THE UNCLE TOM EPIDEMIC
The Uncle Tom epidemic still rages with unabated violence. No country is secure from its attack. The United States, Great Britain, and, by the latest accounts, Germany and France, have yielded to its irresistible influence. No age or sex is spared, men and women and children all confess its power. No condition is exempt; lords and ladies, flunkies and kitchen-maids, are equally infected with the rage. The prevailing affection is universal, and all have the Uncle Tom, whether at rest or in motion, at leisure or at work, on the rail or at the street-corner, in the idle repose of the parlor, or in the busy bustle of the kitchen.
The various editions of Uncle Tom in the United States have already reached the astounding number of two hundred thousand copies, and in Great Britain the still more astounding number of four hundred thousand. There had been twenty editions published in England at the latest dates, some being sold for ten shillings a copy, some at five, some at one, and some even as low as six-pence. Two hundred and fifty thousand copies of the sixpenny edition had been printed. The publisher of this cheap edition, having already pocketed the handsome sum of four thousand pounds, is cheering himself with the prospect of some ten thousand more. He keeps some four hundred men, women and children constantly occupied in binding the work, and the warehouses of the London stationers have nearly exhausted themselves in supplying the paper for it. For many weeks the railway booksellers, the Messrs. Smith, have sold upwards of three hundred copies daily of the dearer editions. We are told that the trade calculates upon a profit of at least twenty thousand pounds to the publishers of the various editions. Uncle Tom has already been translated into German, and a French translation has been printed in Paris.
Through thousand vents, impatient, forth they flow,
In forming an estimate of the popularity of this book, we must not forget, that if some books find more purchasers than readers, that on the contrary, Uncle Tom has probably ten readers to every purchaser, and in a calculation of the readers we must stretch our powers of arithmetic to a degree far beyond to what they have been tasked by the number of purchasers, and try to expand the hundred thousands into millions.
The popularity of Uncle Tom is a phenomenon in the literary world, one of those phenomena which set at naught all previous experience and baffle all established and recognized principles. No literary work of any character or merit, whether of poetry or prose, of imagination or observation, fancy or fact, truth or fiction, that has ever been written since there have been writers or readers, has ever commanded so great a popular success. Thousands have read Uncle Tom, to whom we are sure Shakespeare is but a name, the outside title of a closed book, and the "Vicar of Wakefield" an unknown thing. The popular success, proclaimed by few tens of thousands, more or less, of Dickens and Bulwer, are but whispers in the public ear, faintly heard, in comparison with the trumpet blast of the fame of Uncle Tom, blown loudly, far and wide, by the voices of the million.
Was there never a book before? Has the world never been blessed with genius, or has art striven in vain until now, and has Printing been a dead letter, and have mankind, aroused by Uncle Tom from a sleep of two centuries, awakened at this late hour, for the first time, to the fact that there are books to read?
The history of literature, with all its proud eras, its Augustan, its Elizabethan ages, records no parallel. The might of genius, the skill of art, the wisdom of philosophy, and the sympathetic glow of eloquence, have never received so wide and direct an acknowledgment. The world-wide reception of Uncle Tom transcends all recorded in past history, and is only to be approached by that brilliant prospect in the future of the great American or English author, when the English language shall be the language of the world. The thought, however, suggests itself, that astounding as the popularity of Mrs. Stowe's book is, in comparison with that of even the most popular authors, it certainly is no greater than that of an accepted book should be, in a country like ours, with its million of readers. A great literary success is measured by some few thousands, why should it not be measured by hundreds of thousands in a land of twenty-five millions of people, with occasions for literary enjoyment beyond any other people under the sun?
The multitudinous success of Uncle Tom is a phenomenon that nothing in the previous history of books can explain. How is in then to be accounted for? Many by the enthusiasm in behalf of the cause in support of which it has been written. The cause advocated by the book is slave emancipation, and in it is delineated the supposed horrors and inhumanities of slavery in the Southern States, the evils of that institution, the cruelties, whether true or real, of the master, and the sufferings of the slave, the tyranny of the oppressor and the subjection of the oppressed.
