From the Stacks: A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Title page for the 1853 edition of A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Title page for the 1853
edition of A Key to Uncle
Tom’s Cabin.

Recently, staff of the Amistad Research Center undertook a major cleaning and shifting of the Center’s library collection. Numbering over 25,000 volumes and containing not only rare and early editions, but a wide spectrum of works covering all aspects of Amistad’s collecting focus, the library collection is an excellent resource for researchers of all ages and interests. The recent work of cleaning and shifting required that staff handle every single volume and has led to some recent “re-discoveries” of interesting and important texts.

To highlight some of these, staff are beginning a “From the Stacks” series on Amistad’s blog, which will occasionally feature one work and discuss not only the publication history of each title, but its significance to the cultural and historical fabric of its era. The focus of our first installment is an important, but often eclipsed work: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin: or, Life among the Lowly is one of the most well-known anti-slavery works by an American author. First serialized in weekly installments published in the National Era, a Washington, D.C. abolitionist newspaper, between June 5, 1851, and April 1, 1852, the story reached over 50,000 readers prior to its first appearance in book form, when it was published by John P. Jewett & Company of Boston in 1852.
The opening text of Stowe's Key.

The opening text of Stowe’s Key.

The success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was seen not only in the number of copies sold (300,000 in the first year), but in the response from critics on both sides of the slavery question. While the novel was immediately regarded as an important abolitionist work that exposed the horrors of slavery, Stowe’s writing in many ways provided sympathetic views of both white Southerners and black slaves. (This would later become a focus of much later critical appraisal of the book by literary scholars and historians). However, although Stowe planned to start a novel about life in Maine following the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, attacks by pro-slavery critics led her begin efforts to answer those attacks, which claimed that Stowe had exaggerated and falsified her descriptions of life in the South.

Originally intending to write a short document to be added to the next edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe’s research consumed her. A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon which the Story is Founded provided examples of real life equivalents to the major characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and gathered sources Stowe used in writing her novel, although some of the sources cited in the Key where read by the author after the publication of her previous book. When completed, her Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin totaled over 500 pages of evidence. In a January 6, 1853, letter to the Earl of Shaftsbury, Stowe reported:

“I am now writing a work to be called “Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It contains, in an undeniable form, the facts which corroborate all that I have said. One third of it is taken up with judicial records of trials and decisions, and with statute law. It is a a most fearful story, my lord, — I can truly say that I write with life-blood, but as called of God…If they call the fiction dreadful, what will they say of the fact, where I cannot deny, suppress, or color? But it is God’s will that must be told, and I am the unwilling agent.”

A newspaper advertisement from Alabama cited in Stowe's Key as evidence of slave hunting.

A newspaper advertisement from Alabama cited in Stowe’s Key as evidence of slave hunting.

A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1853 by Jewett. Unfortunately, as is usually the case, the reading public preferred fiction to fact, and sales of the Key where only a fraction of those of Stowe’s novel. However, although it is often overshadowed by its precursor, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin gathers not only documentary evidence of life under slavery, but provides an interesting look into the politics of public opinion and its intersection with pro- and anti-slavery sentiments.

An excellent online resource for Uncle Tom’s Cabin is Stephen Railton’s website, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture,” hosted by the University of Virginia. It provides not only text of Stowe’s works, but contemporary responses and information on adaptations of the novel.

Posted by Christopher Harter

(Images from the 1853 edition of A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Images may not be reproduced without permission.)

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