Great American Author’s Vision Needs Restoration

Peter W. Schramm

October 28, 1997

A couple of days ago I read a news story about the plight of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house in Connecticut. The house is boarded up and abandoned. It has already been moved twice, and it needs to be moved again. It’s in the way of a girls’ dormitory that a school wants to build. It has been on the market for a year. The price has been dropped from $50,000 to $1.00. And if no one buys it by November 1, it will be demolished.

There is nothing special about the house, of course. It is just (in Mrs. Stowe’s words) rambling “windy edifice that seemed to have been built by a succession of afterthoughts.” But it was in this house that Mrs. Stowe lived and wrote her many books, including her most famous, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

This daughter, sister, and wife of clergymen—steeped in the doctrine of original sin, guilt, atonement and salvation—wrote the great book by candlelight in the kitchen. She did her writing each night after she put her six children to bed and finished the household chores.

The story at first was serialized in an antislavery newspaper. It was published as a book in the Spring of 1852, and within a year it sold 300,000 copies (comparable to at least a million today). Within ten years it sold more than two million copies in the U.S. alone (never mind Russia, Hungary, England, among other countries), making it the best seller of all time in proportion to population.

It is a good story. Its vivid characters quickly became part of American folklore. The two opposite moral poles of the book are Simon Legree, the cruel plantation owner, and Uncle Tom, the slave and human being. Uncle Tom is the best human being in the book. He is full of courage, dignity and honor. He takes the moral teachings of his Christian faith more seriously than any of his social “superiors.” He stands up unshakably for the dignity of his own soul, while at the same time with transforming mercy pardoning his persecutor.

It is almost impossible for us to understand how this book, and its hero, moved the nation. At the time, it had become bad form in America to speak ill of the institution of slavery. Southern leaders and Northern Democrats had developed a new argument—that slavery or freedom were equally at home in American territories, so long as a majority of the people supported the one or the other. But Mrs. Stowe’s book reminded everyone who read it of the older and contrary argument on which this country was founded—the argument that “All men are created equal,” and that no man may ever rightly enslave another.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin reshaped public opinion in the deepest way imaginable. Through its influence, American hearts became open once again to “the better angels of our nature” so that the public mind could rise to Abraham Lincoln’s historic summons to return to the purity of America’s revolutionary principle or human equality.

Lord Palmerston read the book three times. A decade later he was to become Prime Minister of England when that country had to decide whether it should side with the South. He said he admired the book not only for “its story but for the statesmanship of it.” England stayed out of the war.

In the summer of 1862, when Lincoln was grappling with the issue of slavery, he checked out from the Library of Congress a volume by Mrs. Stowe containing documentation on which she had based the novel. When he met her later that year he said: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.”

My heart is refreshed in remembering all of this, and more. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the third book I ever read (the first two were Tom Sawyer and Hucklebery Finn). I read these American books—that so vividly characterized our humanity—when I was about nine years old. It was 1955 and I was living where I was born, in western Hungary. Our family was normal: hard working, not well educated, people trying to eke out an existence in a tyrannic communist regime (after having made it through an equally tyrannic fascist one). We really didn’t know much about the United States, except what everyone else knew–that it was the unprecedented nation whose principles of freedom were applicable to all men everywhere. And one of the ways we knew these things was from these books, these very American books.

A year later, as the 1956 revolution failed in Hungary, we escaped to the United States. We had nothing but the clothes on our backs, the seventeen dollars my father had been saving for years, and my Hungarian copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But these things were enough to start a new life. Without a roof over our heads, we felt entirely at home in our new found freedom.

I am sorry about Mrs. Stowe’s house. It would be too bad if it were destroyed. She always said it was a great house for her six “little people.” But there is something more important than the house to save. Henry James, who was much moved by the book in his youth, said: “That triumphant work was much less a book than a state of vision.” He was right. We should be more concerned about the state of the American vision that she sketched than about the house. And rebuilding that vision shouldn’t even cost us $1.00.

Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.