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Stowe, Harriet Beecherfree

(14 June 1811–01 July 1896)
  • Joan D. Hedrick

Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-10476).

Stowe, Harriet Beecher (14 June 1811–01 July 1896), author, was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, the daughter of Lyman Beecher, a clergyman, and Roxana Foote. Her father, one of the most popular evangelical preachers of the pre–Civil War era, was determined to have a role in shaping the culture of the new nation. Her mother, from a cosmopolitan, novel-reading, Episcopalian family, studied painting and executed portraits on ivory. After bearing nine children, she died when Stowe was five. Stowe’s father quickly remarried, but from this point, Stowe’s sister Catharine Beecher became the strongest female influence in her life.

A precocious child with a quick memory, Stowe stood out even within the remarkable Beecher family. Observing her oddity and “genius,” her father said he would give $100 if she were a boy and her brother Henry Ward Beecher a girl. At age eight she entered the Litchfield Female Academy, an excellent school founded to “vindicate the equality of female intellect”; there the strongest influence on her was John Brace, whose methods of teaching composition she later imitated. She was an eager writer in what Brace called this “literary loving school.” Her first assignment was an essay on “The Difference between the Natural and Moral Sublime”—a topic, Stowe noted, “not trashy or sentimental, such as are often supposed to be the style for female schools.” At age nine she volunteered to write weekly essays; at age thirteen she won the honor of having her composition read aloud at the annual school exhibit, where it made her father sit up and ask who the author was. When the answer came, “Your daughter, sir,” Stowe experienced what she later called “the proudest moment of my life” (Cross, vol. 1, p. 399).

In 1824 Stowe entered Catharine Beecher’s Hartford Female Seminary, where she studied the most difficult subjects in the male college curriculum, including Latin and moral philosophy, and aspired to become an artist like her mother. Although she painted throughout her life and left some remarkably accomplished canvases, her true vocation was to paint with words. From 1829 to 1832 she taught composition at the Hartford Female Seminary and at age nineteen wrote to her brother George, who like all of her brothers entered the ministry, “It is as much my vocation to preach on paper as it is that of my brothers to preach viva voce.”

In 1832 she moved with her family to Cincinnati, Ohio, where her father had accepted the presidency of Lane Seminary. While her father campaigned to “save the West” from the influences of infidelism and Roman Catholicism, Stowe observed new customs and relished the dialects spoken at the Cincinnati landing. Her literary career blossomed. She published a widely adopted Primary Geography (1833) that won the praise of the bishop of Cincinnati for her tolerant views of Catholics, taught in Catharine Beecher’s Western Female Academy, and participated in the social and literary gatherings of the Semi-Colon Club, for which she wrote many of her early essays and stories, pioneering the use of dialect and reflecting on customs in her native New England. Many of these writings were published in the Western Monthly Magazine and were collected in her first book of fiction, The Mayflower (1843).

In 1836 she married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a biblical scholar and professor at Lane Seminary. With his encouragement she became “a literary woman,” regularly adding to their slender finances by contributing sermons and temperance tales to the New-York Evangelist and writing stories for Godey’s Lady’s Book and various gift books. During their fifty-year-long union Calvin Stowe remained a judicious adviser and staunch supporter of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s literary career, but their domestic life was made difficult by their temperamental differences, seven children, money problems, Calvin’s hypochondria, and Harriet’s haphazard domestic management.

