Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

I read this book when I realised how influential it had been in changing people’s minds about slavery and in the run-up to the American civil war. I was also interested to see where the phrase ‘Uncle Tom’ had come from, used as it is today to suggest an excessively servile approach, particularly  on the part of black people in their relationships with white people, but in other contexts, too.

It is a very melodramatic book – the version I read was actually a children’s book, though unabridged. The story is about slaves and their owners in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. It was widely read not only in America but overseas, as well. It was one of the biggest selling books of the century.

I can see why the book has been criticised. It is quite patrician to the modern eye, though given the mores of the time, that is probably understandable. The great success of the book is showing how slavery harms and corrupts the enslaver, as well as bringing misery to the enslaved. One imagines the former were the target audience for what is, essentially, a polemic.

The story and the characters are engrossing, however. It is not, perhaps, the most sophisticated literary novel but it packs a punch and still stands as an important work of art and a well-told story.

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