On September 22, 1852, New York dry goods merchant Edward Neufville Tailer sat down to record his latest diary entry as he did religiously from 1848 until very nearly the day of his death in 1917. On this particular occasion he reflected on his reading of one of the most famous American literary works, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published only that summer.
While not every American has read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, it’s virtually impossible not to have heard of it. Regarded as the second best-selling book of the nineteenth century, it was runner up only to the bible itself, selling a whopping 300,000 copies in its first year in print. Naturally, these numbers speak volumes for its historical import but history certainly isn’t built purely on data. Instead it relies equally on sources that succeed in bringing its subjects to life. In this regard, Tailer’s entry on Uncle Tom’s Cabin brilliantly personalizes the experience of reading a nineteenth century best-seller for a modern observer:
Amongst the works most sought after at present at the Mercantile Library, is Miss Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work entitled “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or “Life Among the Lowly.” This book is in my opinion, written expressly to pamper with the ideas and tastes of all rank abolitionists. The heroine of the tale being a mulatto woman who escapes from her master, in order to rescue her child from falling into the hands of a slave speculator, to whom he had been sold by his present master to enable him to pay off a mortgage. Her trials + the obstacles which she encounters when flying from before her pursuers are all most touchingly described, and enlist the sympathy + feelings of the reader. The story is in fact so beautifully written that I remained at home this evening pouring over its interesting pages, + thinking of but little else.
Setting aside the moral implications at work in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tailer’s entry allows us to think about Stowe’s novel in the same way we recall our own personal experience surrounding the furor of something like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and in doing peel back the layers that prevent us from truly grasping the book’s impact on antebellum America.
That is intensified, however, by adding in the moral element and considering Tailer’s own views on the matter of slavery. His initial tone and, in particular, his choice of adjective to describe abolitionists, suggests a great deal about his thoughts. Like many fellow New Yorkers, he was entirely content to see slavery persist, assured that, properly treated, slaves enjoyed better lives than were they left to their own devices. That impression he recorded towards the end of 1852 while in Virginia, where, out of curiosity, he took in, and described, a Richmond slave auction. Despite all this, Tailer, a seemingly unlikely Stowe fan, was compelled to finish the story, revealing the the power of her narrative and its ability to absorb even those indifferent to its broader ethical message.
While he’s forced to compete with the highly regarded, and oft-quoted, New York diaries of both George Templeton Strong and Philip Hone, Tailer’s, comprising 57 volumes, are themselves exceptional as a historical resource. This was recognized early on: when he died, his obituary explicitly referenced this, nearly lifelong, endeavor.