Putnam's Monthly Magazine
New York: January 1853

Uncle Tomitudes

  Here is a miracle! or something, at least, that has not happened before, and consequently, for which the world was not prepared; for the belief of King Solomon still prevails, that nothing will be which has not already been, and every new thing is incredible until it has been duplicated. Uncle Tom, therefore, is a miracle, his advent had not been foreseen nor foretold, and nobody believes in him now that he has come, and made good his claim to be considered somebody. But, Uncle Tom's superiors were not believed in at first, and he can well afford to bide his time.

  Never since books were first printed


has the success of Uncle Tom been equalled; the history of literature contains nothing parallel to it, nor approaching it; it is, in fact, the first real success in book-making, for all other successes in literature were failures when compared with the success of Uncle Tom. And it is worth remembering that this first success in a field which all the mighty men of the earth have labored in, was accomplished by an American woman. Who reads an American book, did you inquire, Mr. Smith? Why, your comfortable presence should have been preserved in the world a year or two longer, that you might have asked, as you would have done, "who does not?"

  There have been a good many books which were considered popular on their first appearance, which were widely read and more widely talked about. But, what were they all, compared with Uncle Tom, whose honest countenance now overshadows the reading world, like the dark cloud with a silver lining. Don Quixote was a popular book on its first coming out, and so was Gil Blas, and Richardson's Pamela, and Fielding's Tom Jones, and Hannah More's Coelebs, and Gibbon's Decline and Fall; and so were the Vicar of Wakefield, and Rasselas, and the Tale of a Tub, and Evelina, the Lady of the Lake, Waverley, the Sorrows of Werter, Childe Harold, the Spy, Pelham, Vivian Grey, Pickwick, the Mysteries of Paris, and Macaulay's History. These are among the most famous books that rose suddenly in popular esteem on their first appearance, but the united sale of the whole of them, within the first nine months of their publication, would not equal the sale of Uncle Tom in the same time.

  But this success does not, by any means, argue that Uncle Tom is superior to all other books; but it is an unmistakable indication that it is a live book, and that it will continue to live when many other books which have been pronounced immortal, shall be dead and buried in an oblivion, from which there is no resurrection.

  Uncle Tom is not only a miracle of itself, but it announces the commencement of a miraculous Era in the literary world. A dozen years ago, Uncle Tom would have been a comparative failure—there might not have been more than a million copies sold in the first year of its publication. Such a phenomenon as its present popularity could have happened only in the present wondrous age. It required all the aid of our new machinery to produce the phenomenon, our steam-presses, steam-ships, steam-carriages, iron roads, electric telegraphs, and universal peace among the reading nations of the earth. But beyond all, it required the readers to consume the books, and these have never before been so numerous, the next year, they will be more numerous still, and Uncle Tom may be eclipsed by the shadow of a new comer in the reading world. It is not Uncle Tom alone who has made the way for himself; the road to popularity has been preparing for him, ever since the birth of Cadmus; he has only proclaimed the fact that the great avenues of literature are all open, wide, and well paved, and free to all who have the strength to travel in them. Hereafter, the book which does not circulate to the extent of a million copies, will be regarded as a failure. What the first edition of a popular novel will be by-and-by, when the telegraphic wires will be printing it simultaneously, in New-York, St. Petersburg, San Francisco, Pekin and the intermediate cities, it is not easy to estimate. Then, when an international copyright shall secure the whole world to the popular author, for his market, authorship, we imagine, will be a rather more lucrative employment than it happens to be at present. The possibility of such a time does not appear half so improbable now, as the actualities of Uncle Tom would have sounded in the earlier days of the Edinburgh Review.

  It is but nine months since this Iliad of the blacks, as an English reviewer calls Uncle Tom, made its appearance among books, and already its sale has exceeded a million of copies; author and publisher have made fortunes out of it, and Mrs. Stowe, who was before unknown, is as familiar a name in all parts of the civilized world as that of Homer or Shakspeare. Nearly two hundred thousand copies of the first edition of the work have been sold in the United States, and the publishers say they are unable to meet the growing demand. The book was published on the 20th of last March, and on the 1st of December there had been sold one hundred and twenty thousand sets of the edition in two volumes, fifty thousand copies of the cheaper edition in one, and three thousand copies of the costly illustrated edition. The publishers have kept four steam-presses running, night and day, Sundays only excepted, and at double the ordinary speed, being equal to sixteen presses worked ten hours a day at the usual speed. They keep two hundred hands constantly employed in binding Uncle Tom, and he has consumed five thousand reams of white paper, weighing seventy-five tons. They have paid to the author twenty thousand three hundred dollars as her share of the pro-


