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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

 

Uncle Tom, Topsy, Sambo, Simon Legree, little Eva: their names are American bywords, and all of them are characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe's remarkable novel of the pre-Civil War South. Uncle Tom's Cabin was revolutionary in 1852 for its passionate indictment of slavery and for its presentation of Tom, "a man of humanity," as the first black hero in American fiction. Labeled racist and condescending by some contemporary critics, it remains a shocking, controversial, and powerful work -- exposing the attitudes of white nineteenth-century society toward "the peculiar institution" and documenting, in heartrending detail, the tragic breakup of black Kentucky families "sold down the river." An immediate international sensation, Uncle Tom's Cabin sold 300,000 copies in the first year, was translated into thirty-seven languages, and has never gone out of print: its political impact was immense, its emotional influence immeasurable.

(Book Jacket Status: Jacketed)

Excerpt

Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone
over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of P—, in Kentucky.
There were no servants present, and the gentlemen, with chairs closely
approaching, seemed to be discussing some subject with great earnestness.

For convenience sake, we have said, hitherto, two gentlemen. One of the parties,
however, when critically examined, did not seem, strictly speaking, to come under
the species. He was a short, thick-set man, with coarse, commonplace features, and
that swaggering air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his
way upward in the world. He was much over-dressed, in a gaudy vest of many
colors, a blue neckerchief, bedropped gayly with yellow spots, and arranged with a
flaunting tie, quite in keeping with the general air of the man. His hands, large and
coarse, were plentifully bedecked with rings; and he wore a heavy gold
watch-chain, with a bundle of seals of portentous size, and a great variety of colors,
attached to it,—which, in the ardor of conversation, he was in the habit of
flourishing and jingling with evident satisfaction. His conversation was in free and
easy defiance of Murray's Grammar, and was garnished at convenient intervals with
various profane expressions, which not even the desire to be graphic in our account
shall induce us to transcribe.

His companion, Mr. Shelby, had the appearance of a gentleman; and the
arrangements of the house, and the general air of the housekeeping, indicated easy,
and even opulent circumstances. As we before stated, the two were in the midst of
an earnest conversation.

'That is the way I should arrange the matter,' said Mr. Shelby.

'I can't make trade that way—I positively can't, Mr. Shelby,' said the other, holding
up a glass of wine between his eye and the light.

'Why, the fact is, Haley, Tom is an uncommon fellow; he is certainly worth that sum
anywhere—steady, honest, capable, manages my whole farm like a clock.'

'You mean honest, as niggers go,' said Haley, helping himself to a glass of brandy.

'No; I mean, really, Tom is a good, steady, sensible, pious fellow. He got religion at
a camp-meeting, four years ago; and I believe he really did get it. I've trusted him,
since then, with everything I have,—money, house, horses,—and let him come and
go round the country; and I always found him true and square in everything.'

'Some folks don't believe there is pious niggers, Shelby,' said Haley, with a candid
flourish of his hand, 'but I do. I had a fellow, now, in this yer last lot I took to
Orleans—'twas as good as a meetin', now, really, to hear that critter pray; and he was
quite gentle and quiet like. He fetched me a good sum, too, for I bought him cheap
of a man that was 'bliged to sell out; so I realized six hundred on him. Yes, I consider
religion a valeyable thing in a nigger, when it's the genuine article, and no mistake.'

'Well, Tom's got the real article, if ever a fellow had,' rejoined the other. 'Why, last
fall, I let him go to Cincinnati alone, to do business for me, and bring home five
hundred dollars. 'Tom,' says I to him, 'I trust you, because I think you're a
Christian—'I know you wouldn't cheat.' Tom comes back, sure enough; I knew he
would. Some low fellows, they say, said to him—'Tom, why don't you make tracks
for Canada?' 'Ah, master trusted me, and I couldn't'—they told me about it. I am sorry
to part with Tom, I must say. You ought to let him cover the whole balance of the
debt; and you would, Haley, if you had any conscience.'

'Well, I've got just as much conscience as any man in business can afford to
keep,—just a little, you know, to swear by, as 'twere,' said the trader, jocularly; 'and
then, I'm ready to do anything in reason to 'blige friends; but this yer, you see, is a
leetle too hard on a fellow—a leetle too hard.' The trader sighed contemplatively, and
poured out some more brandy.

'Well, then, Haley, how will you trade?' said Mr. Shelby, after an uneasy interval of
silence.

'Well, haven't you a boy or gal that you could throw in with Tom?'

'Hum!—none that I could well spare; to tell the truth, it's only hard necessity makes
me willing to sell at all. I don't like parting with any of my hands, that's a fact.'

Here the door opened, and a small quadroon boy, between four and five years of
age, entered the room. There was something in his appearance remarkably beautiful
and engaging. His black hair, fine as floss silk, hung in glossy curls about his
round, dimpled face, while a pair of large dark eyes, full of fire and softness, looked
out from beneath the rich, long lashes, as he peered curiously into the apartment. A
gay robe of scarlet and yellow plaid, carefully made and neatly fitted, set off to
advantage the dark and rich style of his beauty; and a certain comic air of
assurance, blended with bashfulness, showed that he had been not unused to
being petted and noticed by his master.
Harriet Beecher Stowe

About Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe - Uncle Tom's Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe, a prolific writer best remembered today for Uncle Tom's Cabin, was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on June 14, 1811, into a prominent New England family. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a well-known Congregational minister, and her brother Henry Ward Beecher became a distinguished preacher, orator, and lecturer. Like all the Beechers she grew up with a strong sense of wanting to improve humanity. At the age of thirteen Harriet Beecher enrolled in the Hartford Female Seminary and subsequently taught there until 1832, when the family moved to Cincinnati. In Ohio she was an instructor at a school founded by her elder sister Catharine, and she soon began publishing short stories in the Western Monthly Magazine.