Wherever the human heart beats, or freedom breathes, there is a sympathy with suffering and the oppressed; a sympathy, it is true, not always on the alert, but as expansive as humanity itself when aroused by that one touch of nature that makes the whole world kin. There is a sympathy with the negro, as with the rest of mankind, natural to man, based on the eternal sympathies of the human heart, which leads us to condole with his sufferings, and disposes us to aid in his relief. This feeling, however natural its origin, is apt, with many, to get entire possession of the heart, to the banishment of all other kindly sympathy for the rest of the brotherhood of mankind. While such are indefatigable in their efforts to clothe the infant Hottentot, that he may simmer in warm flannel, they have not a rag to spare for the pale nakedness shivering at home.
This negro sympathy, moreover, is kept in a state of unnatural and unwholesome excitement by means familiar to organized agitation. This state is one of smouldering enthusiasm, a fire never allowed to go out and ready to blaze forth into a spreading flame of fanaticism upon the smallest stir or lightest breath of excitement. The appearance of Uncle Tom aroused this anti-slavery enthusiasm and called into play all its intense energy. Agitation set to work all its busy activities, marshalled its proselytising host, rallied around Mrs. Stowe, and, taking the world by surprise, planted Uncle Tom high on the vantage ground of popular preeminence. Much of the wonderful popularity of this book is alone to be accounted for by the enthusiasm of the anti-slavery feeling, which has succeeded in doing for Uncle Tom what the enthusiasm for genius has never done for any book. Thus much for the two hundred thousand copies of Mrs. Stowe's book sold in the United States.
The same has operated in England with double effect. Ever since the agitation of the question of Negro Emancipation by the Wilberforces and Clarksons of England, the abolition of slavery has been a religion with the people of Great Britain, an active, ever busy, restlessly agitating faith. The anti-slavery enthusiasm in England is such as to resist every obstacle, to endure no opposition, to allow no consideration of State policy, and no sense of expediency to oppose its progress or to refuse its importunate demands. It expressed its force in the irresistible summons to the British Parliament to set free the slaves in the English colonies, and the English government acknowledged its power, when it unwillingly yielded, in spite of its own sense of political expediency, the emphatic protests of vested interests, the cost of a hundred million of dollars, and the ruined prosperity of a large and rich portion of British domain. The same anti-slavery enthusiasm on the part of the English people has forced the British Government to embroil itself in a perpetual warfare with Brazil and Spain, at an enormous expenditure of life and money, in its attempts to prohibit the African slave trade. We have had a taste in this country of the English anti-slavery proselytising spirit in the distasteful presence of that spouting philanthropist, Thompson, sent out by the busy energies of his over-zealous countrymen and countrywomen to agitate and disturb American opinion. There can be little doubt of the existence of an anti-slavery enthusiasm in Great Britain sufficient to swell the triumph of an anti-slavery book at the small expense of sixpence a copy, to a sale of four hundred thousand. It is our deliberate conviction that a greater excitement could be got up in England in behalf of the emancipation of Africans than perhaps for any other purpose short of cutting the throats of their countrymen and brothers, the Hottentots, or their near relatives, the East Indians.
We hold that the first impulse to the popularity of Uncle Tom came from the anti-slavery sentiment in the United States and England; that popularity now crescit eundo; the book is borne along by its momentum. The curiosity awakened by so great a popularity in the first instance, stimulates interest, and readers flock in and follow the crowd. Leading organs of opinion deliver their oracular judgments. For example, the London Times, ever on the alert to record the incidents of the hour, comments upon the popularity of Uncle Tom, a fact which its ever wakeful eye cannot fail to notice and which its popular sympathy forces it to appreciate. This again encourages the excitement, and with a certain impetus once gained, who can foretell the issue?
"As on the smooth expanse of crystal lakes
Uncle Tom bids fair yet to number its millions of copies and to be immortal from quantity, if not from quality.
