October 30, 1851

No October 30 Installment

No installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appears in this number of the National Era, and an editorial announcement explains the absence:

Mrs. Stowe’s Story.—We regret exceedingly that the nineteenth chapter of Mrs. Stowe’s Story did not reach us till the morning of the day on which the Era goes to press, and after all its matter, except one column, was set up. It shall appear next week.

Another notice warns readers that BILLS are enclosed with this week’s paper. The editor is confident of subscription renewals, for “few will consent to forego the reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or to miss obtaining Congressional reports from the opening of Congress.”

Commentary by Michael Winship

Iris Howard Regents Professor of English II at the University of Texas at Austin

On 9 March 1851, when Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote to Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the anti-slavery weekly The National Era, stating her intention to write “some sketches” addressing the issue of slavery, she had no idea that she was embarking on a work that would become what many consider as one of America’s greatest novels.  She imagined that her first sketch would be ready in two or three weeks and might extend to three or four numbers.  As it turned out, the first installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin did not appear until the 5 June 1851 issue, and the novel would appear regularly each week, with only three omissions, until 1 April 1852.  As a serial in the National Era, the novel attracted considerable attention, but only after it was published as a book on 20 March 1852, did it truly took off.

Plans were underway for the book publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as early as summer 1851, when Catharine E. Beecher, Stowe’s oldest sister and a far more established author, approached her Boston publisher, Phillips, Sampson & Co., to enquire if that firm might be prepared to publish it in book form.  That firm declined, however, believing that it would not be a success and that it might affect the firm’s sales in the south.  Stowe next turned to another Boston firm, John P. Jewett & Co., an established publisher of religious works representing the evangelical wing of Congregationalism.  Jewett had likely met the Beecher family during his brief stint in Cincinnati in 1844, since when he had published works by Stowe’s brother, Henry Ward Beecher, and husband, Calvin Stowe, and would soon go on to begin publication of the collected Works of her father, Lyman Beecher.  On 18 September 1851, the National Era announced that arrangements had been made for Jewett to act as publisher of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in book form.

In September 1851, Stowe likely had little idea of how long the work would become, though surely it grew beyond both her own and her publisher’s expectations.  A contract with Jewett was not signed until 13 March 1852, only weeks before the work’s completion in serial form.  Stowe’s husband, Calvin, was in charge of the negotiations.  At Catharine Beecher’s suggestion, Calvin first suggested a half-profits contract, which was unusual at the time and which would have divided the risk and profits, if any, equally between author and publisher, but Jewett declined, preferring instead a standard royalty contract that would pay Stowe ten percent of the retail price on all copies sold.  Calvin was reluctant to agree and requested a royalty of twenty – or at least fifteen – percent, but Jewett demurred, claiming that such a high royalty would prevent him from promoting the book adequately.  Finally, after consulting with members of the Boston book trade, Calvin agreed to Jewett’s terms (a royalty of ten percent) and the book was published on 20 March 1850, twelve days before its serial publication was complete.  It appeared in two volumes, with six illustrations, in a choice of three bindings: cloth at $1.50, cloth extra gilt at $2.00, and paper wrapper at $1.00.

From the beginning, Jewett’s edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a hit.  The initial printing of 5,000 copies was soon exhausted, and by 1 April 1852 a second printing of 5,000 had appeared.  In mid-April, Jewett announced that these two printings had been sold out in two weeks and added:

Three paper mills are constantly at work, manufacturing the paper, and three power presses are working twenty-four hours per day, in printing it, and more than one hundred book-binders are incessantly plying their trade to bind them, and still it has been impossible, as yet, to supply the demand.

And demand did not slack off.  By mid-May it was announced that fifty thousand copies had been sold, by mid-September seventy-five thousand, and by mid-October one hundred twenty thousand.  For the 1852 holiday season, Jewett prepared two new editions: three thousand copies were issued of an expensive octavo gift edition, with over one hundred illustrations by the work’s original illustrator, Hammatt Billings, that sold at $2.50 to $5.00, depending on the binding, and thirty thousand copies of an inexpensive “Edition for the Million,” printed in two columns, at 37 1/2 cents.  The following February Jewett issued a German translation.  Early in July 1852, Jewett sent Stowe her first royalty payment of $10,300, followed by a similar payment at the end of the year.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not only a success as a book, but became a phenomenon.  Jewett himself started the trend in July 1852 when he commissioned John Greenleaf Whittier to write “Little Eva; Uncle Tom’s Guardian Angel,” which he published as sheet music.  This was only the first of the many products that the book inspired.  Prints, pottery, games, puzzles, dolls, among other things, quickly followed, as well as numerous adaptations, condensations, responses, among many other tie-ins and spin-offs.  The work was soon dramatized and went on to become a staple of the American popular theater.  In England, the text was first published in early May and became an even greater success: it was later claimed that in September “the London publishers furnished to one house 10,000 copies per day for about four weeks” and that more than a million copies were sold there by year’s end, “probably ten times as many as have been sold of any other work, except the Bible and Prayer-book.”  Elsewhere, the work was also soon reprinted, both in English and in translation, and one might well claim that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the world’s first true blockbuster.

But for Jewett, the book’s success was qualified.  By late spring 1853, he had printed about 310,000 copies of Stowe’s text, in various editions, but at that point demand came to an unexpected halt.  No more copies were produced for many years, and if, as is claimed, Abraham Lincoln greeted Stowe in 1862 as “the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war,” he was referring to a work that had effectively been out of print for many years. Jewett, who I believe played an important role in its initial success through his promotional efforts – he later claimed that he spent many thousands of dollars in advertising – may in the end have made very little profit from the book’s publication.  He was forced to suspend payment of his debts during the panic of 1857, and in August 1860 his firm ceased publishing.

The publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was taken over by the firm that survives today as Houghton Mifflin Co., and after the Civil War, under that firm’s management, it came to be considered an American classic – a work of genius, as George Sand called it.  It earned Stowe and her family a comfortable income for the rest of her life.  At the end of the century, after its copyright expired and the work entered the public domain, Uncle Tom’s Cabin became available in dozens of editions published by a number of firms, but continued to be widely read.   During the first half of the twentieth century, however, many came to view the work as an embarrassment – racist, sentimental, and poorly written – and by the early 1970s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was again virtually out of print.  Since then, scholars have been reassessing the work’s place in American literary culture, and by 1996 the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jane Smiley could argue in Harper’s Magazine that it was a greater, and less racist, work than Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  It remains to be seen just how Uncle Tom’s Cabin will be evaluated in future, as during the twenty-first century we all continue to struggle with coming to terms with the vexed history of race relations in the United States, a struggle that Stowe’s novel did so much to expose.


Check out the top news stories, this week in 1851, here!

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