In 1843, moved by the millennial spirit of the times and by the suicide of her brother George, Stowe experienced a deepening of her faith, a “second birth” more meaningful than her first conversion experience at age fourteen. Her profound identification with Christ as a man of sorrows and lover of the lowly helped her through years of poverty, ill health, and domestic difficulty and informed her most famous fiction. In 1849 their eighteen-month-old son, Samuel Charles, died in a cholera epidemic that swept Cincinnati. “It was at his dying bed and at his grave,” Stowe wrote of Charley, “that I learnt what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her.” When the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law the following year implicated the North in just such family separations, Stowe began writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Serialized in the National Era between 5 June 1851 and 1 April 1852, the story had a huge following and sold more than 300,000 copies in the United States during the first year after it was published in book form by J. P. Jewett in 1852. Drawing on the familiar genre of the slave narrative but casting it in a fiction bristling with regional types and racy slang, Stowe wrote what was recognized at the time as a great American novel.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin follows the fortunes of Tom, a faithful slave who is sold away from his family, and Eliza and George Harris, who flee their bondage in Kentucky. As the Harrises make their way toward Canada and freedom—Eliza by heroically crossing the ice of the Ohio River with her child, George by impersonating a white man—Tom is sent deeper into slavery. He is purchased by August St. Clare at the behest of his young daughter, Evangeline (Eva), who on her deathbed urges her father to free Tom, but St. Clare is killed in a tavern brawl, and Tom is sold again. Under the tyrannical power of Simon Legree on a plantation on the Red River in Louisiana, Tom dies from a beating. The story was immediately put on stage, translated into dozens of languages, and embodied in popular culture in the form of songs, toys, and figurines. The impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the conscience of the nation, already tender from the outrages of the Fugitive Slave Law, was such that when Stowe came to the White House in 1862, Abraham Lincoln is said to have greeted her with the words, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war” (Charles Edward Stowe and Lyman Beecher Stowe, Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Story of Her Life [1911], p. 203).

The success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin made Stowe an international celebrity and a focus of antislavery sentiment. In 1853 she published A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an antislavery polemic written to answer critics who complained that her novel had exaggerated the brutalities of slavery. At the invitation of two Scottish antislavery societies she undertook a tour of the British Isles. As she recounted in Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands (1854), she was met by large crowds, feted at antislavery soirees, showered with money for the cause, and presented with a petition from more than half a million British women urging their American sisters to end slavery. She used money given her to free slaves, distribute antislavery literature, and support antislavery lectures, but her most powerful antislavery weapon remained her pen. In 1854, when Congress was debating the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Stowe published in the Independent “An Appeal to Women of the Free States of America, on the Present Crisis on Our Country” and circulated petitions to defeat the bill. When it passed, opening the possibility of slavery in the new territories, Stowe wrote her second antislavery novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856). In contrast to the Christian pacifism of Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, her hero Dred is presented as the son of Denmark Vesey, the historical figure hanged in South Carolina for fomenting rebellion among the slaves.

The following year her nineteen-year-old son, Henry Ellis, a freshman at Dartmouth College, died while attempting to swim the Connecticut River. Struggling with the probability that he had died “unregenerate,” Stowe wrote The Minister’s Wooing (1859), the first of her New England novels and a liberal reworking of the Calvinist theology of her upbringing. It was serialized in the Atlantic Monthly, a prestigious new journal Stowe helped to found. Based in part on materials from her mother’s life, The Minister’s Wooing participated in the mythification of New England that was central to the Atlantic Monthly’s cultural mission.

During the Civil War as opportunities to make money through authorship multiplied, Stowe was foremost among professional writers. In 1862 she published Agnes of Sorrento (inspired by her trip to Italy on her third tour of Europe in 1859–1860) and The Pearl of Orr’s Island (the second of her New England novels) and continued to write occasional columns for the Independent. In 1864 she instituted in the Atlantic a monthly column on household topics—rightly gauging the pulse of the nation during the Civil War. “The public mind,” she wrote her editor, James T. Fields, “is troubled, unsettled, burdened with the real. . . . Home is the thing we must strike for now.” After her husband retired in 1863, Stowe became the sole support of her large family. She continued her domestic columns in the Atlantic for three years, wrote children’s stories, a volume of poetry titled Religious Poems (1867), and a collection of biographies called Men of Our Times (1868). She also bought a home in Mandarin, on the St. Johns River, becoming one of the first northerners to winter annually in Florida. The weight of these commitments and various domestic difficulties, such as the alcoholism of her son Frederick, who was wounded in the Civil War, delayed work on her third New England novel, Oldtown Folks (1869). A compendium of New England life and lore, it was based in part on her husband’s recollections of life in Natick, Massachusetts. With Donald G. Mitchell (“Ik Marvell”) she was coeditor of Hearth and Home in 1868 but resigned in 1869 to write Lady Byron Vindicated (1870), the story of Lord Byron’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh.

