Uncle Tom’s Cabin: a book that changed history

Title page of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Boston edition.*

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the rare novel that changed the world. Published in 1852, the book brought the human cost of slavery to the attention of Americans, who by and large preferred not to think about “the peculiar institution” if they could avoid it. In a real way the book helped escalate the tensions that led to the outbreak of Civil War nine years later.

As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, it’s a good time to ponder how Harriet Beecher Stowe made the evil of slavery visible to so many Americans. New York University literature professor Cyrus Patell devotes two lectures to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in his excellent NYU course (website, iTunes, Youtube). Links to the lectures are here and here.

Patell relates the historical background to the book and how events in Stowe’s life led her to write it. And most of all, he shows how Stowe used the literary conventions of the day and the religious beliefs of her audience to show how the evils of slavery could warp the intentions of even well-meaning slave owners. And he attempts to repair the reputation of the title character Uncle Tom, who Stowe wished to portray as a Christ-like figure, but who in the 20th century became a symbol of supine acquiescence to white supremacy and Jim Crow laws.

One of the great features of Patell’s course is that on the course website each lecture comes with detailed notes, so you can read and review his main points. Just look for the link marked “PDF” on the streaming lecture page.

Image credit: Wikipedia. Public domain.
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