With a woodcut Negro cabin as the frontispiece, 5000 copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were printed for its original edition. Three thousand copies of this book were sold on the same day and the remainder on the next day. Neither the author nor the publisher was optimistic about its sales. The author Harriet Beecher Stowe said that she might be able to buy a new silk dress with the royalties that might be brought in by the book, but to her surprise the sales shot up to 10, 000 in a week while orders were still pouring in and kept the printing presses running day and night. In the first year of publication, 100,000 copies were sold in North America alone. Such was the impact created by the serialization of this novel in a Washington periodical named ‘National Era,’ prior to its publication.
The topic of the novel and the timing of its publication contributed much to the unprecedented success of this novel. The atmosphere was then in a charged state by the struggle over the slavery question and it was further aggravated due to the passage of ‘Fugitive Slave Law.’ The abolitionists kept up the crescendo of anti slavery agitation for two decades, the Congress was divided and the clergy boomed from their pulpits Biblical arguments for and against the institution of slavery. The surcharged atmosphere was only awaiting a spark to be ignited. Uncle Tom’s Cabin provided that spark.
The essential plot of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not complicated though it contains many characters. In the opening scene we come cross a benevolent Kentucky slave owner, Mr. Shelby. In order to pay off his debts he was compelled to sell some of his slaves including Uncle Tom, to a New Orleans slave dealer called Haley. Overhearing the conversation between Shelby and Halley, a mulatto girl named Eliza learns that her son Harry also was to be sold. During the night she flees across the frozen Ohio River and seeks freedom in Canada. Her husband George Harris, a slave in a nearby plantation also escapes and follows her. After many adventures with the pursuing slave-catchers (but aided by sympathetic whites and Quakers along the way) they reach Canada and eventually their native land Africa.
Uncle Tom, being devoted to his master refuses to run away and was sold to the dealer. While the dealer was hauling his slave merchandise down the Mississippi river Uncle Tom saves the life of a little girl named Eva. In gratefulness, her father St. Clare purchases him from the dealer. Tom spends the next two years happily in the stately home of St Clare in the company of the loving child Eva. Then, his difficulties begin. At this time, little Eva dies. In loving memory of her, St. Clare plans to free Tom and his other slaves but unfortunately, St. Clare himself was soon killed while he was trying to separate two quarrelling men. The death of St Clare sealed Tom’s fate forever. Soon after his death, Mrs. Clare reverses her husband’s plans and orders Tom to be sent to the slave market. In the public auction there, Tom was bought by a brutal drunkard named Simon Legree. Tom tries to please his new master with his impeccable behavior and yet the cruel fellow used to beat him frequently on one pretext or another. Unable to endure the cruelty of Legree, two other slaves plan to escape and go into hiding. Legree accuses Tom of aiding them and suspects that he knows their whereabouts. When Tom denies any knowledge of them he gets him mercilessly flogged till he was made unconscious. Soon Tom succumbs to his injuries and dies.
Meanwhile, George Shelby the young son of Tom’s former owner arrives with the intention of redeeming Uncle Tom but it was too late. Enraged by the brutality of Legree, Shelby attacks him, knocks him down and returns ruefully to his Kentucky home. Then he releases all his slaves in memory of Uncle Tom and resolves to devote all his time to the cause of abolition of slavery.
Small wonder, this book evoked highly contradictory opinions from people depending on where they stood with regard to the slavery issue. Most of the Southern plantation owners bitterly criticized the book while the Northerners and the rest of the world acclaimed it as an outstanding novel that would herald freedom to the enslaved black people. Nobody can put it more succinctly than Abraham Lincoln who described Stowe on her visit to the White House as : “the little lady who wrote the book that made this big war.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin is undoubtedly an uncommon sociological document of great historical significance but cannot attain the status of a great literary classic or work of art.