This strange chapter in Stowe’s career can best be understood in the context of the politics of Reconstruction America, when the push for civil rights for black men was fanning into popular sentiment similar goals for women. Stowe herself embraced woman suffrage at this time and briefly entertained the possibility of an alliance with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who tried in 1869 to recruit her to write for their paper, the Revolution, and who were calling attention to the sexual double standard by highly publicized public meetings on sexual scandals. Stowe, who all her life had used the cloak of male power and the posture of true womanhood to pursue her sometimes quite radical goals, balked at this overt alliance on women’s issues. However, she used her acquaintance with Lady Byron to write what she may have intended to be the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of women’s sexual slavery. It was a miscalculation. Bravely mentioning incest but narrowly defending the honor of an aristocratic Englishwoman’s pure and Christian life, Stowe succeeded only in provoking a torrent of abuse in the press. Burned by this incident, Stowe never again attempted direct speech on sexual matters. However, in her society novels—Pink and White Tyranny (1871), My Wife and I (1871), and We and Our Neighbors (1875)—Stowe used a loosely plotted journalistic fiction to comment on women’s roles, reform, and domestic politics. She brought her literary career to a close with Poganuc People (1878), fictionalized reminiscences of growing up in Litchfield. She died in Hartford.

Throughout her career Stowe used literature as her father used his pulpit: to shape public opinion. Rooted in common sense, democratic values, and her own experience as a woman and a mother, her views mirrored and appealed to those of the “plain average.” She urged the nation to civil disobedience, challenged religious orthodoxy, and dared to discuss incest—all in the name of motherhood, Christianity, and democracy. Writing at a time when women were denied the vote and had no representation in Congress, she used literature to have a political voice, without betraying her socialization as a “true woman.” Speaking nationally to an increasingly heterogeneous public and paying attention to dialects, racial differences, and regional customs, Stowe contributed to the elaboration of a national culture and to what Ellen Moers called “the American Real.” Always controversial, Stowe fell into disrepute in the latter half of the nineteenth century. When literature became professionalized and more formal, aesthetic standards of art prevailed, and Stowe’s passion and finely honed rhetoric were judged “melodramatic” and “sentimental.” Her strongly marked characters, particularly Uncle Tom, were seen as stereotypes, an impression increased by the minstrel darkies of the “Tom shows” that continued into the twentieth century. Her reputation rose again in the wake of the the women’s movement of the 1970s. Uncle Tom’s Cabin continues to be read around the world for its principled defense of the lowly and oppressed.

Bibliography

The largest collections of Stowe’s papers are at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Conn., and at the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Mass. The Sterling Library and Beinecke Library at Yale University hold smaller collections, as does the University of Virginia. Correspondence with her editor, James T. Fields, and his wife, Annie Adams Fields, is in the Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif. Correspondence with William Lloyd Garrison is in the Boston Public Library; with George Eliot, in the New York Public Library. C. E. Stowe, Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Compiled from Her Journals and Letters (1889), contains some letters not available elsewhere. Barbara M. Cross, ed., The Autobiography of Lyman Beecher (1961), contains some first-person reminiscences by Stowe and her siblings. The standard biographies are Joan D. Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (1994), and Forrest Wilson, Crusader in Crinoline: The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1941). See also Charles H. Foster, The Rungless Ladder: Harriet Beecher Stowe and New England Puritanism (1954), and Marie Caskey, Chariot of Fire: Religion and the Beecher Family (1978), on Stowe’s religious ideas, and Jeanne Boydston et al., eds., The Limits of Sisterhood: The Beecher Sisters on Women’s Rights and Woman’s Sphere (1988), for writings on the “woman question.” Margaret Holbrook Hildreth, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Bibliography (1976), is an accurate guide to Stowe’s writings. On Uncle Tom’s Cabin, see E. Bruce Kirkham, The Building of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1977), Thomas F. Gossett, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and American Culture (1985), and the following influential evaluations: James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Partisan Review 16 (1949): 578–85; Edmund Wilson’s essay on Stowe in Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (1962); Ellen Moers, Harriet Beecher Stowe and American Literature (1978); and Jane Tompkins, “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History,” Glyph 8 (1981): 79–102. Alice Crozier, The Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1969), provides interpretations of her major works. Elizabeth Ammons, ed., Critical Essays on Harriet Beecher Stowe (1980), includes key nineteenth-century reviews as well as twentieth-century evaluations.