The spirit of emotional religion which pervades the book and which the authoress warms into an intensity of pious enthusiasm, finds undoubtedly an eager sympathy in the prevailing faith of a large portion of the religious world. The evangelical sects see in the pious fervor, the spiritual enthusiasm, the sudden conversions, the self-sacrificing lives, the extatic deaths, of Mrs. Stowe's book, the expression of their devotional sentiment and religious faith. They accordingly take Uncle Tom to their warm embrace as a chosen apostle and commend him to the brethren, with an emphatic love of faithful disciples. There are no books in the whole range of literature which have been so widely diffused as the various evangelical works, appealing mostly to religious feeling, such as those of Bickersteth, the editions of which were counted by the tens of thousands even during the life of their author. It has been stated that the little book, Bogatzky's Golden Treasury, has been sold to the extent of several hundreds of thousands.
Its religious character must then be set down as one of the causes of the enormous popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The great popularity of Mrs. Stowe's book we attribute to causes extrinsic to the work itself; we are free to confess that it has an intrinsic interest without which the external influences, however great, would have been exercised with less chance of success.
Uncle Tom is a fervid narrative of a succession of startling incidents developed by the evils of slavery, a dark picture of horrors, of revolting cruelty on the one hand and intense suffering on the other, of tyranny and oppression, of the imposition of force and submission of weakness. The whole book, from the first chapter to the last, is a description of such terrible sufferings as never fail to awaken sympathy, and of such cruelties as are always sure to arose indignation in every human heart. A cruelty, a torture, a wounded affection, a lacerated limb, a mangled body, an agonised mind, a broken heart, a murdered life, need but to be merely stated as occurrences to excite the most profound interest and strongest sympathy. In such obvious appeals to human feeling, the tongue of eloquence need not tell the story, nor the hand of art touch the picture; untaught nature fills the eye and throbs the heart. The newspaper paragraph recording an "awful accident" catches the sight at once and curdles the blood. An incident injurious to life, liberty, or happiness, the natural rights of man of which he is instinctively a defender, provided the incident is believed to be a fact, however simply, in truth the more simply, it may be stated, makes a greater impression upon the mass of mankind than any imaginary horror depicted by art. The murder in the town, the accident in the street, or the suffering in the neighborhood, blurted out by the rudest tongue in conversation, is more appalling than all the imaginary horrors of Dante's Inferno.
As a record of appalling horrors, believed by most readers to have been actual occurrences, Mrs. Stowe's book chiefly takes its hold upon her large audience. This we believe to be the intrinsic power of the work, which sustains the interest of the multitude, whose first attention has been got by such powerful external influences. It is needless to extract from a book which is in the hands of hundreds of thousands, and from the general acquaintance with it, we can refer to the various characters and incidents of the work as if they were the next door neighbors and the occurrences of the day to our readers.
As for the horrors of the book. Eliza is first threatened with having her darling and only child torn rudely from her motherly embrace and care. By flight she escapes this one horror to involve herself in another, the horror of a supposed eternal separation from her husband. Hunted almost to death, wearied and wo-begone, she by various hair-breadth escapes secures her liberty and that of her child. George's story is full of horrors. A son of a Kentucky gentleman, he was sold after the death of his father, with the dogs, horses, and other chattels. His mother was sold, with her children, and all sold separately, mother and child parted for ever, and brother and brother and brother and sister. They were kicked and beaten for loving each other. George was sold to a cruel master, whipped, scolded, and starved, and had not a friend on earth to love him. Uncle Tom was sold for his master's debts, torn from wife and children and home, manacled and fettered. Sold to a good master only to lose him to death on the eve of being emancipated, and consequently sold again; beloved by his master's daughter, Eva, only to lose her by an early death. Treated cruelly by a new master, kicked and whipped, taunted, starved and over-worked and finally scourged to death. Cassy's career again was a succession of horrors, tenfold more horrible still. Sold from one debauchee to another, to satiate the fluctuating lusts of gross sensuality, and by force made the victim of a monster of ugliness, lasciviousness, and cruelty. By the way of episodes, we have the horrors of a slave market, lacerating the heart, torturing the affections, and cruelly using the body of human beings. We also have the heart-rending account of a babe stolen in its helplessness and innocence from a mother's bosom, and of that mother stifling her agony in death, beneath the turbid waves of the Mississippi. These are horrors, terrible horrors; there are, moreover, manifold whippings and kickings, torturings, and all imaginable cruelties, such cruelties as curdle the blood and stop the pulsations of the heart. In addition there are no less than a half a dozen deaths, with a proportionate degree of sickness, suffering, wailing, and mourning. It will be seen that the book is a narrative of a succession of heart-rending incidents, such incidents as from their nature, apart from the manner in which they are told, command the attention and excite sympathy. The book appeals strongly to the domestic feelings in its account of the violent rupture of the social and domestic ties, the cruel wresting of the child from its mother, the husband from wife, and father from his family.
