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Did Harriet Beecher Stowe write Uncle Tom’s Cabin?
If she didn't, who did? (Moments that Made America)
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of the most influential books in American history. The novel, published under the name of Harriet Beecher Stowe, brought the evils of slavery into the living rooms of its many readers in the decade before the Civil War, and bolstered Northern opposition to the South’s peculiar institution.
Yet Harriet Stowe later told a friend that she hadn’t written Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
“What!” exclaimed the friend. “You did not write ‘Uncle Tom’?”
“No,” said Stowe. “I only put down what I saw.”
“But you have never been at the South, have you?”
“No, but it all came before me in visions, one after another, and I put them down in words.”
“Still,” said the friend, “you must have arranged the events.”
“No,” said Stowe. “Your Annie”—the friend’s daughter—“reproached me for letting little Eva die. Why, I could not help it. I felt as badly as anyone could. It was like a death in my own family, and it affected me so deeply that I could not write a word for two weeks after her death.”
“And did you know that Uncle Tom would die?” the friend asked.
“Oh yes, I knew that he must die from the first, but I did not know how. When I got to that part of the story, I saw no more for some time. I was physically exhausted, too. Mr. Stowe had then accepted a call to Andover”—Calvin Stowe was a theologian and was taking a job at the seminary at Andover—“and had to go there to find a house for the family.” Harriet joined Calvin and the couple spent the following weeks arranging the move.
The work kept her busy and often exhausted. “I was very tired when we returned to our boarding-house to the early midday dinner,” she wrote of one wearing morning. “After dinner we went to our room to rest. Mr. Stowe threw himself upon the bed; I was to use the lounge.” Uncle Tom was the furthest thing from her mind, and had been during the house-hunting break.
“But suddenly arose before me the death scene of Uncle Tom with what led to it,” Stowe said. “I sat down at the table and wrote nine pages of foolscap paper without pausing, except long enough to dip my pen into the inkstand.”
Calvin Stowe awoke to see his wife completing the passage. He was puzzled. “Have you lain down yet?” he said.
“No, I have been writing, and I want you to listen to this, and see if it will do,” she said.
Harriet Stowe recalled the moment. “I read aloud to him with the tears flowing fast. He wept, too, and before I had finished, his sobs shook the bed on which he was lying.”
He answered her question. “Do!” he said. “I should think it would do.”
Calvin Stowe snatched the pages from her hand and sent them at once to her publisher. She remarked later, “I have often thought that if anything had happened to that package in going, it would not have been possible for me to have reproduced it.”
Harriet Stowe’s friend recalled this story to her on another occasion, following publication of a new edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In an introduction to that edition, Stowe recounted writing a sketch, many years earlier, of the death of a loyal slave. She said she had read the sketch to her children, who were deeply moved. She said this was the inspiration of Uncle Tom. The friend gently asked if there was a contradiction between the two accounts.
“No,” Harriet Stowe replied. “Both are true, for I had entirely forgotten that I had ever written that sketch, and I suppose I had unconsciously woven it in with the other.”
The abolitionist movement was a broad church, tolerant on most matters but slavery. It included Quakers, Methodists, Unitarians, deists, Catholics and spiritualists. Many of Stowe’s readers wouldn’t have questioned for a minute that the story of Uncle Tom could have come to the author in a vision or a dream.
Whatever its sources, Uncle Tom’s Cabin took the North by storm. Its heart-touching account of the saintly Tom, the angelic Eva and the beastly Simon Legree almost certainly won more converts to the antislavery cause than the hectoring editorials of William Lloyd Garrison or the windy sermons of Harriet’s brother Henry Beecher. Abraham Lincoln was reported to have said, on meeting Stowe amid the Civil War, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.”
Perhaps Lincoln didn’t say those precise words. But they conveyed a common view, and one true enough in its sphere. The Civil War resulted from two decisions: of eleven slave states to attempt to leave the Union, and of Lincoln and the other states to fight to prevent the departure. The eleven seceding states judged that Northern opinion had grown so hostile to slavery that they and it weren’t safe within the Union. No person did more than Harriet Beecher Stowe to foster that hostility.