A MISTAKE IN LITERARY HISTORY—UNCLE TOM'S CABIN.
The Edinburgh Review, in its last number, in an extended notice of Uncle Tom's Cabin, makes the following singular statement:
"It came out as a sort of feuilleton in the National Era, a Washington paper. The death of Uncle Tom was the first portion published, indeed the first that was written. It appeared in the summer of 1851, and excited so much attention that Mrs. Stowe added a beginning and middle to her end, composing and printing, from week to week, the story as we now have it until it was concluded in March, 1852."
It is often said, and with truth, that we know more of English subjects on which we attempt to write, than English writers know of American subjects. An American reviewer who should fall into such mistakes as characterize the foregoing extract, in speaking of the history of any one of Dickens' or Scott's novels would meet with little mercy at the hands of his contemporaries.
A brief statement will suffice to correct the errors of the Edinburgh Review.
Some time in the spring of 1851, Mrs. Stowe, a contributor to the National Era, wrote to us, that a subject had taken possession of her mind, and was gradually working itself into the shape of a fictitious narrative, which she proposed to publish in our paper, in successive numbers. She supposed then that that it would be quite brief, and the title she suggested was, "Uncle Tom's Cabin, or The Man that was a Thing." May 8th, we made the following announcement:
"Week after next, we propose to commence in the Era the publication of a new story by Mrs. H. B. Stowe, the title of which will be, 'Uncle Tom's Cabin, or the Man that was a Thing.' It will probably be of the length of a tale by Mrs. Southworth, entitled 'Retribution.' Mrs. Stowe is one of the most gifted and popular of American writers."
Before the close of the month, we received the first two chapters, just as they appear now in the book, the title having been modified, so as to read, "Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life among the Lowly." The chapters were published in the National Era of June 5th, 1851, and the work was then continued, in successive numbers, until April 1st, 1852, when the last chapters were printed. The whole work, consisting of 46 chapters, was published in the Era, and chapter 29th, describing the death of Uncle Tom, appeared in its proper place, May 18th, 1852.
Closing the publication, we remarked in an editorial as follows:
"Mrs. Stowe has at last brought her great work to a close. The last chapters appear in this week's Era. With our consent, the Boston publisher issued an edition of five thousand on the 20th of March, but it has already been exhausted, and another edition of five thousand has appeared. We do not recollect any production of an American writers, that has excited more profound and general interest. Since the commencement of its publication in our columns, we have received literally thousands of testimonials from our renewing subscribers to its unsurpassed ability. We hope that this grand work of fiction may not be the last service which shall be rendered by Mrs. Stowe to the cause of Freedom, through the columns of the National Era."
Our paper at that time had seventeen thousand subscribers, or, according to the usual calculation, not fewer than 85,000 readers. It is not wonderful that a work of such power, upon such a subject, eagerly looked for every week, for nearly a year, by eighty-five thousand readers; talked and written about incesantly; read on the car, in the steamboat, at the hotel, in parts, just enough to stimulate, without satisfying desire, should, the moment it appeared in book form, have run like fire on the prairie.
The Review, assigning the causes of its great popularity in Europe, gives the first place to its subject, but remarks that its American popularity depended principally upon its religious character. This is rather far-fetched. Its subject, being novel, as a them of fiction, was a leading element of its popularity in both Europe and America; but it is a great mistake to suppose that it was detrimental in any respect to the circulation of the work in the United States. The Questions of Slavery embraced in it are of engrossing interest in this country—no section is indifferent to them, no class. They involve fundamental rights and incalculable interests, and are constantly generating the profoundest excitements. Anti-Slavery People—and the reviewer should know that the Anti-Slavery Sentiment, as a vital, active element, is far more diffused in this country than in any other, for the obvious reason, that there is an ever present, tremendous stimulant to its activity—exulted in a work which so graphically gave utterance to their views and aspirations. Pro-Slavery People were eager to see what there was in this new book to kindle such excitement, and strengthen so greatly the opposition to them. Slaveholders were anxious to know in what light they and their institutions were represented. No combination of elements like this could have existed in the case of a work of equal merit upon any other theme.
The first cause, then, of its wide circulation and popularity was, its subject—the second, its intrinsic merit as a work of genius. We care nothing as to its violations of the niceties of criticism. As to its short-comings in the artistic view—the work glows from beginning to end with Inspiration. In regard to the "religious color," that is an admirable quality; but if this had been its principal characteristic, the "Puritans" of New England, alluded to by the reviewer, might have spoken respectfully of the good intentions of the book, but, ere this, they would have forgotten the very names of Uncle Tom and Topsy.