Stowe, Harriet (Elizabeth) Beecher
STOWE, Harriet (Elizabeth) Beecher
Born 14 June 1811, Litchfield, Connecticut; died 1 July 1896, Hartford, Connecticut
Wrote under Christopher Crowfield
Daughter of Lyman and Roxana Foote Beecher; married Calvin E. Stowe, 1836; children: Eliza, Isabella, Henry, Frederick, Georgiana, Samuel, Charles
Harriet Beecher Stowe was born on 14 June 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut, the daughter of Congregational minister Lyman Beecher and his first wife, Roxana, who died when Stowe was four. Lyman Beecher was a devout Puritan and a believer in orthodox Calvinism, so Stowe and her siblings received a primarily theological education from their father, although they also attended the local academy. Her intellectual promise appeared early, and when she was seven years old her father wrote to a friend, "Hattie is a genius. I would give a $100 if she was a boy."
She left Litchfield in 1824 to attend the Hartford Female Seminary, which had been founded by her elder sister Catharine. While at Hartford, Stowe began her first major literary endeavor, which was a tragedy in blank verse depicting a young Roman's conversion to Christianity at the court of the emperor Nero. It was also during this time Stowe began to suffer from periodic episodes of paralyzing depression that would follow her throughout her life. At the age of fourteen, a year after moving to Hartford, Harriet had a highly emotional "conversion" to the Christian faith in which she believed she had truly experienced God's saving grace. This event would remain with her and be dramatized in several of her works.
In 1832 Stowe and Catharine moved with their father to Cincinnati, Ohio. Within a year of their arrival, Catharine started a new school, the Western Female Institute, and Stowe worked there as a teacher from 1833 to 1836. During this time she published a geography textbook, An Elementary Geography (1835), under her sister's name and assisted her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, with the publication of his daily newspaper, the Cincinnati Journal. She also contributed to the magazine Western Monthly, which awarded her a short story prize in 1834.
In 1836 Stowe married Professor Calvin E. Stowe of the Lane Theological Seminary and quit teaching to care for twin daughters born later the same year. She wrote only intermittently during these years, but it was her writing that allowed the family to hire domestic help for their growing brood. Stowe had her first true encounter with slavery when one of her servants was accused of being a runaway slave, and Henry Ward Beecher and Stowe's husband helped her to escape. An intellectual and author of religious books, her husband was a widower who suffered from visions and depression. The early years of their marriage were not happy ones because of her difficulty in adjusting to married life and her unhappiness with the frontier life in Ohio.
Cincinnati was a conflict-torn border town between the slave-holding South and the free North. Lane Theological Seminary became a seat of abolitionist fervor, and Stowe developed a growing awareness of the evils of slavery and the plight of runaway slaves during the early years of her marriage. She was not an ardent abolitionist at this point, however, and wrote virtually nothing on slavery during the 1840s. Her concerns were primarily for her family's well-being, because her husband was poorly paid and they suffered increasing poverty and hardship during their first 14 years of marriage. Harriet still found time to write occasionally, however, and her first book, a collection of short stories called The Mayflower: or, Sketches of Scenes and Characters of the Descendants of the Pilgrims (1843), was published to good reception both in the U.S. and in England, where its title was changed to Let Every Man Mind His Own Business.
Stowe's family situation improved in 1850 when her husband became the Collins Chair of the Natural and Revealed Religion at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Two years later he received a professorship at Andover Theological Seminary and the family moved to Massachusetts. Happier in her native New England and with much of her flagging health restored, Stowe began to write in earnest.
Uncle Tom's Cabin: or, Life Among the Lowly (1852) would become Stowe's most famous work and indeed one of the most well-known books in American literature. This novel was inspired by Stowe's increasing distress over slavery and her outrage over the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The idea for the book came to her when she had a vision of the triumphant death of Tom while at a Communion church service. Harriet's brothers, Henry Ward and Edward, both ministers, urged their sister, in the words of Edward's wife, "to make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is."
