The woman credited with sparking the Civil War came to Christ at thirteen, during one of her father’s sermons. She wrestled throughout her eighty-five years with questions and spiritual conflicts for she endured grave trials: her mother died while Harriet was a very young child; her husband, though an erudite theologian, could not provide financially and suffered bouts of poor health; she lost four children tragically; and she enjoyed the acclaim of the rich and powerful of her generation. In spite of these upheavals, her basic faith in the Lord Jesus Christ held and sustained her.
Harriet was born in Connecticut in 1811, the daughter of Lyman Beecher. He was a persuasive preacher, theologian, a founder of the American Bible Society who was active in the anti slavery movement, and the father of thirteen children. Her mother who died when Harriet was four years old, was a woman of prayer, asking the Lord to call her six sons into the ministry. All eventually preached; Henry Ward Beecher, the youngest son became the most prominent. After her mother’s death, Harriet grew close to her sister, Catherine, teaching in her school and writing books with her soon after she turned thirteen. Harriet was brilliant and bookish, and idolized the poetry of Lord Byron.
When her father became president of Lane Theological Seminary in Ohio, she moved with him and met Calvin Stowe — a professor and clergyman who fervently opposed slavery. He was nine years her senior and the widower of a dear friend of hers, Eliza Tyler. Their subsequent marriage in 1836 was born of the common grief they shared. In later years, Mark Twain’s daughter Susy Clemens saw Calvin Stowe merrily reported to her father, “Santa Clause has got loose.”(Husbands and Wives, William J. Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 1989, page 111).
The work of the Underground Railroad deeply touched both Calvin and Harriet. They sheltered fugitive slaves in their home until they moved to Maine when he accepted a position at Bowdoin College in 1850. Throughout the years their loving commitment grew solidly. Harriet wrote to her husband of many years, “If you were not already my dearly beloved husband, I should certainly fall in love with you.”
Within two years, she had three children, increasing household responsibilities and financial worries as Calvin’s salary from the college diminished. As a homemaker she lovingly and kindly cared for her children while she wrote for local magazines and papers.
Over the years she wrote ardent letters to her surviving children, admonishing them to seek Christ and conform their hearts and lives to Him. Although her first forty-one years were lived in gentile privation and anonymity, she quickly became a literary sensation when they published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Success never lessened her need for her husband. Both encouraged and comforted each other as storms dampened their spiritual fires. Calvin encouraged her to establish a writing career, and served as her literary agent in both America and England.
For almost thirty years she produced a book a year and through her writing supplemented her husband’s modest earnings. Her husband was regarded as a distinguished Biblical scholar, and she persisted in nagging him to write; eventually he published The Origin and History of the Books of the Bible, which was well-received and financially successful. Money was a concern through her life: some investments failed and two to three of her grown children continued financially dependent on her.
As a mother who grieved for lost children, Harriet Beecher Stowe felt a bond with slave mothers who lost their children to the auction block. She lost four her seven children. Samuel Charles, “Charley” died at eighteen months from cholera and an older son, Henry, drowned while a student at Dartmouth College. Years later, her son Frederick who was an alcoholic from the age of sixteen, died. He never recovered from the wounds he sustained at Gettysburg in the Civil War, nor could he cope with his mother’s success. He simply disappeared in San Francisco after the War despite Harriet’s grandiose schemes to rescue him. Georgiana, married to an Episcopal priest and a mother, died in her forties, having lost her health and mind to morphine addiction. Twin daughters, Eliza and Isabella, and a son, Charles Edward lived and were comforts to their parents. She lived ten years after her husband died, but retired from the limelight, and died in 1896.
Throughout America’s history, some Christians – for example the Quakers and some radical sectarians – criticized slavery; many excused it. (Robert Dabney defended slavery in his biography of Stonewall Jackson.) By the late 1840s’ the anti slavery movement had expanded, energized by newspaper editors, lecturers, authors and clergymen. For abolitionists nothing justified slavery and Mrs. Stowe’s novel exploded the myth that magnanimous masters treated their slaves adequately. She showed that even kindly slave owners, when desperate for cash, separated and sold slaves “down the river.”