Mrs. Stowe has collected together the most exciting incidents of cruelty and suffering, and woven them together in a narrative, which derives its interest and power more from the appalling nature of the supposed facts it narrates than from the art of the narrator.
We are not disposed to deny to the author of Uncle Tom the possession of skill as a writer. Her narrative is fluent, fervid, and emphatic; in her minute and literal description, she shows herself a shrewd observer and an exact painter. Her domestic interiors, Chloe's well-ordered cottage, for instance, and Dinah's ill-ordered kitchen, are painted with a wonderful fidelity and truth, and are evidently copies of what the keen woman's eye and perception of the authoress have observed in reality.
The episode of Eva and Uncle Tom, their religious communings, the kindly sympathy between the old negro and the young and tender child, the gentle sensibility and humanity which softens the relation between mistress and slave in the intimate fellowship between friend and friend, the enthusiasm of the one in death, and the resigned grief of the other, are told with a pathetic interest that warms the heart of the reader and fills his eyes with tears. This episode reminds us of a favorite of our youth, a religious tract, a story of deep pathos, by Mrs. Sherwood. Mrs. Stowe has imitated this story, perhaps unconsciously, but the resemblance is so striking that it cannot escape the reader familiar with the two histories of "Little Henry and his Bearer" and Eva and Uncle Tom.
In both stories the scene is laid in a southern country, with descriptions of tropical scenery; in both the main characters are a child and an old servant, between whom the strongest attachment is formed, leading to a mutual affection and friendship, to constant companionship and religious communings. In both the main incident is the same, the death and pious resignation of the child; in both there are several similar subordinate characters and circumstances, for example, a heartless mother, and the incident of cutting the hair, which we give from the two books.
Mrs. Stowe herself seems to have had Mrs. Sherwood's story in her mind, from the following use of the word bearer in this sentence. "The friend who knew most of Eva's own imaginings and foreshadowings, was her faithful bearer Tom"; this term is exclusively applied to servants in India, where the scene of "Henry and his Bearer" is laid. More to interest our readers than to endeavor to convict a lady of so unladylike a proceeding as a literary theft, we give some extracts from "Uncle Tom" and "Little Henry and his Bearer," in which will be found similar incidents, described in a similar manner. The passages show just such parallelisms as we should expect to find in two works, when one was suggested by the other, without being an actual copy of that other. Mrs. Stowe owes undoubtedly her story of Uncle Tom and Eva, to Mrs. Sherwood's "Little Henry and his Bearer."
LITTLE HENRY AND HIS BEARER—RELIGIOUS COMMUNINGS.
"Once, in particular—it was in one of those lovely places near the Rajamahal
hills Henry and his bearer went to walk. Henry's
mamma had during the day been very cross to him, and the poor little fellow
did not feel well, although he did not complain; but he was glad when he got
out of the boat. The sun was just setting, and a cool breeze blew over the
water, with which the little boy, being refreshed, climbed without difficulty
to the top of a little hill where was a tomb. Here they sat down; and Henry
could not but admire the beautiful prospect which was before them. On the left hand was the broad stream of the Ganges, winding round the curved shore, till it was lost behind the Rajamahal hills. The boat, gaily painted, just below them, and with it many smaller boats, with thatched and sloping roofs. The boatmen and native servants, having finished their day's work, were preparing their food, in distinct parties, according to their several castes, upon the banks of the river; some grinding their spices, some lighting their little fires, some washing their brass vessels, and others sitting in a circle upon the ground smoking their cocoa-nut pipes. Before them, on the right hand, was a beautiful country abounding with corn-fields, topes of trees, thatched cottages with their little bamboo porches, plantain, and palm trees; beyond which the Rajamahal hills were seen, some bare to their summits, and others covered with brushwood, which even now afford a shelter to tigers, rhinoceroses, and wild hogs.
