Uncle Tom’s Popularity in England

© 2013, Sarah Lane

UTC was quickly pirated by British publishers, starting as early as July of 1852 (Fisch, “Uncle Tom” 96). After only a few short months, UTC became extremely popular amongst the British public (Fisch, American Slaves 12). It became so much of a spectacle that a vast array of merchandise was created and distributed to the masses, turning Uncle Tom into a cultural phenomenon (13). It may seem strange that an American novel would have had such an impact in England. However, there are several reasons that may explain why it gained such popularity overseas.

The English would have been familiar with the themes and topics of UTC, as they too had their own history with slavery. The slave trade was abolished in England in 1807, followed by further abolition in the rest of the British colonies by 1833/38 (Fisch, American Slaves 5-6). After that point, England became a forerunner in the global fight against slavery (5). Part of their motivation, however, likely had to do with trying to prove their superiority to the rest of the world (28). They’d done a great thing by abolishing slavery in their own country and colonies, and probably felt like that made them better than the countries where slavery was still legal, such as the United States. This “better-than-thou” mindset is one theory of why UTC gained such popularity in Britain. UTC, which describes some of the horrific side of slavery taking place in America in the mid-1800s, served as proof to the English that the US was inferior to them (30). However, UTC didn’t just stroke the English ego; it also raised questions regarding the rapidly expanding literacy within the country.

During the Victorian era, literacy rates were increasing quickly (“Volume E”). This meant that readers now included women, as well as the working and middle classes who eagerly consumed UTC (Fisch, “Uncle Tom” 98). Many critics felt that this newly literate population would not be able to recognise good quality writing, and thus, argued that UTC only gained popularity because these new readers could not recognise its flaws (Fisch, American Slaves 6-7). UTC was criticized as being sensational and inappropriate for the proper Englishman (8). The upper classes were worried that the book was a threat to their women and a dangerous tool in the hands of the working class (19-20). Yet, despite these concerns and the negative reviews published in certain periodicals of the day, UTC was devoured by people of all classes and gender in one form or another (14-15). Perhaps some read it specifically to spite the negative reviews; to show that they could read and appreciate quality literature. Whatever the reason, UTC was to the Victorian English population, what the Harry Potter franchise is to the world today. It was both loved and hated, but, above all, it was a multi-media, mass-marketed phenomenon.

Unfortunately, just as UTC is a deep and complex novel that cannot be fully appreciated, nor understood, with just one reading, the motivations, impacts, and cultural relevancy of the text cannot be exhausted in one paper. For further reading, consider Stowe’s follow-up novel, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or the other texts mentioned in the Works Cited. As with any groundbreaking novel, the research surrounding the production and reception of the nineteenth-century bestseller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is extensive and fascinating. By reading beyond the original text, modern-day readers can get a better understanding of why this book had such an incredible impact on so many people and how it became the world-renowned novel that it is today.