Literary daybook, March 20

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Topics: Books, Richard Blumenthal,

Today in fiction

On March 20, Orlando gives birth to a son.
— “Orlando” (1928)
By Virginia Woolf

From “The Book of Fictional Days”
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published. Although popular enough when it had appeared earlier in serial form, at least one book publisher turned it down on the grounds that a novel by a woman on such a controversial subject was too risky. He must have regretted it: The novel sold 10,000 copies in the first week, 300,000 copies in a year, and became America’s first million-seller. Those who attacked it either disputed Stowe’s portrayal of slavery and slaveholders or were aghast that such truths — the beatings, the forced sex — had been voiced by a woman. The first objection motivated Stowe to collect the documentary evidence — laws, judicial records, etc. — a process that left her thinking that, “much as I thought I knew before, I had not begun to measure the depth of the abyss.” When this evidence was published as a “A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in 1853, one Southern reviewer tried to make the most of the un-feminine argument: “Mrs. Stowe betrays a malignity so remarkable that the petticoat lifts of itself, and we see the hoof of the beast under the table.”

The book and its theatrical spinoffs were extremely popular in Britain, for both anti-slavery and pro-feminist reasons. When Stowe visited in 1853 she was overwhelmed by the crowds and the gifts — gold purses stuffed with banknotes, or silver salvers covered in them. Of the $60,000 donated, one third came from the “Penny Offering,” a fund originally established so that ordinary British readers could express gratitude and offer compensation, as Stowe received no royalties from sales there. From the Duchess of Salisbury she received two treasured items: a 26-volume abolitionist petition, signed by half a million women, titled “An Affectionate and Christian Address of Many Thousands of Women of Great Britain and Ireland to Their Sisters the Women of the United States of America”; and a gold bracelet in the shape of a slave’s shackle, one link engraved with the date that slavery had been abolished in the British colonies, another link with space for the eventual date of slavery being abolished in America.

Returning home to hundreds of pieces of hate mail — one box contained a black human ear — Stowe sent the duchess a note of thanks in which she expressed doubt that she would live to see engraving day. But a decade later, when the war turned and Lincoln showed signs of proclaiming emancipation, Stowe hurried to Washington to add her lobby. Returning home from that trip, she noted that the high point was not “the glorious expectancy” of Lincoln’s proclamation, nor the legendary meeting with him in which he famously greeted her as “the little woman who wrote the book that created this great war,” but a visit to the barracks of the “contrabands,” fugitive slaves now fighting for the Union. The troops sang “a negro Marseillaise” that was “forbidden to them down South, but which they shouted in triumph now.” Stowe found this rendition of “Go Down, Moses,” sung in call-and-response, hundreds of voices in every imaginable harmony joining in on the “Let my people go” chorus, to be “a strange and moving sight.”

– Steve King

To find out more about “Today in Literary History,” contact Steve King.

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