Uncle Tom's Cabin contains the stories of dozens of slaves but focuses on two who live on the Shelby plantation in Kentucky. Eliza Harris runs from the plantation because her child is to be sold and eludes the hired slave catchers by crossing the broken ice of the Ohio River into the free state of Ohio. Aided by the underground railroad, Eliza and her son are eventually reunited in Canada with her husband, George. As Eliza and her son head north toward freedom, "Uncle Tom," the other protagonist in the novel, is sent "down the river" for sale. Too noble to run away from the plantation and too Christian to resent his master for selling him, Tom befriends a sickly white child named Evangeline St. Clare and is purchased by her father, Augustine. Eva eventually dies, but not before convincing her father to free his slaves. St. Clare does not fulfill his pledge, however, because he dies suddenly, thus representing those who want to help slaves but take no action on their behalf.
Tom is sold farther downriver to Simon Legree, the epitome of a cruel slaveholder, whose abuse of Tom ends in the latter's death by whipping. Eliza and Tom thus both triumph over slavery, although Tom's triumph is in his martyr's death while Eliza's is in her successful escape. Stowe's story ends with her narrator demanding that readers consider whether slavery, which separates families, leads to pain and suffering, and violates Christian principles, can be tolerated.
As some of Stowe's early and modern critics pointed out, however, Uncle Tom's Cabin does not provide a ringing endorsement for integration and coexistence. Escaped slave Eliza and her family settle in the African state of Liberia rather than live in North America, which many readers see as an indirect endorsement of colonization. Critics, including those who praised the novel, assert that it perpetuates racial stereotypes and 19th-century prejudicial views on the innate differences between blacks and whites. Many critics have now begun to reinterpret the novel and praise little-mentioned aspects of it, such as Stowe's portrayal of women as strong figures.
Uncle Tom's Cabin was published first as a serial novel in the Washington antislavery newspaper National Era in 1852 and later that year as a novel by John P. Jowett of Boston. The book sold 300,000 copies within a year and would sell over 1,000,000 more in England. Stowe herself allowed the National Era to publish the work but thought it too mild for abolitionists and was surprised when it became a mobilizing force for the entire antislavery movement. The poet Longfellow echoed the feelings of many when he wrote the following of Stowe in his journal: "How she is shaking the world with her Uncle Tom's Cabin!… At one step she has reached the top of the stair-case up which the rest of us climb on our knees year after year." Author Henry James noted that the novel was "less a book than a state of vision, of feeling, and of consciousness."
Although Uncle Tom's Cabin was not aimed at Southern slaveholders, this group became its chief opponents, just as abolitionists became its staunchest supporters. The book aroused so much fervor on both sides of the slavery issue that many, including a future president of the U.S., credited it with contributing to the outbreak of the Civil War. When President Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862, he is reported to have said to her, "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that created this great war!"
Uncle Tom's Cabin led to over 30 anti-Tom novels within three years claiming to show slavery's positive effects on slaves. Stowe published A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1853 to document some of the anecdotes she used in the novel. Critics were far from finished with attacking the book, however, and an overly dramatic although hugely popular stage version was largely responsible for the "Uncle Tom" stereotype of a servile black trying to please whites that persists today.
Stowe's second and last real antislavery novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), sold well but was less successful because it had no heroic central figure like Tom. The case of Dred, a runaway slave living in the Dismal Swamp and preaching of a Holy War to end slavery, reveals the ill effects of slavery on slaveholders. Like Uncle Tom's Cabin, however, this novel does not call for widespread emancipation and an end to slavery.
A year after the publication of Dred, Stowe's eldest son, Henry, a freshman at Dartmouth College, drowned in a swimming accident, and Stowe's religious faith was called into question. She eventually regained her faith in God but converted from staunch Calvinism to the Episcopalian Church. Although she never again achieved the fame which Uncle Tom's Cabin brought to her, she continued to write, and her collected works eventually filled 16 volumes.
