Having recently been to see the remarkable and moving film, Twelve Years a Slave', the VV was reminded of the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the astonishing influence she had on the movement to abolish slavery.
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)
Harriet Beecher Stowe was a sister of the clergyman Henry Ward Beecher. She married a college professor in Maine and was mother to seven children. She also worked as a teacher, was a novelist and a poet, a writer of travelogues, biographical sketches, and children’s books. But nothing attained the same level of fame as that of her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was written in 1851 when its author was forty years old.
The VV recalls, many years ago, seeing the 1928 film adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin - where the central character is a black slave who suffers great cruelties in his life whilst remaining heroic and Christ-like. As I child she was deeply moved by that film and yet had no comprehension at all of the profound political affect that the story once had in America.
Being the very first abolitionist work of fiction, the story provided huge motivation for the anti-slavery movement - so much so that when speaking of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln went so far as to claim that Harriet Beecher Stowe was “the little lady who caused it!”
As with many novels written in the mid-nineteenth century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin began its life when published in serial form, appearing in an anti-slavery weekly known as the National Era. When it was published in book form over 10,000 copies were sold in one week - 300,000 in that first year - and millions internationally.
Poster for Uncle Tom's Cabin at the London Adelphi Theatre
When dramatised in 1852 the play became an instant hit which was also staged in London at the Adelphi Theatre. But, owing to lax copyright laws when other versions were performed they often diluted the play's central message, creating stereotypical roles in what were essentially minstrel shows.
A poster for Stetson’s 1886 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
When it was technically possible, films of the story were also made and, in 1903, Uncle Tom was one of the very first ‘full length’ movies – though full length might mean anything between ten and fifteen minutes long! It was directed by Edwin S Porter who used white actors in ‘blackface’ make up, with characters breaking into song and dance at the most inappropriate moments.
A still from the 1903 film of Uncle Tom's Cabin, directed by Edwin S Porter
For more about this story please do listen to an episode of the radio programme In Our Time, in which Melvin Bragg and his guests discuss the novel’s influence.