Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/89

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"Uncle Tom's Cabin"

broken up by sale, ailing and dying children, negro women at the mercy of their masters, white households which at the best are slovenly and extravagant by reason of irresponsible servants—and little remains. To understand why the story touched the world so deeply it is necessary to understand how tense the struggle over slavery had grown, how thickly charged was the moral atmosphere awaiting a fatal spark. But the mere fact of an audience already prepared will not explain the mystery of a work which shook a powerful institution and which, for all its defects of taste and style and construction, still has amazing power. Richard Hildreth’s[1] The Slave; or Memoirs of Archy Moore (1836) and Mrs. M. V. Victor’s once popular “dime novel” Maum Guinea; or, Christmas among the Slaves (1861) no longer move. They both lack the ringing voice, the swiftness, the fullness, the humour, the authentic passion of the greater book.

It has often been pointed out that Mrs. Stowe did not mean to be sectional, that she deliberately made her chief villain a New Englander, and that she expected to be blamed less by the South than by the North, which she thought peculiarly guilty because it tolerated slavery without the excuse either of habit or of interest. Bitterly attacked by Southerners of all sorts, however, she defended herself with A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon which the Story is Founded (1853), and then, after a triumphant visit to Europe and a removal to Andover, essayed another novel to illustrate the evil effects of slavery especially upon the whites. Dred; A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856)[2] has had its critical partisans, but posterity has not sustained them. Grave faults of construction, slight knowledge of the scene (North Carolina), a less simple and compact story than in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and a larger share of disquisition,—these weigh the book down, and most readers carry away only fragmentary memories, of Dred’s thunderous eloquence, of Tom Gordon’s shameless abuse of his power as master, and of Old Tiff’s grotesque and beautiful fidelity.

After Dred Mrs. Stowe wrote no more anti-slavery novels, although during the Civil War she sent to the women of Eng-

  1. See Book II, Chap. XVII.
  2. Also known as Nina Gordon from the English title.