fits on the actual cash sales of the first nine months. But it is in England where Uncle Tom has made his deepest mark. Such has been the sensation produced by the book there, and so numerous have been the editions published, that it is extremely difficult to collect the statistics of its circulation, with a tolerable degree of exactness. But we know of twenty rival editions in England and Scotland, and that millions of copies have been produced. Bentley has placed it among his standard novels. Routledge issues a handsome edition of it with a preface by the Earl of Carlisle; and this virtuous nobleman, with the blood of all the Howards in his veins, sees nothing out of the way in venting his indignation against American Slavery, in the preface of a book which is stolen from its author and published without her consent. Bentley also tacks on an "indignant preface" to his edition, but it is stated that he gives a per centage on the sale to the author, which gives him a right to be indignant, if he chooses. But the Earl of Carlisle and Routledge might have reserved their indignation against slavery, it strikes us, until they had taken to honest courses themselves. Another publisher in London issues an edition and proposes to share profits with the author; while a penny subscription has been got up as a testimonial to her from all the readers of the work in Great Britain and Ireland. We have seen it stated that there were thirty different editions published in London, within six months of the publication of the work here, and one firm keeps four hundred men employed in printing and binding it. There have been popular editions published also; in Edinburgh and in Glasgow; and it has been dramatized and produced on the boards of nearly every theatre in the Kingdom. Uncle Tom was played in six different theatres in London at the same time. An illustrated edition is now publishing in London by a bookseller named Cassell, the illustrations being furnished by the famous and inimitable George Cruikshank. The same publisher has issued an Uncle Tom Almanac, with designs by some of the most eminent artists of London. The whole Beecher family, of which Mrs. Stowe is a member, have been glorified in the English periodicals, and are exciting as much attention just now, as the Napoleonic family, to which they bear great resemblance; one being a family of Kings and Queens, and the other of preachers and authors—sovereigns in the intellectual world.

  Uncle Tom was not long in making his way across the British Channel, and four rival editions are claiming the attention of the Parisians, one under the title of le Pere Tom, and another of la Case de l'Oncle Tom. But the fresh racy descriptions of the author, lose their vigor and force when rendered into French, though the interest of the narrative remains. The book reads better in German than in French, and makes a deeper impression on the Teuton than upon the Gallic mind.

  The Allgemein Zeitung, of Augsburg, says of it in the course of a long review:


"We confess that in the whole modern romance literature of Germany, England and France, we know of no novel to be called equal to this. In comparison with this glowing eloquence, that never fails of its purpose, this wonderful truth to nature, the largeness of these ideas, and the artistic faultlessness of the machinery in this book, George Sand, with her Spiridion and Claudie, appears to us untrue and artificial; Dickens, with his but too faithful pictures from the popular life of London, petty; Bulwer, hectic and self-conscious. It is like a sign of warning from the New World to the Old. In recent times a great deal has been said about an intervention of the youthful American Republic in the affairs of Europe. In literature, the symptoms of such an intellectual intervention are already perceptible."

  This is rather stronger praise, than any of the French critics have bestowed upon Uncle Tom, one of whom thinks it inferior to Hildreth's Archy Moore. But Mrs. Stowe's epic is more read in Paris, just now, than any other book, and it is said to have a greater success than any similar production since the publication of Paul and Virginia.

  Uncle Tom has found its way into Italy, where there are more American travellers than American books. Our charge, at Sardinia, reports that it is making its mark there, as in other parts of Europe, in a manner that astonishes the people. Two editions in Italian have been published in Turin, and one of the daily papers was publishing it as a feuilleton, after the manner of the Paris press.

  What progress Uncle Tom has made in the other northern nations of Europe, in Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Poland and Lapland, we have not been informed; but it is undoubtedly drawing its tears from the eyes of the hyperboreans, as well as from the inhabitants of the mild south. India and Mexico, and South America, have yet to be Uncle Tomitized, for we have not heard of any editions of Mrs. Stowe's great romance among the descendants of the Aztecs, the Gauchos, or the Brazilians. It must spread over the whole earth, like the cholera, only reversing its origin and the


order of its progress. One of our newspaper critics compares the Uncle Tomific, which the reading world is now suffering from, to the yellow fever, which does not strike us as a very apt comparison, because the yellow fever is confined wholly to tropical climes, while Uncle Tom, like the cholera, knows no distinction of climate or race. He is bound to go; and future generations of Terra-del Fuegians and Esquimaux, will be making Christmas presents at this season of the year, of Uncle Tom's Cabin in holiday bindings.