Mrs. Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin soon after passage of Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which granted Southerners the right to pursue fugitive slaves into free states. This law aroused many abolitionists to action – and writing. She created memorable characters who portrayed the inhumanity of slavery and the insidious, corrupting influence this “peculiar institution” had upon the whole nation. Uncle Tom, Little Eva, George Shelby, Cassy, Chole, Topsy and Simon Legree galvanized anti slavery sentiment. After Mrs. Stowe became acclaimed, at one point she asserted she did not write Uncle Tom’s Cabin; God wrote it, and she served merely as His instrument.
First printed as a serial in the National Era, an abolitionist paper, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was later printed as a book in 1852. It sold 3,000 copies on the first day, 300,000 the first year, and eventually sold more than 3,000,000 world wide and was translated into twenty-two different languages. Her admirers included Jenny Lind, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, George Eliot and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Nevertheless, she managed a wry opinion of herself; saying she was “a little bit of a woman, somewhat more than forty, about as thin and dry as a pinch of snuff, never very much to look at in my best days and looking like a used up article now.”
She said hers was a factual depiction of slavery, and in 1853 wrote A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents Upon Which It is Based . President Lincoln read it before announcing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. Yet today few people take the novel seriously. How could the novel that Abraham Lincoln described as having “made this great war,” lose its vast audience?
Readers may avoid her work today because we are more familiar with its caricature then we are with her novel. In the late 1800s, crude traveling shows adulterated Mrs. Stowe’s themes called “Tom Shows” that were racist burlesques of her carefully drawn characters and their ordeals. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (or, Life Among the Lowly) is a graphic tale of many lives bruised and crushed by slavery — both blacks and whites. Consider how Mrs. Stowe presents Tom: he is a man of strength and moral nerve. Read how Tom saw his life as Simon Legree paused in the midst of a deadly beating:
“Tom looked up to his master, and answered, ‘Mas’r, if you was sick, or in trouble, or dying, and I could save ye, I’d give ye my heart’s blood; and, if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, I’d give ’em freely, as the Lord gave his for me. O, Mas’r! don’t bring this great sin on your soul! It will hurt you more than ‘t will me! Do the worst ye can, my troubles’ll be over soon; but, if ye don’t repent, yours won’t never end!’ ”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is both a good read and an important document of history — an illuminating companion to any study of the Civil War. It is one of the most influential books written, and is a useful guide to understanding how the exploitation of one generation continues to afflict us today. If you consider reading this novel aloud around the dining room table, be mindful of the gravity of the novel’s theme. (Families who are looking for literature for younger children about abolitionists might consider reading Thee, Hannah! by Marguerite de Angeli around the table.)
Read and appraise the success of the work. This woman wrote passionately to prick her countrymen’s consciences to end their blind allegiance to an inhuman institution. We would do well to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and ask God for the zeal and talent to speak equally well to our generation.
A Visit to Our “Other Neighbor”: Harriet Beecher Stowe
by Sean E. Marshall
Photos for this article were provided by the Harriet Beecher Stowe Foundation, Hartford.
I never had cause to think twice about the name Harriet Beecher Stowe. I am acquainted with her through general tidbits of information that ambiguously associate her with Mark Twain, but aside from that all I could tell anyone is that she used to be Mark Twain’s neighbor. I know this is a rather narrow way to see one of the literary legends of the late 19th century, but what else can I say?
Perhaps Mark Twain is more familiar to me because of how I came to think of him at all. When I went to elementary school in Hartford, the Twain House had been a frequent destination for school field-trips. So for me the relationship was made manifest early. The mere mention of Twain’s name brings forth the image of his ostentatious manor located on Farmington Avenue. Arguably, it is one of the most distinguished landmarks in Hartford. I also associate him with the Huckleberry Finn movie that I fondly remember seeing more than once as a child.
There was no similar early in-depth association with Harriet Beecher Stowe for me as there had been with Mark Twain. Compared to him, she is always an afterthought, a sidelight to the head-liner Mark Twain. Subsequently the only familiarity I have of Beecher Stowe is from reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a Middle School reading assignment. Unfortunately, the impression made by this reading assignment could not compete with the impressions made by visiting the Mark Twain House several times and the movie that I will admit made a favorable impression on me.
