THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

14 June 2011

Aeluyd f'Ewythr Robert, or Uncle Robert's Hearth: Uncle Tom in Translation

Today marks the 200th anniversary of Harriet Beecher Stowe's birth, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin: or, Life Among the Lowly, undoubtedly the most influential novel in American, and perhaps even world, history.

The New York Times carried a pithy piece on Beecher Stowe as the 'unlikely fomenter of wars' by David S. Reynolds (Graduate Center of the City University of New York).  It comes recommended.  Rather than 'an old-fashioned, rather lachrymose affair that features the deaths of an obsequious enslaved black man and his blond, angelic child-friend, Little Eva' we should see Uncle Tom as vital fuel to the antislavery cause, and not just in the U.S.: 'In Russia it influenced the 1861 emancipation of the serfs and later inspired Vladimir Lenin, who recalled it as his favorite book in childhood. It was the first American novel to be translated and published in China, and it fueled antislavery causes in Cuba and Brazil.'  And it had profound influence on the Civil Rights movement.

As it happened, I stumbled across Uncle Tom while I was trying out an online resource.  A letter from Thomas Watts, assistant keeper in the British Museum in the nineteenth century, to a bookseller was published in the  Massachusetts newspaper, The Independent (and was followed up in the Boston Liberator).  The letter is reproduced in full in the excellent Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture(UVA).

Watts spotted the importance of Uncle Tom, which was translated into 'so many languages, and among them into so many obscure ones, languages into which it has been found so hard on many occasions for popularity to penetrate.  Even the master-pieces of Scott and Dickens have never been translated into Welsh, while the American novel has forced its way in various shapes into the language of the ancient Britons.'  He proposed to the head of the printed book department, Anthony Panizzi, that he collect as many editions and translations as possible, in order to be of service to students of language and philology.  The plan was put into action, as the Museum's holdings served as a model for the Boston Public Library, and no doubt elsewhere. 

Watts finished his letter: 'I regret that my account of these versions should be so much less extended than I had hoped to make it, but especially at this period of the year the duties of an officer of the British Museum render it almost impossible for him to make any use of whatever of the treasures committed to his keeping, which are, as a rule, as closed to him as they are open to the public.'

I wonder what he would have made of this wealth of online treasure?

[MJS}

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