Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Power of Emotion

January 20, 2013 § 2 Comments

I am watching ‘The Abolitionists” on PBSAmerican Experience. Part 2, which aired Tuesday, January 15th, 2013, featured the 1852 publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a best-selling book that helped change the hearts and minds of millions of Americans about slavery. As a writer, what struck me about this was that it was Stowe’s appeal to emotion that fueled her book’s success and influence.

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“The Abolitionists” on PBS

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s impetus for writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the loss of her beloved son to cholera. The grief she felt after his death fueled her empathy with slave mothers, mothers she had witnessed being forcibly separated from their own children on the slave auction block. Her abhorrence of slavery as a cruel and inhumane institution was cemented. The aspiring writer felt that if she could channel her grief and her horror into a book, then her son’s death would not have been in vain.

Portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe Deutsch: Die...

Portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe Deutsch: Die Schriftstellerin Harriet Beecher Stowe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold ten thousand copies within the first week of publication. The publisher couldn’t keep up with the demand. One historian commented that this book is unparalleled in its popularity and influence in American history. The reason is that the book appealed to people’s hearts. Slavery was being told from the viewpoint of its victims, human beings in peril. As a result, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was responsible for converting millions of Americans against slavery.

Pictures and Stories from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. B...

Pictures and Stories from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Boston: John P. Jewett & Co., c1853. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a powerful lesson to remember as a writer and as a person. Creating emotion, appealing to the universality of what it feels like to be human, is what makes a compelling story. And it is our human bond, our common human emotions, that drive us as a people toward greatness.

Part 3 of “The Abolitionists” airs Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013, on PBS. Check your local listings for showtimes.

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