by Andy Hall
In 1862, the author Harriet Beecher Stowe visited the White House. When she was introduced to Abraham Lincoln, the six-foot-four president is supposed to have looked over his diminutive guest and asked, with a wry smile, "so this is the little lady who made this big war?"
This remark, part of Stowe's family lore, may be apocryphal. What is unquestionably true is that her most famous work, Uncle Tom's Cabin, ignited a storm of controversy over its portrayal of slavery in the South when it was published in 1852. It strengthened the resolve of abolitionists, outraged Southerners who believed the novel depicted the "peculiar institution" in an unfair light, and introduced millions of Americans to the ugly particulars of a practice that they'd had little direct knowledge of. There are few novels in American history that have served as drivers of that history to the degree that has Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Among other things, Stowe was accused of having exaggerated, or outright lied, about many of the scenes and events she described in the novel. In response to her critics, the following year Stowe published A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (subtitle: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents Upon Which the Story is Founded Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work). In Key, Stowe provides a 260-page discussion of the models for her characters, trial transcripts, letters, and page after page after page of news items -- editorials, legal notices and advertisements -- that form the factual background upon which she hangs a fictional tale. It is a remarkable book, one that deserves to be better known.