In 1852, Harriett Beecher Stowe published her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly. It was an immediate best seller both in the US and elsewhere, and aroused intense anger in the American South.
The main character, Uncle Tom, is one of the most famous characters in all of American literature, and one of the most misunderstood.
During the U.S. Civil Rights era of the 1960s, Uncle Tom came to be seen as a kind of bumbling fool, a man of color whose passivity and deference to white people betrayed his own manhood. Calling someone an “Uncle Tom” was a deep insult. Uncle Tom has never recovered.
In reality, Stowe’s character Uncle Tom is a far more complicated character than that. Stowe came from a deeply Christian and strongly abolitionist family. In the book, Uncle Tom is in fact a Christian hero, and by the book’s end, Tom becomes a Christ-like figure. Tom suffers pain and death in sacrificing himself for others. In the book, the Black slave Tom is a better man and a better Christian than most of the white characters. For 1852, it was incredibly radical to show a slave as a Christian hero. Stowe’s book is mostly forgotten today, but it really had a huge impact on American History.
Her intent was to shock readers and appeal to their Christian principles, and it is fair to describe the book as anti-slavery propaganda. She was incredibly successful, and her book greatly increased the polarization then forming between North and South, which led to the very bloody Civil War in which perhaps 725,000 Americans died.
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