Four years later, in 1836, Harriet Beecher married Calvin Stowe, a respected biblical scholar and theologian by whom she had seven children. In order to supplement the family's meager income she continued writing. The Mayflower, her first collection of stories and sketches, appeared in 1843. During this period abolitionist conflicts rocked Cincinnati, and Mrs. Stowe witnessed firsthand the misery of slaves living just across the Ohio River in Kentucky. But not until the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was she inspired to write about their plight. After the family resettled in Brunswick, Maine, when Mr. Stowe was hired as a professor at Bowdoin College, she began working on a novel that would expose the evils of slavery.

First serialized in the National Era, an abolitionist paper, in forty weekly installments between June 5, 1851, and April 1, 1852, and published as a book on March 20, 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin was an enormous success. Tolstoy deemed it a great work of literature 'flowing from love of God and man,' and within a year the book had sold more than 300,000 copies. When Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared in Great Britain Queen Victoria sent Mrs. Stowe a note of gratitude, and enthusiastic crowds greeted the author in London on her first trip abroad in 1853. In an attempt to silence the many critics at home who denounced the work as vicious propaganda, Mrs. Stowe brought out A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1853, which contained documentary evidence substantiating the graphic picture of slavery she had drawn. Dred (1856), a second antislavery novel, did not enjoy the acclaim of Uncle Tom's Cabin, yet the author had already stirred the conscience of the nation and the world, fueling sentiments that would ignite the Civil War. When Abraham Lincoln met her at the White House in 1862 he allegedly remarked: 'So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!'

In subsequent novels Stowe shifted her attention away from the issue of slavery. Beginning with The Minister's Wooing (1859), and continuing with The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862), Oldtown Folks (1869), and Poganuc People (1878), she presented a perceptive and realistic chronicle of colonial New England, focusing especially on the theological warfare that underscored Puritan life. In a second and less popular series of novels—My Wife and I (1871), Pink and White Tyranny (1871), and We and Our Neighbors (1875)—she depicted the mores of post-Civil War America. Mrs. Stowe did enjoy success, however, with the controversial Lady Byron Vindicated (1870), a bold defense of her friend Anne, Lady Byron, that scandalously revealed Lord Byron's moral delinquency. In addition she became a regular contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, which published many of the memorable short stories later collected in Oldtown Fireside Stories (1872) and Sam Lawson's Oldtown Fireside Stories (1881).

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote little during the last years of her life. She died in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 1, 1896. Perhaps Mrs. Stowe's achievement was best summed up by abolitionist Frederick Douglass who said: 'Hers was the word for the hour.'
Praise

Praise

"Uncle Tom's Cabin is the most powerful and enduring work of art ever written about American slavery."
—Alfred Kazin
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Charles Dudley Warner wrote in an 1896 essay (see Commentary section, above) that "Distinguished as the novel is by its character-drawing and its pathos, I doubt if it would have captivated the world without its humor." What is the role of humor in Uncle Tom's Cabin?

2. Given that the cabin is featured only briefly in the novel, why do you think the book is called Uncle Tom's Cabin?

3. Uncle Tom's Cabin draws on modes, such as the jeremiad,
allegory, and prophecy, that were commonly used by New England writers in the nineteenth century whose literary predecessors were eighteenth-century theologians and preachers (for example, Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards). How do these elements function in the novel? What role do the Bible and biblical allusion play (there are at least seventy allusions to, or quotations from, the Bible in the novel)?

4. What is the purpose of the two plots (the story of Uncle Tom, on the one hand, and that of the Harrises, on the other)?

5. What is the significance of the repetition of names (e.g., there are two Toms, two Georges, two Henrys [Henrique and Harry])?

6. Ever since the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, critics have debated whether its sentimentality undermines its abolitionist purpose. James Baldwin, for example, in a famous essay called "Everybody's Protest Novel" (see Commentary section, above), argued that "Uncle Tom's Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive or spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart, and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty." Kenneth Lynn, on the other hand, claims that "Uncle Tom's Cabin is the greatest tear-jerker of them all, but it is a tear-jerker with a difference: it did not permit its audience to escape reality. Instead the novel's sentimentalism continually calls attention to the monstrous actuality which existed under the very noses of its readers. Mrs. Stowe aroused emotions not for emotion's sake alone-as the sentimental novelists notoriously did-but in order to facilitate the moral regeneration of an entire nation." Which side do you take in this debate?

7. A related question concerns the artistic merit of the novel, with one side arguing that while Uncle Tom's Cabin was historically and politically significant, it is not a literary masterpiece (owing, among other things, to its sentimentality), and the other side claiming that it is aesthetically valuable (so James Russell Lowell wrote in 1859, "It was so easy to account for the unexampled popularity of 'Uncle Tom' by attributing to it a cheap sympathy with sentimental philanthropy" but, he continues, "we had the advantage of reading that extraordinary book in Europe, long after the whirl of excitement produced by its publication had subsided, and with a judgement undisturbed by those political sympathies which it is impossible, perhaps unwise, to avoid at home. We felt then, and we believe now, that the secret of Mrs. Stowe's power lay in that same genius by which the great successes in creative literature have always been achieved-the genius that instinctively goes to the organic elements of human nature, whether under a white skin or a black, and which disregards as trivial the conventions and factitious notions which make so large a part both of our thinking and feeling"). Do you think the novel is a successful work of art or not?


  • Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe Introduction by Jane Smiley
  • January 09, 2001
  • Fiction - Literary; Fiction - Classics
  • Modern Library
  • $10.00
  • 9780375756931

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