Perhaps I’m rationalizing about a time long behind me, but today I am more aware of her than ever. When I think of just a few similarities between Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain, I find it unfair that she could be so overlooked. Both Harriet Beecher Stowe and Twain were writers that achieved literary prominence during the late nineteenth century. As writers they were both on the cutting edge of social issues, and they both made Nook Farm right here in Hartford their homes.
Harriet Beecher Stowe helped to create a rich history in Hartford. At one point in her career, Beecher Stowe stood atop the literary establishment, a feat of distinction when placed in its proper context. Her success came at a time when the literary establishment was dominated by men who didn’t reserve their contempt even towards her most successful book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When the book was published, she was criticized for writing about an issue that she was too distant from to truly understand. In other words, women who had opinions on political issues were not expected to be taken seriously, especially if they were right and gained public support. Along with this is the fact that she was the first author of either sex to earn a living from the various works she had published. This created a new era in writing that ultimately opened the door for other writers to be payed large sums.
Harriet Beecher Stowe ranks as one of Hartford’s true historical legends. A part of that legacy has been forever captured in her literary works–numbering more than thirty-three. Visitors to Hartford, Connecticut, and residents who choose to visit the Beecher Stowe House at 73 Forest Street can have prompt access to a more intimate side of that legacy.
The Beecher Stowe House is a historical treasure chest. But who would know to look? My immediate impression upon seeing the outside of the Gothic Victorian house was that it appears inhabited. By that I mean had I been without prior knowledge of its status as a museum I could have assumed it still continued to serve as someone’s home.
This lived-in quality extends to the interior of the house as well, where on a tour I learned the reasons behind that quality is its one-time owner’s practicality. Practicality is a strong suit of Beecher Stowe, a trait that certainly stems from her Puritan upbringing. Her home reflects that practical sensibility from top to bottom. She furnished her home with stylish comfort rather than baroque status symbols that were not compatible with her life style. This can be seen in the decorative scheme which is simple but stately, and more importantly functional. Many of the arrangements are her own and derive from her personal interest in housekeeping.
Very innovative for that time was her use of vines to cover windows in the place of bulky dark drapes. She was also very keen on having a garden all year around so she had a terrarium built for the inside of her house. A defining act of her practical senses is the soap saver in the kitchen, something I’m familiar with from my own home. I think the saying goes, “Waste not Want not.”
By all accounts, she was a homemaker geared towards efficient living and that is a uniform expression throughout her home. To her credit as a home maker she, along with her sister Catherine, wrote a book called The American Woman’s Home, which contained modern conveniences for the 19th-century home. This book includes many of the features she implemented in her own home. Her kitchen, for instance, was ensembled with indoor cabinet storage instead of cabinets being set apart from the kitchen in a kind of pantry. The idea behind this was that you could see what items you were low on and restock before you ran out of things. This kind of idea has to come from a woman who is in charge of her own household–not from someone who relied on servants to keep track of things.
The architecture of the Beecher Stowe House is Gothic Victorian and the furniture is also of Victorian vintage, but for me these are not the most impressive elements to be found. I was impressed most when I realized the various statements being made by Beecher Stowe, beginning in the parlor where there are several paintings of flowers on the wall. They are her own renderings and to me they serve as a reminder of how and why she felt the way she did about gardening. She wrote in Meditations from Our Garden Seat: “Blessed is he that hath a garden… A garden seems to bring men into confidential relations with all the forces of nature…A garden is a place of healing the soul.” Because she outlived three of her own children, I’m under the impression that she was tending to her own soul. Because her life experiences weighed heavy on her, I believe, gardening and painting were ways to regain her equilibrium.
Sevaral pictures of Abraham Lincoln hang in various wings of the house as a form of adulation. It is obvious that she saw in him qualities that were worth venerating, qualities that the two of them shared in common. Lincoln has been reported to have jokingly said to her that she and her book caused the Civil War in which Lincoln is attributed with having freed the slaves. Slavery had been one of the social issues closest to her, and Lincoln held it as a priority also. There is also a picture of Josiah Henson, a fugitive slave who, with the help of the Beecher family, escaped to Germany where he became a Doctor of Theology. A Black man’s photograph hanging on the wall of a White person’s home carries powerful sentiment even today, so you can imagine how sobering it must have been then.
