Early American Novel - Mensa

First American Novel

Poster of Eliza from Uncle Tom's Cabin crossing the Ohio River.
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    Eliza's escape across the Ohio River, which is filled with "great cakes of floating ice, " is among the most dramatic moments in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

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    Knowing that her little boy is about to be sold, Eliza escapes with Harry.

    Kharbine-Tapabor / The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY

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    Mother, son, and father reunite and make their way to Canada with the help of Quakers opposed to slavery.

    Kharbine-Tapabor / The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY

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    Detail images from Uncle Tom's Cabin.The English painter Edwin Longsden Long idealized Little Eva and Uncle Tom in his 1866 painting.

    "Uncle Tom’s Cabin, " © Russell Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library

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    Harriet Beecher Stowe, from an 1850 daguerreotype.

    Culver Pictures / The Art Archive at Art Resource

Soon after the Civil War ended, author John W. De Forest called for a work of fiction that would help reunite the country and at the same time place it at the pinnacle of world literature.He called this hypothetical work “The Great American Novel, ” a term that has persisted doggedly ever since, producing expectations that a single novel might one day incorporate the diverse perspectives of the United States in a grand explanatory narrative. “This task of painting the American soul within the framework of anovel has seldom been attempted, ” De Forest admitted, then proffered his own nomination for the honor: “The nearest approach to the desired phenomenon is Uncle Tom’s Cabin."

Three images from Uncle Tom's Cabin.De Forest was not alone in this assessment. William Dean Howells, chief theorist of American realism and longtime editor of the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s New Monthly, described Stowe’s novel in 1895 as “still perhaps our chief fiction.” Charles Dudley Warner, Howell’s colleague and book editor at Harper’s, described the novel as “a great work of imaginative fiction.” And, in 1898, the book publisher Appleton appraised the novel’s worth by including it in its series of “The World’s Great Books.”

In “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the Reading Revolution, Barbara Hochman examines the reception of Stowe’s remarkable novel during the second half of the nineteenth century, revealing how its meanings changed for U.S. culture as the abolition movement and the Civil War became memories. Along the way, she describes how reading practices shifted during this period, asserting that the scenes of literacy in the novel ultimately made De Forest’s call for a Great American Novel possible in the first place.

Edwin Longsden Long's painting of a scene from Uncle Tom's Cabin.Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly was unprecedented as a reading and publishing phenomenon. “From the beginning, ” Hochman tells us, “Stowe’s narrative belonged to a category of its own.” Harriet Beecher Stowe was nearly forty years old when she decided to write “three or four" installments about slave life for the abolitionist paper The National Era, which began publishing them in 1851. Soon after embarking on this modest exercise, the narrative exploded: Characters took on a life of their own, incident and detail emerged faster than she could write them, plot and narrative blossomed with almost uncontrollable vitality. The book became a sensation, even before she finished it. Stowe wrote forty-one installments that were placed between hard covers the next year, and the work became the second best-selling book in America during the nineteenth century (only the Bible sold more copies). In a statement nearly as famous as the one Lincoln is supposed to have made about the novel—that it started the Civil War—Stowe claimed providential inspiration as the source of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “I did not write it. God wrote it. I merely did His dictation.”

Readers throughout the nation, north and south, found themselves engrossed in the book in ways they had never before experienced. Charles William Holbrook, a young tutor in North Carolina, described his reading experience after a visitor brought him a copy, confessing in his journal that “the tears rushed into my eyes” when Little Eva died. “I believe it to be the most interesting book I ever read.” Other responses suggest the extent to which antebellum Americans felt guilty about the grip the book exerted on their imaginations. “I have indulged myself, ” wrote one reader. “I was bound down captive, ” admitted another. Mary Pierce Poor of Massachusetts feared the novel’s unsettling attributes so much that she wrote home “to advise Elizabeth not to attempt [Uncle Tom’s Cabin]. I am afraid it would kill her. I never read anything so affecting in my life.”

Source: www.neh.gov
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