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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] Hey Kim. - [Kim] Hey, Becca. So, we've been talking about Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and said to have been one of the main causes of the American Civil War. So, remind me again of what Uncle Tom's Cabin was actually about. - [Becca] So Uncle Tom's Cabin was about the horrors of slavery in the deep south and also appealed to a lot of American's Christian values and tried to point out these fundamental contradictions between Christian faith and slavery. - [Kim] So, it was published in 1852. How did people receive this book? - [Becca] So there was a lot of mixed reactions. But, it was the most read book of the 19th century, so there were a lot of reactions. (laughing) In the north, mostly, people were reading this all the time, no matter if you were an intellectual or just kind of a 17 year old picking up a book off a shelf, you were going to read Uncle Tom's Cabin. And a lot of the people that actually read the book were young men that would later fight in the Civil War. - [Kim] How interesting. Okay, so, like this would be our book club book of the month except everybody was, this was like the Oprah's book club choice of 1852. - [Becca] Exactly. - [Kim] Everybody was reading it. - [Becca] Yeah, there's really almost nothing like it. Not even Harry Potter. But it did have the same international scope that Harry Potter does today. - [Kim] So, it was popular in the northern United States, and elsewhere in the world. So, where else was it popular? - [Becca] Mostly in Europe. But it was translated into over 60 languages. - [Kim] Wow. - [Becca] And, this also kind of put the spotlight on American slavery. So, there was all this international attention. What is going on in America, and what's going to happen? - [Kim] That's so interesting. It reminds me of The King and I. If you've seen that she, the woman goes to Siam, and shows people the book Uncle Tom's Cabin and they put on a version of a play based on Uncle Tom's Cabin in what would be Thailand. - [Becca] So yeah, so this makes it this kind of international spectacle. The fate of slavery had to be somehow figured out, and everyone was watching. - [Kim] That's so interesting. So, I'm imagining that white southerners were not big fans of this book. - [Becca] So, white southerners were definitely not a fan of Uncle Tom's Cabin. And in response, there was this movement of these things called anti-Tom novels. Here's an anti-Tom novel right next to us, right over here, Aunt Phillis's Cabin. (Kim laughing) - [Kim] Creative name. - [Becca] Aunt Phillis' Cabin, yes (laughing), very creative name. These anti-Tom novels aimed to point out that maybe Harriet Beecher Stowe didn't know what she was actually talking about. They also accused Harriet Beecher Stowe of not actually even living in the deep south, so she didn't even know what slavery was like. They wanted to paint southern slave society in this really positive light. They wanted to show all the ways that it actually maintains social order, and promoted economic welfare, so this was kind of this response from the south, also in novel form. - [Kim] So, it's this big kind of cultural battle over the interpretation of slavery. You have people on one hand saying slavery is destructive to families, slavery is incompatible with Christianity. And then, responses from the white south, saying, oh no, actually slavery is great, it helps everybody. - [Becca] Right, so there was this kind of battle within the literary community about the peculiar institution of slavery. Which one was it? - [Kim] So what if, I'm illiterate, right. I mean, not everybody in 19th century America was a New England intellectual who was reading Christian novels. How would I have heard about Uncle Tom's Cabin? - [Becca] That's a really good point, Kim. So, Tom Shows were depictions of Uncle Tom's Cabin in theaters around the world. And so, they were often times put on by abolitionist people trying to point out the issues with slavery today and end slavery immediately. - [Kim] So, this is before there's copyright law, right, so you can just put on a show of anybody's novel if you feel like it. - [Becca] Exactly, but often times, they really misconstrued the novel. And actually, now are remembered as contributing to the problem of racism in America. - [Kim] Racial stereotypes, too, I would imagine, because we still have this phrase Uncle Tom kind of to mean an African-American who is a martyr to the status quo as opposed to someone who might fight against racism. It seems like they might have borrowed a lot of these stereotypes from minstrel shows which were also very popular in this time period. - [Becca] And some of the characters within these minstrel shows turned into the character that was remembered as Jim Crow, which became the dominating racial order after the Civil War. So, in the Civil Rights era in the mid-1950's, lots of activists actually wanted to completely reject the progress that Uncle Tom's Cabin and these Tom Shows had made because they actually reduced African Americans to this terrible stereotype. And so, later on, this kind of idea that someone was an Uncle Tom became a racial slur, really, and they then rejected Uncle Tom's Cabin as being a tool towards racial equality and more saw it as a part of the problem. - [Kim] So, I think, the most important thing about Uncle Tom's Cabin is that it's this catalyst of really intense emotions about slavery which in the 1850's will lead eventually to the Civil War. And, following the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, you'll see more and more violence on both sides of this issue. For example, John Brown, this famous abolitionist actually goes out to Kansas and murders people. - [Becca] And I think that Lincoln was very astute in pointing out that Uncle Tom's Cabin really catalyzed a lot of this violence. And he even met with Harriet Beecher Stowe, so she earned herself a little meeting with Abraham Lincoln. (Kim laughing) - [Kim] And he said, "So you're the little lady that started this great war." I'm trying to think of another book that has started a war. - [Becca] I think we would probably remember that. But I do think Lincoln was really astute in pointing out just how impactful this cultural phenomenon, this Tom-mania was on the question of slavery and on the fate of the American people. And really, it just begged the question in a new way, in this kind of public setting. I mean, I just think that the book itself, the way that the book could just travel all around the United States and so many different kinds of people were able to read it and get their hands on it. This really was just this movement of people just thinking a lot about slavery, reading a lot about slavery. - [Kim] Yeah, well, I think after Uncle Tom's Cabin, I don't think there was a way to not have an opinion on the slavery issue. Either you were for it, or you were against it. And that divisiveness would lead to the Civil War. - [Becca] And again, there's this international focus. There's a deeper, sectional divide between the north and the south, and there was this kind of sorting over the slavery question that Uncle Tom's Cabin really promoted.