Harriet Beecher Stowe

Highlights of a Life

When a seventh child was born on June 14, 1811, to the famous preacher, Lyman Beecher, and his first wife Roxana Foote, no one would have suspected that the baby girl would be destined to powerfully influence the culture and political life of nineteenth-century America. No one would suspect that 51 years later, the president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of a civil war, would say to her, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!”

Harriet Beecher spent the first twelve years of her life amidst the heady atmosphere of Litchfield, Connecticut—in a parsonage famous for catering to the intellectual elite of early nineteenth century America: ministers, judges, lawyers, and professional men. Harriet’s mother died when she was four years old, and her oldest sister, Catherine, stepped in to fill the maternal shoes left behind.

The young girl was both impressionable and intellectually thirsty. From 1816 to 1821, she spent her time at “Ma’am” Kilbourne’s school, and at the age of ten, Harriet was enrolled in the Litchfield Academy where she wrote her first composition, and at the age of twelve, she won the a literary first prize for her essay, “Can the Immortality of the Soul be Proved by the Light of Nature?”  In 1824, her sister Catherine formed a school for teenaged girls in Hartford, Connecticut, and Stowe became one of her first pupils.

The family moved from Connecticut in 1832 when Dr. Beecher was appointed the presidency of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was in Cincinnati that Harriet first met enslaved black men and women. Earlier in her school days, the young woman had read the “Declaration of Independence,” and she later wrote that “I was as ready as any of them to pledge my life, fortune and sacred honor for such a cause”—the cause of freedom. Harriet’s commitment to the cause that “all men are created equal,” would be tested in Ohio as she came into contact with fugitive slaves. In 1833, Harriet “crossed the Ohio River and saw a southern plantation for the first time, an experience that provided her with the setting for Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

On the fifth of January, 1836, Harriet Beecher married Professor Calvin E. Stowe, a man of learning and distinction. Perhaps if events in America had taken a different path, Harriet would have been content to live the life of any other nineteenth-century wife. In 1850, however, the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in an attempt to appease South slave owners. The law gave slave owners “the right to organize a posse at any point in the United States to aid in recapturing runaway slaves. Courts and police everywhere in the United States were obligated to assist them.” Private citizens were also obligated to assist in the recapture of runaways, and people who were caught helping slaves served jail time as well as pay fines and restitution to the slave owner.

Noel Gershon, in Harriet Beecher Stowe, recounts how the idea for Uncle Tom’s Cabin came to Harriet. While she had read about slavery extensively, she had not formulated any ideas for a novel until, during a communion service at the college chapel, “a vision suddenly filled her mind. She saw an old slave.”  Convinced her inspiration was God-ordained, Stowe recorded her vision.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first serialized in the National Era in March, 1851. The novel came out in book form a year later, selling 10,000 copies in its first week and 300,000 by the end of the year, astronomical numbers for the mid-nineteenth century. By the end of the decade, more than two million copies had been sold. Not well-received in the South, the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger instructed his reviewer: “I would have the review as hot as hellfire, blasting and searing the reputation of the vile wretch in petticoats who could write such a volume.” Outside of the South, however, the novel’s impact was global rather than national. Among those who hailed it as a masterpiece were Ivan Turgenev, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy and George Eliot. It was Lenin’s favorite book as a child.

For some 65 years after its debut, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was frequently presented on stage. As late as 1913 there were “about four Uncle Tom’s Cabin Companies on tour, and at least two of them doing a good business.” Although at first white actors usually played all the parts (rendering characters like the slaves Uncle Tom, Eliza, and Little Eva in blackface), later productions did feature African-American actors. Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Abbott and Costello, and even Felix the Cat performed in film adaptations.

While today we think of the term “Uncle Tom” as a pejorative, it is through the theatre and film that Uncle Tom became a literary figure synonymous with passive resistance, betrayal, and subservience. Stage adaptations removed all radical antislave messages and turned it into a minstrel show. By World War II, Uncle Tom had become a byword for subservience in the face of racial oppression. To Malcolm X, Uncle Tom was the man preaching reform when others were preaching revolution; the one who advocated peace instead of war; the person who urged others to stay at home instead of taking to the streets; the leader who preached racial equality instead of Black Power. Ultimately, Uncle Tom came “to represent the lackey, the moderate, the conciliator and the sell-out.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe, however, would have been astounded if she could have realized how far flung her novel would prove to be. After the initial success of the novel, the now middle-aged Stowe went on a speaking tour of England and Scotland. In 1856, she even met with Queen Victoria. Her personal life, however, was not quite as successful as her public life, and she entered a time of mourning in the mid-1850s when her son, Henry, drowned in the Connecticut River.

Stowe continued to write, however, and in 1856, she published a second antislavery novel, Dred. She also wrote stories and articles for magazine publication and enjoyed a successful run in the Atlantic Monthly. When her husband retired in 1863, the Stowe family moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where she continued her work aiding the victims of slavery, finding jobs for freed slaves and advocating for compassion towards the Confederacy once the war was over. Stowe rented a cotton plantation in Florida and hired former slaves to work the plantation, and she later founded a school for former slaves.

During the 1870s, tragedy once more struck the Stowe family when they lost yet another son, Frederick, while he was crossing the Pacific Ocean. Cared for by her twin daughters, the Stowe’s moved to a new home next to Mark Twain where they lived a relatively peaceful existence. Harriet’s 70th birthday was celebrated as a national event, and the school children of Hartford were released from school in her honor.

Her husband died in 1886. Bed-ridden by that time, Stowe retreated to her home alone, and she died in her sleep at 85 on July 1, 1896. She is buried next to her husband in Andover, Massachusetts.

Source: “Harriet Beecher Stowe.” Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group. (11 November 2004).

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