"Henry sat silent a long time. At last he said, 'Boosy, this is a good country; that is, it would be a very good country if the people were Christians. Then they would not be so idle as they now are; and they would agree together, and clear the brushwood, and build churches to worship God in. It will be pleasant to see the people, when they are Christians, all going on a Sabbath morning to some pretty church, built among those hills, and to see them in an evening sitting at the doors of their houses reading the shaster—I do not mean your shaster, but our shaster—God's book.'
Boosy answered, that he knew there would be a time when all the world would be of one religion, and when there would be no caste; but he did not know when that would be, and he was sure he should not live to see it.
"'There is a country now, where there are no castes; and where we shall all be like dear brothers. It is a better country than this; there are no evil beasts; there is no more hunger; no more thirst; there the waters are sure; there the sun does not scorch by day, nor the moon smite by night. It is a country to which I sometimes think and hope I shall go very soon; I wish, Boosy, you would be persuaded either to go with me, or to follow me.'
"'What!' said Boosy, 'is little master going to England?' And then he said he hoped not; for he could never follow him.
"Henry then explained to him, that he did not mean England, but heaven. 'Sometimes I think,' said he, 'when I feel the pain which I did this morning, that I shall not live long; I think I shall die soon, Boosy.'"
UNCLE TOM AND EVA—RELIGIOUS COMMUNINGS.
"St. Clare's villa was an East Indian cottage, Surrounded by light verandahs of bamboo-work, and opening on all sides into gardens and pleasure-grounds. The common sitting-room opened on to a large garden, fragrant with every picturesque plant and flower of the tropics, where winding paths ran down to the very shores of the lake, whose silvery sheet of water lay there, rising and falling in the sunbeams,—a picture never for an hour the same, yet every hour more beautiful.
"It is now one of those intensely golden sunsets which kindles the whole horizon into one blaze of glory, and makes the water another sky. The lake lay in rosy or golden streaks, save where white-winged vessels glided hither and thither, like so many spirits, and little golden stars twinkled through the glow, and looked down at themselves as they trembled in the water.
"Tom and Eva were seated on a little mossy seat, in an arbor, at the foot of the garden. It was Sunday evening, and Eva's Bible lay open on her knee. She read,—'And I saw a sea of glass, mingled with fire.'
"'Tom,' said Eva, suddenly stopping, and pointing to the lake, 'there 't is.'
"'What, Miss Eva?'
"'Don't you see,—there?' said the child, pointing to the glassy water, which, as it rose and fell, reflected the golden glow of the sky. 'There's a "sea of glass, mingled with fire."'
* * * * *
"'Where do you suppose new Jerusalem is, Uncle Tom?' said Eva.
"'O, up in the clouds, Miss Eva.'
"'Then I think I see it,' said Eva. 'Look in those clouds!—they look like great gates of pearl; and you can see beyond them—far, far off—it's all gold. Tom, sing about "spirits bright."'
* * * * *
"'Uncle Tom,' said Eva, 'I'm going there.'
"'Where, Miss Eva?'
"The child rose, and pointed her little hand to the sky; the glow of evening lit her golden hair and flushed cheek with a kind of unearthly radiance, and her eyes were bent earnestly on the skies.
"'I'm going there,' she said, 'to the spirits bright, Tom; I'm going, before long.'"
Mrs. Stowe asks "has there ever been a child like Eva?" We answer, yes, very like; little Henry.
Apart from this resemblance pointed out in scene, character, incident and description, the likeness between the two stories in tone and purpose, is more striking still; it can hardly be described, however, but will be appreciated at once on a comparison of the two books.
The pathos and humor of the book have been, we think, very much overstated. The pathos consists mostly in the simple statement of obvious pathetic incidents, such for example, as the flight of Eliza to save her child. In the description of such incidents, the authoress undoubtedly exhibits a good deal of melo-dramatic earnestness, which impresses the casual reader with a sense of confidence and belief in the narrative.
