Beyond the Book
Uncle Tom's Cabin, Absinthe & Brooklyn
- Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was the best-selling
novel of the 19th century (and the second best-selling book of that century,
following the Bible) and is credited with helping fuel the abolitionist
cause in the 1850's. In the first year after it was published, 300,000
copies of the book were sold in the United States alone. Considering
that the population of the USA was about 23 million in 1850 that would be
equivalent to about 4 million copies being sold in one year today. The
book's impact was so great that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start
of the American Civil War, Lincoln is often quoted as having declared, "So
this is the little lady who made this big war."
- In Harriet and Isabella, Harriet Beecher Stowe attends a dinner
party at the house of their neighbor Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark
Twain) in Hartford Connecticut (1875), where the drink of the evening was
absinthe. Banned in the United States in 1912, the legacy of absinthe as a
mysterious, addictive, and mind-altering drink continues to this day. Made
from aromatic herbs including anise, fennel and grande wormwood, it was the
most popular drink in France in the 19th Century and introduced
to the United States through New Orleans. It was often referred to as
"madness in a bottle" or "Green Fairy". Many artists and writers were
noted absinthe drinkers and featured absinthe in their works, such as
Vincent van Gogh, Édouard Manet, Guy de Maupassant, Arthur Rimbaud, Henri de
Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Verlaine. Later authors and artists would draw
from this cultural well including Pablo Picasso, August Strindberg, Oscar
Wilde and Ernest Hemingway.
Though much vilified, there's been no firm evidence that absinthe is any
more dangerous or psychoactive than ordinary alcohol. Some speculate
that the reported effects were due to poisonous chemicals being added to the
base ingredients, perhaps in an effort to produce a more vivid color.
After a 95-year ban in the US, some brands of absinthe became legally
available again in 2007.
- Brooklyn Heights forms the backdrop to much of Harriet and Isabella.
At one point, Harriet and sister Catherine took a much-needed break from
their daily attendance at their brother's heated trial to join the Brooklyn
crowd which has gathered at the dock to peer upward at the shaft of the
tower that marks the completion of the first stage of a new bridge. Eight
years later, on May 24, 1883, at 2:00 P.M., the Brooklyn Bridge opened with an
initial bridge toll of one cent on opening day and three cents
thereafter. 150,300 people crossed the bridge that day. The bridge opened
for vehicles at 5 P.M. with 1,800 vehicles crossing that day at 5 cents
This article was originally published in January 2008, and has been updated for the
January 2009 paperback release.
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