  Not the least remarkable among the phenomena that have attended the publication of Uncle Tom has been the numerous works written expressly to counteract the impressions which the book was supposed likely to make. This is something entirely new in literature. It is one of the most striking testimonials to the intrinsic merit of the work that it should be thought necessary to neutralize its influence by issuing other romances to prove that Uncle Tom is a fiction. Nothing of the kind was ever before deemed necessary. When Mrs. Radcliffe was bewitching the novel-reading world with her stories of haunted Castles there were no romances written to prove that ruined Castles were not haunted. But Uncle Tom had scarcely seen the light when dozens of steel pens were set at work to prove him an imposter, and his author an ignoramus. Some dozens of these anti-Uncle Tom romances have been published and many more of them remain in obscure manuscript. We have had the pleasure of looking over a score or two, which were seeking a publisher, and nearly all of them were written by women, upon the principle of similia similibus. The writer of one of these unpublished anti-Tom novels had made a calculation, the innocent ingenuity of which tickled our very midriff. She had ascertained that one hundred and fifty thousand copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin had been sold, and she calculated that every reader of that romance would be anxious to hear the other side of the story of domestic slavery, and her romance being the silver lining of the Southern institution, she came to a publisher with a modest proposal based upon a certain sale of one hundred and fifty thousand copies of her work. But this good lady had not made a greater mistake than the majority of our reviewers who have assumed that the "golden joys" of Mrs. Stowe's authorship were all owing to her having sung of Africa. Most unaccountably they imagine that it is the subject, and not the manner of its treatment, that has fascinated the reading public. But a more effete subject, one of which the public were more heartily wearied, which was more unwelcome to ears polite than that of slavery, it would not have been easy to select. Whoever touched it was sure of that cruelest of all martyrdoms contemptuous neglect. The martyr age of anti-slavery, as Harriet Martineau called it, had passed away, and the more fatal age of indifference and contempt had succeeded. The public had been inundated and surfeited with anti-slavery sentiment in all possible forms, from the fierce denunciations of the Pilsbury Garrison school, down to the mild objurgations of Lucretia Mott. Every possible form of literary composition and pictorial embellishment had been devoted to the subject, and no one either needed, or desired, any further enlightenment about it, when Uncle Tom's Cabin was announced to the world of novel readers. The chances were a thousand to one against the success of the book. And yet it has succeeded beyond all other books that were ever written. And the cause is obvious; but, because it was obvious and lay upon the surface, it has been overlooked, there being an opinion among most men that truth must lie a long way out of reach.

  "When I am reading a book," says Dean Swift, in his Thoughts on Various Subjects, "whether wise or silly, it seems to me to be alive and talking to me." This is the secret of the success of Uncle Tom's Cabin; it is a live book, and it talks to its readers as if it were alive. It first awakens their attention, arrests their thoughts, touches their sympathies, rouses their curiosity, and creates such an interest in the story it is telling, that they cannot let it drop until the whole story is told. And this is done, not because it is a tale of slavery, but in spite of it. If it were the story of a Russian Serf, an evicted Milesian, a Manchester weaver, or an Italian State prisoner, the result would be the same. It is the consummate art of the story teller that has given popularity to Uncle Tom's Cabin, and nothing else. The anti-slavery sentiment obtruded by the author in her own person, upon the notice of the reader, must be felt by every one, to be the great blemish of the book; and it is one of the proofs of its great merits as a romance, that it has succeeded in spite of this defect. If Mrs. Stowe would permit some judicious friend to run his pen through these excrescences, and to obliterate a flippant attempt at Picwickian humor, here and there, Uncle Tom's Cabin would be a nearly perfect work of art, and would deserve to be placed by the side of the greatest romances the world has known. It has often been


spoken of by critics as deficient in artistic ability, but it is to its masterly construction, or artistic quality, that it is indebted for its popularity. The over-plus of popularity given to the work by its anti-slavery sentiment is not much greater than the loss of readers from the same source; but the evangelical sentiment of the book, the conversions to holiness through the influence of Uncle Tom's preaching, which the London Times cavilled at, is a greater cause of its popularity with the religious classes, we imagine, than the anti-slavery sentiment which it contains. For the religious sentiment of Uncle Tom is in strict accordance with the theology of nine-tenths of the Christian world. In all the great requisites of a romance it is decidedly superior to any other production of an American pen.

  There are not, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, any of the delicacies of language which impart so great a charm to the writings of Irving and Hawthorne, nor any descriptions of scenery such as abound in the romances of Cooper, nor any thing like the bewildering sensuousness of Typee Melville; but there are broader deeper, higher and holier sympathies than can be found in our other romances, finer delineations of character, a wider scope of observation, a more purely American spirit, and a more vigorous narrative faculty. We can name no novel, after Tom Jones, that is superior to Uncle Tom in constructive ability. The interest of the narrative begins in the first page and is continued with consummate skill to the last. In this respect Thackeray is the first of contemporary English novelists, and Bulwer deserves the next mention. But the commencement of all of Thackeray's stories is dull and uninviting, while Bulwer, who opens briskly, and excites the attention of the reader in the beginning, flags and grows dull at the close. Mrs. Stowe, like Fielding, seizes upon the attention at the outset, and never lets it go for a moment until the end. It matters not by what means this is done, it is the chief object aimed at by the romancer, and the greatest artist is he who does it in the most effectual manner; if the writer of fiction fails in this point, he fails altogether. And the same may be said of every other writer; the mind must first be amused before it can be instructed.