The humor of the negro character is not of the highest kind, being rude and palpable. The African is a remarkably imitative animal, and wherever he is placed in a condition of inferiority to the white man, he indulges with great delight in copying his superior. Thus the white man's action, talk, and dress are imitated with wonderful pertinacity by the negro. This imitation must be more or less rude, and from the humble and subordinate position of the black man gives rise to the most amusing contrasts and grotesque absurdities. The pompous air of assumed dignity, the use of high sounding and fine words oddly distorted and misapplied, the showy dress, ill-assorted in color and ill-shaped to the person, together with the sly consciousness that he is playing a part, make the negro a ludicrous caricature of the white man. This is the chief source of the humor of the negro character. This is the element of the popular performances on the stage and elsewhere, the Jim Crow oddities, the Ethiopian serenaders, the Christy minstrels. This will be found also to be the essence of the humor in Uncle Tom's Cabin. It is of a crude and obvious kind, easily intelligible; it requires no delicate sense of perception to understand, no cultivated taste to enjoy. It is a humor wondrously popular, because overflowing with animal spirits and requiring no intellectual effort to appreciate; it supplies a hearty enjoyment while it leaves in undisturbed repose the mental sluggishness of the multitude.
It has been said that Mrs. Stowe in her book paints her Whites too black
and her Blacks too white. It is true. The picture is all light and darkness,
day and night. It might, perhaps, be urged that if Southern slavery nourished
and perfected such models of character, as the pious Tom, the gentlemanly
George, and the accomplished Eliza, that Southern slavery, after all, is a
blessing to humanity. The true picture of the Southern slave, and perhaps
the most powerful argument against Southern slavery, is a laughing, joyous,
negro, succulent with animal enjoyment gushing forth in unmeasured bursts
of merriment, eating, drinking, and singing away life, and insensible to the
ence of an institution which degrades and subjects him. The saddest part of slavery is this insensibility, which is death to the heart, as the surgeon knows that absence of pain is the sure sign of approaching gangrene and destruction. We know that this insensibility exists to a great degree, and that even the rupture of the family ties is suffered apparently with indifference, and that the negro, as he passes through a succession of wives, contemplates a divorce with as much coolness as a conclave of Connecticut legislators. Uncle Tom's Cabin is certainly deficient in that great essential of a work of art, unity of construction. It has not even the cohesion of a simple narrative, but presents two disconnected pictures quite independent of each other.
Will "Uncle Tom" bear a second reading? We would no more care to re-peruse it, than to con over, after a first perusal, the columns of the morning news. We have read the incidents of the book as we have the topics of the day, we have learned the facts, and we have no more to do with the writer who has served his purpose; like the postman, he brings the letter and is forthwith dismissed. All works of art, however, withstand this test of repeated perusal. The reader at each new reading, imbibes an additional idea, catches a new suggestion and is charmed with a fresh beauty:
"Surpris'd he sees new beauties rise,
We are not prepared to deny that the motive of Mrs. Stowe in writing her book, has been good, but we are ready to assert that its influence is bad. The social evils of slavery have been exaggerated and presented in a form calculated to excite an inconsiderate popular feeling. A subject which involves the happiness and life of many of our countrymen, and as the newspapers says, "perhaps the national existence of our nation," claiming the calm deliberation of wisdom, has been tricked off by a pert fancy in the showy habiliments of a theatrical wardrobe, and displayed with a boldness that knows no reserve, and cares for no consequence, to a pernicious and unthinking multitude, to be mocked, jeered, laughed at and wept over with maudlin tears. What the common sense, the statesmanship, the religion, and the humanity of our country have by unanimous consent agreed to allay, Mrs. Stowe has been reckless enough to do her best to excite.
In summing up the causes of the multitudinous success of "Uncle Tom," the anti-slavery feeling, the evangelical religious sentiment, the fondness for horrors, the accumulative force of popularity, and the cheapness, we must not forget the easy intelligibility of the book, coming from obvious sources of interest presented in a commonplace manner. The work tests neither the educated understanding nor the chastened taste of the few, but in its simplicity and directness appealing to the common intelligence of the masses, finds a ready appreciation among its hundreds of thousands of readers in Europe and America.