Literary Daybook, March 20

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published March 20, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On March 20, Orlando gives birth to a son.
-- "Orlando" (1928)
by Virginia Woolf

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was published. Though popular when released in serial form, at least one 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.

The book, and its theatrical spinoffs, were extremely popular in Britain; when Stowe visited in the spring of 1853, she could not "go out to ride nor show her face without crowds & hurrahs" and 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 compensation, as Stowe received no royalties from sales there. Stowe dined with the Lord Mayor of London, seated across from Dickens and toasted with him as two who used fiction to alert their countries "to the condition of the oppressed and suffering classes." From the Duchess of Salisbury she received two treasured and now-famous items: a 26-volume abolitionist petition signed by half a million women entitled "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 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," e-mail Steve King.

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