Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin


Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Uncle Tom's Cabin Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher, the daughter and sister of Christian ministers, was born in Connecticut in 1811 and educated at Hartford Female Seminary. She eventually became a teacher in Hartford. She moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, with her family at the age of 21, and married Calvin Stowe, a professor of theology, at the age of 25, raising with him a family of seven children. Beecher Stowe moved with her husband to Maine in the early 1850s (he had taken a teaching position at Bowdoin College), and there, sparked by the controversial passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, she drafted Uncle Tom’s Cabin and had it published serially, initially in the paper The National Era.
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Historical Context of Uncle Tom's Cabin

The lofty language of the Declaration of Independence, which promised “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to all Americans, fell far short of reality in the first century of the United States’ history. Women and black slaves were essentially excluded from this promise. The Southern economy depended upon cotton, and slave labor was the cheapest way to prepare cotton for sale. The North’s banking and manufacturing sectors also depended on cheap Southern cotton. Thus both North and South, for over a hundred years, maintained a system of Southern slavery involving millions of African Americans. By the first few decades of the 1800s, however, various congressional compromises could not settle the issue of the expansion of slavery into Western territories, which many Northerners opposed, fearing that slave interests would come to dominate American politics.

Other Books Related to Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written for a specific purpose: to demonstrate the “living dramatic reality” of slavery, as Beecher Stowe put it. Many people, especially those in the North, did not know the day-to-day hardships of African Americans living in bondage, and literary works could provide these details in the form of exciting, dramatized stories. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a work of non-fiction, had similar ambitions and was also very popular among those wishing to learn more about slavery—and to find ways to eliminate the institution and liberate slaves in the South.
Key Facts about Uncle Tom's Cabin
  • Full Title: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, Life Among the Lowly
  • When Written: 1851-1852
  • Where Written: Maine
  • When Published: Serially, between June 5, 1851, and April 1, 1852. As a book on March 20, 1852.
  • Literary Period: Civil War-era American literature
  • Genre: Social novel / protest novel
  • Setting: Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio in the 1840s
  • Climax: Tom is beaten by Simon Legree yet refuses to abandon his faith
  • Antagonist: Simon Legree
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient

Extra Credit for Uncle Tom's Cabin

“Tom Shows.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin achieved additional fame in an adaptation of the novel for the stage. Many companies toured throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction periods with a version of the “Uncle Tom” story, although racial caricatures and the conventions of comic theatre often mangled the Christian message of the novel and accentuated the racial biases Beecher Stowe had attempted to dismiss.

Race and the novel in contemporary culture. In contemporary times, the term “Uncle Tom” has acquired a derogatory meaning: a black person who is all too willing to serve, without fail, a white superior. Beecher Stowe’s personal view of black people—namely, that they possess qualities making them biologically and culturally distinct from white people—draws particular criticism in today’s society, and with good reason. It is important, then, to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a document grappling with issues of race and slavery in their cultural moment, rather than as a perfect and perfectly-argued treatise exposing all forms of discrimination.