Uncle Tom's Cabin is Featured Book for April 2011

Uncle Tom’s cabin; or, Life among the lowly was a novel written by American abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Living in New Brunswick, Maine, the wife of a Bowdoin college professor, and mother of six children, Harriet Beecher Stowe, started writing magazine and newspaper articles as a means to supplement her family’s limited income.  Prompted by Congress’s passage of the Fugitive Slave Laws in 1850, and inspired by the memoirs of the Reverend Josiah Henson, a former slave, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published in 1851 as a 40 week serial in the National Era, a weekly anti-slavery newspaper.

Due to the success of Stowe’s work, the story was re-published as a novel in 1852 by John P. Jewett, an ardent anti-slavery Boston publisher.  While testimonies and memoirs of former slaves helped fuel the abolitionist movement, this novel “helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War“, according to historian Will Kaufman (2006).   Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the biggest selling novel of the nineteenth century, having sold over 300,000 copies in the United States in 1852.  In England, more than 200,000 copies were sold that same year.  Although translated into several different languages, by 1853, the book’s sales abruptly stopped, and John P. Jewett was forced to cease its publication.  The loss of sales directly resulted in Jewett’s bankruptcy, and it was not until the early years of the Civil War, that sales of the book once again surged.  The novel was then reprinted with success in 1862 by the Boston publishing firm of Ticknor and Fields.


Illustration from Uncle Tom's Cabin

The social and political impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, both in the United States and Europe, cannot be under-stated.  In the south, the novel was met with criticism and outrage by slave owners, supporters and residents who felt it was not accurate representation of southern life, slavery, and plantations.  In the north, the book served to galvanize the anti-slavery sentiments,  and solidify the abolitionist fronts,  particularly in light of the recent passage of the Fugitive Slave Laws.  The belief that Uncle Tom’s Cabin split the nation in half over the issue of slavery is underscored by President Lincoln’s apocryphal statement to Harriet Beecher Stowe during a White House visit.  In 1862, President Lincoln supposedly declared upon their meeting: “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”
The Special Collections department houses several different editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly. April’s Book of the Month is a first edition published in 1852 by John P. Jewett.  The two volume set is bound in brown cotton cloth.  A gilt vignette of an illustration from the title page is located in the center of the front cover.  The back cover is also decorated but is stamped in blind.  The novel’s title, author’s name and volume number are stamped in gilt on the spine.  Believing the book would be a financial and literary success, Jewett hired Hammatt Billings, a Boston artist and architect to create six illustrations depicting various story scenes to be included in the book.


Cover page of Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom’s cabin, or, Life among the lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe.  1852.  Boston :  John P. Jewett & Company.
Gilt vignette illustration on the front cover.
The title page illustration of the characters Chloe, Mose, Pete, Baby and Tom.  Engraved illustration is by Hammatt Billings.
Entry by Beth Kilmarx, Curator of Rare Books, Binghamton University Libraries’ Special Collections