Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 6. Uncle Tom’s Cabin

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XI. The Later Novel: Howells

§ 6. Uncle Tom’s Cabin

That Uncle Tom’s Cabin stands higher in the history of reform than in the history of the art of fiction no one needs to say again. Dickens, Kingsley, and Mrs. Gaskell had already set the novel to humanitarian tunes, and Mrs. Stowe did not have to invent a type. She had, however, no particular foreign master, not even Scott, all of whose historical romances she had been reading just before she began Uncle Tom. Instead she adhered to the native tradition, which went back to the eighteenth century, of sentimental, pious, instructive narratives written by women chiefly for women. Leave out the merely domestic elements of the book—slave families broken up by sale, ailing and dying children, negro women at the mercy of their masters, white households which at the best are slovenly and extravagant by reason of irresponsible servants—and little remains. To understand why the story touched the world so deeply it is necessary to understand how tense the struggle over slavery had grown, how thickly charged was the moral atmosphere awaiting a fatal spark. But the mere fact of an audience already prepared will not explain the mystery of a work which shook a powerful institution and which, for all its defects of taste and style and construction, still has amazing power. Richard Hildreth’s The Slave; or Memoirs of Archy Moore (1836) and Mrs. M. V. Victor’s once popular “dime novel” Maum Guinea; or, Christmas among the Slaves (1861) no longer move. They both lack the ringing voice, the swiftness, the fullness, the humour, the authentic passion of the greater book.