Friday, October 19th, 2012...9:30 am

You’ve Got Mail: “A sort of crisis came in my life”

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Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1811-1896. Uncle Tom's cabin. Boston: Houghton, Osgood & Co., 1879. Lowell 814.5.3Harriet Beecher Stowe was paid $300 for 40 installments of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly by the Free Soil newspaper National Era, which began running them in June 1851. Encouraged by their success, Stowe decided to publish them as a novel, and the first edition, published by the Boston firm of John P. Jewett & Co., appeared in March 1852. It sold 10,000 copies in its first two week, and by 1857 it had been translated into 20 languages and had sold two million copies worldwide. It was the first American novel to become an international bestseller.

Stowe’s contract with Jewett was standard for its day: she received a royalty of 10% on all copies sold. Despite the book’s popular success, Jewett went out of business in 1860, and the rights and the printing plates for Uncle Tom’s Cabin were sold to another Boston firm, Ticknor and Fields. In 1878, as the original 28-year copyright was soon to expire, the firm (now Houghton, Osgood & Co.) recast the plates and published a new edition in 1879, thus extending the copyright for another 14 years.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Letter to George Eliot, 1878. Lowell Autographs, 302a, p.1

In this warm and newsy letter, written by Stowe to fellow author George Eliot on November 25, 1878, Stowe apologizes for not sending Eliot a book since receiving Daniel Deronda. “A sort of crisis came in my life,” she explains, “the quarter century allowed in copyright to a book has expired & in renewing the same we are led to prepare a new edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Stowe wrote a new introduction, and Mr. Bullen of the British Museum contributed “a bibliographical account of its various translations and editions.” This is the book she now sends Eliot.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Letter to George Eliot, 1878. Lowell Autographs, 302a, p.2

Both book and letter are included in Houghton Library’s current exhibition “From Austen to Zola: Amy Lowell as a Collector,” which pays tribute to the poet whose bequest of her collection in 1925 transformed Harvard’s collecting of rare books and manuscripts. Miss Lowell, who had a particular interest in collecting books and manuscripts of other literary women, purchased them at the sale of George Eliot’s library, held at Sotheby’s in London on June 27, 1923. They were lot 561, and Lowell paid £8.5.0 ($38).

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Letter to George Eliot, 1878. Lowell Autographs, 302a, p.3

More information on the history of Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be found in Michael Winship’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin: History of the Book in the 19th-Century United States”

Photo credits: Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1811-1896. Uncle Tom’s cabin. Boston: Houghton, Osgood & Co., 1879. George Eliot’s copy, with a letter of presentation from Stowe to Eliot, dated November 25, 1878. Lowell 814.5.3 and Lowell Autographs, 302a

This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.

[Thanks to Leslie Morris, Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts, for contributing this post.]

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