  In no other American book that we have read, are there so many well-delineated American characters; the greater part of them are wholly new in fiction. The mischievous little imp Topsy, is a sort of infantine Caliban, and all the other darkies are delineated with wonderful skill and freedom; and each page of the book is like a cartoon of charcoal sketches. It as been objected to Uncle Tom, that all the whites are impossibly wicked, and all the blacks are impossibly good. But nothing could be further from the truth than such an assertion; the most amiable of the characters are some of the slave owners, while the most degraded and vile are, of course, the slaves. There is no partisanship apparent in the narrative proper, and if the author did not, occasionally, address the reader in her own person, greatly to her own prejudice, we should hardly suspect her of anti-slavery leanings.

  An ingenious writer in the Literary World has done Mrs. Stowe the favor to point out an instance of undeniable, but, we presume, unconscious plagiarism, on her part, for which she should feel herself under great obligations to him. He proves pretty clearly, that the weakest part of Uncle Tom has been borrowed from Mrs. Sherwood. Little Eva is, unquestionably, nothing more than an adaptation of the Little Henry of the English lady; and, for our own part, we think it very creditable to Mrs. Stowe that such is the case. The little Nells, little Pauls, little Henrys, and little Evas, are a class of people for which we care but little. Dickens has much to answer for in popularizing the brood of little impossibilities, who are as destitute of the true qualities of childhood as the crying babies which are hung up in the windows of toy-shops. One Topsy is worth a dozen little Evas. But it is a proof of the genius of the author, that every character she introduces into her story is invested with such a distinct individuality that we remember it as a new acquaintance, and feel a strong interest in its fate.

  We have heard of almost innumerable instances of the power of Uncle Tom, but one of the finest compliments that has been ever paid to its fascinations was from a Southern Senator and a slave-holder. Somebody had persuaded him to read the book, and, on being asked what he thought of it, he merely replied that he should be very sorry for his wife to read it. A friend of ours was sleeping one night in a strange house, and being annoyed by hearing somebody in the adjoining chamber alternately groaning and laughing, he knocked upon the wall and said, "Hello, there! What's the matter! Are you sick, or reading Uncle Tom's Cabin?" The stranger replied that he was reading Uncle Tom.

  Apart from all considerations of the subject, or motive, of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the great success of the book shows what may be accomplished by American au-


thors who exercise their genius upon American subjects. Imitations of foreign and classical literature, though equal to the originals, will not command success. The American author or artist who is ambitious of success must confine himself to the illustration of American subjects. Cooper made his first essay upon foreign ground and failed. He then came back to America, with no better talent than he carried abroad, and succeeded, having first secured a reputation by the use of a home subject, and then succeeded with foreign materials. But Irving always wrote as an American even when his theme was foreign. There is yet remaining an uncultivated but rich field for American genius. Our first novel of society has yet to be written. We are daily looking for the appearance of our native novelist who shall take his place by the side of Irving, of Cooper, of Melville, and Hawthorne, and Mrs. Stowe. Like the sister of Fatima, we can see a cloud in the distance, but we cannot make out the form of the approaching genius. There are steam-presses and paper-mills now erecting to welcome him. Our aborigines, and sailors, and transcendentalists, and heroes, and slaves, have all had their lliad, but our men and women of society are yet looking for their Bulwer, or their Thackeray.

  Some of the foreign correspondents of our daily papers, in commenting on the popularity of Uncle Tom in Europe, account for it by saying that the English are glad of an opportunity to circulate a book which shows up our country to disadvantage. But we do not perceive the force of this argument. We do not think that any degree of hatred to our institutions could induce the people of Great Britain to read a dull book. Besides, there have been dozens of books published about slavery, which throw Uncle Tom's Cabin completely in the shade in their pictures of our domestic institutions. In fact, Mrs. Stowe's book gives a much more agreeable picture of Southern slavery than any of the works we have seen which profess to give the right side of the tapestry. A desire to degrade America surely cannot be the reason why the representation of dramatic scenes in Uncle Tom have proved so attractive in our own theatres. For our part, we think that the actual effect of Mrs. Stowe's romance will be to create a much more indulgent and forgiving spirit towards the people of the South than has prevailed in England heretofore. Our last presidential election certainly did not afford any reason to believe that the minds of our countrymen had been at all influenced by Mrs. Stowe's enchantments.