These are objects that help manifest a consistent theme throughout the Beecher Stowe House, one which tells you that there was no hiding how she felt and dealt with the issues of her day. It is her life you are seeing, and that is why I feel that touring the house is much like getting to know her or at least getting to know the side of her that was socially active against human injustices.
It’s because of the down-to-earth character imprinted on the Beecher Stowe House that it can emerge from Mark Twain’s shadow. Never mind the flamboyance of the Twain house. It becomes something of a distraction once you realize the significance of the house across the lawn. I walked away from the Beecher Stowe House feeling that I had been somewhere important.
Domestic Goddess Harriet Beecher-Stowe(1) is most famous for her controversial anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe was born in 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut, the seventh of nine children. Her father was the well-known Congregational minister Lyman Beecher and his wife was Roxana Foote Beecher. Roxana Beecher died when her daughter was five years old, causing Beecher to feel great empathy, she felt, for slave mothers and children who were separated under slavery.
As Elizabeth Ammons points out in her preface to the Norton edition, if Beecher had been a man, she probably would have followed in her father’s footsteps and become a minister. As it was, she was also wife and sister to preachers. She maintained that it was her Christian passion which compelled her to write her novel. The Stowes’ family was not rich, and therefore, Harriet’s life was sometimes conflicted between the necessities of motherhood and writing, or, between vocation and avocation. She eventually bore six children, with whom her writing competed. Stowe chose to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin because her sister-in-law urged her to use her skills to aid the cause of abolition. The novel was incredibly popular and sold more copies than any book before it, with the exception only of the Christian Bible. “Today, Uncle Tom’s Cabin raises many questions. It requires readers to confront and think about racism, and theories of race in the United States. It provokes important questions about differing feminist ideologies and agendas across race and time” (Ammons, intro). Whatever our feelings about the novel, it remains one of the most influential American texts written by either man or woman. It is possibly the first American social protest novel, and anyone concerned with the state of race relations should read it. Critics often denounce the novel for its often sentimental and stereotyped portrayal of its African-American characters, and for romanticizing slavery, but others answer their claims by saying that the critics have not read or completely understood Stowe’s intended message and agenda. Whatever your personal feelings about the novel, and Stowe’s agenda, it remains an important text for our history.
Stowe’s other novels, including Oldtown Folks and The Pearl of Orr’s Island contain another picture, one of the domestic lives of the northeastern region that Stowe grew up in and was familiar with. We can find, by studying all of her works, a more complete portrait of her as a writer, and we can possibly understand more about Uncle Tom’s Cabin when we read all of Stowe’s writing.
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)
Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, far from the plantations of the South, Harriet Beecher Stowe nevertheless found the cause of the emancipation of the slaves an important one. When her father assumed the presidency of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, she followed her family. There she met her husband and remained an active member of her community. In Cincinnati, she came into contact with fugitive slaves. Like Frederick Douglas, she used her gift of storytelling and writing as a way of bringing about change to American society. She wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the encouragement of her sister-in-law who was deeply affected by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law.
The following excerpt is taken from the last chapter of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which very much resembles a sermon. She urges white Northerners to welcome escaped slaves and treat them with respect:
On the shores of our free states are emerging the poor, shattered, broken remnants of families,–men and women, escaped, by miraculous providences, from the surges of slavery,–feeble in knowledge, and, in many cases, infirm in moral constitution, from a system which confounds and confuses every principle of Christianity and morality. They come to seek a refuge among you; they come to seek education, knowledge, Christianity.
What do you owe to these poor, unfortunates, O Christians? Does not every American Christian owe to the African race some effort at reparation for the wrongs that the American nation has brought upon them? Shall the doors of churches and school-houses be shut down upon them? Shall states arise and shake them out? Shall the Church of Christ hear in silence the taunt that is thrown at them, and shrink away from the helpless hand that they stretch out, and shrink away from the courage the cruelty that would chase them from our borders? If it must be so, it will be a mournful spectacle. If it must be so, the country will have reason to tremble, when it remembers that fate of nations is in the hand of the One who is very pitiful, and of tender compassion