Catherine Brekus describes the appeal of what turned out to be a revolutionary book.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the bestselling book in America before the Civil War – with the exception of the Bible, the Bible is the only book that sold more copies. And it’s clear that Stowe reached a lot of people through her story, and that she galvanised a lot of anti-slavery sentiment. One of the themes that she returned to again and again in her book was the separation of slave families. And so if you read the book, it really, I think, still keeps its power, because it seems like every few pages she’s depicting a slave mother being separated from her child and the sorrow that that mother felt. And I think that that story, which occurs again and again in her book, really touched the hearts of a lot of women, but also a lot of men. Harriet Beecher herself had lost a child, and she said that when she was writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin she was thinking about the pain of losing her own child, and that she was writing about herself at the same time that she was writing about the suffering of slave mothers.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was very successful in mobilising anti-slavery opinion. Part of the reason for that is that in some ways it’s a very revolutionary book. Uncle Tom is a Christ figure; to say that a slave is the representation of Christ is a very radical thing. But at the same time, she also included a lot of racial stereotypes in her book, so that I think when people read her book, they were able to argue that slaves should be free without suggesting that slaves were intellectually equal to whites.