative art. I am certain that Dred, published in England as Nina Gordon, would have made a powerful impression if it had not been overshadowed by her masterpiece; and Oldtown Folks is a good novel. But the convincing proof of Mrs. Stowe's talents as a novelist is seen in the continued and world-wide popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The issue is as dead as all questions that have been settled; nothing is more surely dead than an extinct controversy. Yet the book continues year after year to be a best-seller,


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both abroad and at home; young and old read it with interest and are often deeply affected. I believe it is a work of genius.

  Whether truthful in detail or not, its spirit is true. It was written with absolute sincerity, with burning conviction; it came out of the tremendous heat caused by the fusion of passion and religion. It is aflame. You feel the fiery zeal of the author before you have read twenty pages, and there is no diminution, no cooling off.

  She was a natural-born narrator. She had considerable power of invention; she described vividly; she visualised every scene.

  There is enough humour to relieve the tension. A continuous strain of tragic feeling or of propaganda would have been unbearable. But Topsy is a creation that belongs immortally to the literature of comedy. She has contributed proverbs to the language. Indeed, creation of character is one of Mrs. Stowe's greatest gifts. Uncle Tom, Topsy, St. Clare, Aunt Ophelia, Simon Legree are real in the imagination, and cannot possibly be forgotten.

  The dramatic skill shown in the book is notable. It was a long story and the terrible


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close is heightened by the scenes of contrast that preceded it. It is more untrue than anything in the book to say that it is an unrelieved picture of cruelty and oppression. Mrs. Stowe knew what she was about when she had Uncle Tom proceed from Shelby to St. Clare and from St. Clare to Legree. And the Legree episodes are even now terrifying. In him she created a monster who is by no means contemptible. The superstitious negroes have as high a respect for him today as they have for Satan. He is the antichrist, but he is to be taken seriously. He is utterly bad, but exceedingly formidable.

  The pathos of the book is certainly overdone in the Little Eva scenes, but that was in the manner of Dickens, and quite fashionable in current fiction. Even as a small boy, I could not swallow Eva, and I did not have to swallow when I read of her exit. But the death of St. Clare is deeply affecting, and I can never read it unmoved. I detect no false note there. And the fatal effect of his accidental death on the fortunes of Uncle Tom is not over-emphasised.

  Finally, it was a mark of intelligence on the part of the author to seize the exact moment.


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The time was precisely ripe. She expressed what thousands in the North had come to feel, and she converted thousands to her point of view. As a history of abolition sentiment it is not only a human but a historical document. In her preface she said, "It is a comfort to hope, as so many of the world's sorrows and wrongs have, from age to age, been lived down, so a time shall come when sketches similar to these shall be valuable only as memorials of what has long ceased to be."

  The weaknesses of the book are only too apparent; nor would it be possible that a story written as blazing propaganda should have the flawless perfection of Turgenev or Hawthorne. In places the construction is as slipshod as the style; the dialect is absurd; the pathos is laid on too thick; there are too many plays to the gallery. If ever a book was certain of being dramatised, this was. But perhaps her very faults contributed to the effect, and the effect was what she was after. She obtained both fame and wealth; but when she was writing, she was not thinking of these things.

  Towards Uncle Tom's Cabin we may take


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the attitude taken by many scholars towards the Bible. Not every word in it is true, but it was inspired.

  In a copy of the rare first edition in the Alldis collection in the library of Yale University, the following Scriptural passage appears in Mrs. Stowe's handwriting:

The voice said Cry.—And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field. . . . The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand forever.

  Perhaps that quotation explains the book's immortality.