50 Features for Special Collections: Read Uncle Tom’s Cabin like a Victorian

By Christine Cheng – May 7, 2017

41/50

We are quickly approaching the last 10 features of the 50 features celebrating 50 years since the founding of Special Collections. This time we focus on the way that the public engaged in the activity of reading during the Victorian era through Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin published in 1852. This copy was published in 13 “part issues” in Great Britain and includes 27 wood engravings by the English artist George Cruikshank.

Serial novels became popular in England when Charles Dickens first published The Pickwick Papers in monthly installments over a twenty month period (April 1836 to November 1837). Novels in serial parts were published in magazines, newspapers, or as standalone parts issued in monthly installments. The serialization of literature helped to make fiction more affordable by spreading out the costs to over a year or more instead of spending money all at once on single bound novels. Serialization shaped how authors wrote as they worked to engage the interest of readers with each installment while maintaining the context of the novel as a whole. Similar to how we watch TV series today, serial novels created tension and heightened public anticipation for the next great installment by leaving readers in suspense at the end of each part.

Valuing the Human Article: “The boy drew his chubby face down to a formidable length, and commenced toning a psalm tune through his nose with imperturable [sic] gravity.”
Prayer-Meeting in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “Nothing could exceed the touching simplicity, the childlike earnestness of his prayer, enriched with the language of Scripture, which seemed so entirely to have wrought itself into his being as to have become a part of himself, and to drop from his lips unconsciously. In the language of a pious old negro, he ‘prayed right up.'”

Serial novels were just as popular in 19th-century America as they were in England. The first installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in the anti-slavery newspaper, the National Era on June 5, 1851. Responding to her sister-in-law’s call to “write something that would show the entire world what an accursed thing slavery is,” Stowe brought the realities of slavery to light in telling the story of the black slave, Tom, and of other characters around him. With help from friends and family, the novel and the development of the character of Uncle Tom was informed by firsthand accounts gathered from freedom narratives and anti-slavery newspapers.

Persecuted Virtue: “She was whipped, sir, for wanting to live a decent Christian life, such as your laws give no slave girl a right to live.”
Scipio Hunted, “As Men Hunt a Deer!”: “He fought the dogs right gallantly, and actually killed three of them with only his naked fists…It was all I could do to keep the party from shooting him.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin proved highly successful as it turned into a best seller in Britain, the U.S., Europe and Asia, and was also translated into over 60 languages. In addition to the 13-part issue of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, you can also find German, French, Swedish, Danish, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, and Welsh translations of the novel in Special Collections.

The Separation of the Mother and Child: “The old men of the company, partly by persuasion and partly by force, loosed the poor creature’s last despairing hold, and, as they led her off to her new master’s waggon [sic], strove to comfort her.”
Tom Reading His Bible: “The silver, fair-browed moon rose in the purple sky, and looked down, calm and silent, as God looks on the scene of misery and oppression – looked calmly on the lone black man, as he sat, with his arms folded, and his Bible on his knee.”

Before signing off on this post, there’s an interesting story to share about Stowe: when President Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the beginning of the Civil War, he remarked, so this is the “little lady who started this great war.” Stowe is often credited with helping to change the country’s attitude toward slavery, setting the stage for the Civil War. Although Stowe’s influence on Lincoln has not been definitively confirmed, the Executive Director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Katherine Kane, visited the Library of Congress to check circulation records from 1862 for documentation of Lincoln’s requests. She found that Lincoln had checked out Stowe’s A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin on June 16, 1862 and returned it on July 29. Kane believed that in the “critical period of June and July 1862, when Lincoln was drafting the Proclamation and then sharing it privately, he had The Key to Stowe’s Uncle Tom close at hand” before finally issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

 

Works cited:

Bernstein, Susan, and Chavez, Julia. “Serialization.” Oxford Bibliographies. July 24, 2013. Accessed May 7, 2017. http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199799558/obo-9780199799558-0122.xml

McClurg, Jocelyn. “Serial Novels Were The Craze In The 19th Century.” Hartford Courant. September 11, 1994. Accessed May 7, 2017. http://articles.courant.com/1994-09-11/news/9409110110_1_serial-novels-installment

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. Accessed May 7, 2017. https://www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org/utc/

“Victorian Serial Novels.” University of Victoria Libraries. Accessed May 7, 2017. http://www.uvic.ca/library/featured/collections/serials/VictorianSerialNovels.php