Stowe did have another brush with notoriety in 1869, however, when she published an article in the Atlantic Monthly about her friend Lady Byron. Stowe had met the poet's wife when she and her husband visited England and Scotland after the publication of Uncle Tom, which was enormously successful in the United Kingdom. The two women had become good friends, and Stowe, defending Lady Byron against detractors, used her Atlantic Monthly article to reveal Lord Byron's incestuous relationship with his sister. The furious English and American publics accused Stowe of lying, and Stowe responded in turn by elaborating on her article in the book Lady Byron Vindicated (1870), which was a departure from the works that made her famous.
Other well-known novels by Stowe include The Minister's Wooing (1859) and Pearl of Orr's Island (1862). The latter is about angelic Mara Lincoln, a "pearl of great price," and her life in a Maine fishing village. Mara, like many of Stowe's heroines, is somewhere between saint and angel. Her religious convictions and sudden death, like that of the virginal Eva in Uncle Tom, brings salvation to her loved ones. Stowe does a marvelous job in rendering the dialect and daily life of the inhabitants of Orr's Island, and critics agree the local-color movement in New England began with Pearl of Orr's Island.
The Minister's Wooing is set in late-18th-century Newport, Rhode Island, and is one of a group of novels set in the New England Stowe remembered from girlhood. The principal character in the novel is Mary Scudder, who loves her cousin James but refuses to marry him because he is not a Christian. Mary agrees to wed Minister Samuel Hopkins after James is reportedly lost at sea, but Hopkins releases her from her obligation when James, having made his fortune and become a Christian, returns to Newport.
Like many of her novels, The Minister's Wooing is romantic and sentimental, with a rather formulaic plot culminating in marriage and the salvation of a soul. Although Stowe's characters—the young, pure heroine who often suffers an untimely fate; the noble mother figure; the hypocritical minister; and the young man in need of Christian salvation—are stereotypical, readers can identify with their problems and beliefs because they mirror those of the day. Stowe was not a complex or sophisticated writer, but she gave readers characters they could understand and problems they could relate to.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Stowe adopted a pseudonym, Christopher Crowfield, and began to write essays on domestic life for the Atlantic Monthly. Crowfield's personality was that of a congenial old busybody. The essays themselves were on such diverse topics as women's suffrage, parlor furniture, problems with servants, reading suggestions for young girls, and the employment of former slaves in the new South. These writings were collected into three volumes, House and Home Papers (1865), Little Foxes (1866), and The Chimney-Corner (1868).
Revenue from the sales of Stowe's works brought prosperity to her family and allowed them to purchase a winter home in Mandarin, Florida, in 1868, where Stowe hoped to employ former slaves. She also wanted to provide a permanent home for her alcoholic son, Frederick, who had never quite recovered from wounds received in the Battle of Gettysburg. Although she was not as successful in either venture as she would have liked, she and her husband did spend much of each winter in Florida until shortly before his death in 1886, when ill health prevented them from returning.
Stowe's own health began to fail in 1890 and her mind began to wander. She lived out the remaining six years of her life in Hartford, Connecticut, with her minister son, Charles, and his family. Mark Twain, a longtime neighbor, would often find her, "vague and cheerful," picking flowers in his garden. Not long before her mind began to fail, Stowe wrote the following in a letter to Oliver Wendell Holmes: "And now I rest me, like a moored boat, rising and falling on the water, with loosened cordage and flapping sail." Though she may not have been aware of it at the end, Stowe's contributions to literature and to humanity would ensure her immortality.
The Two Altars (1852). Uncle Tom's Emancipation (1853). Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands (1854). My Expectations (1858). My Strength (1858). Our Charlie and What To Do with Him (1858). Strong Consolation (1858). Things That Cannot Be Shaken (1858). A Word to the Sorrowful (1858). Agnes of Sorrento (1862). Stories about Our Boys (1865). Religious Poems (1867). Daisy's First Winter and Other Stories (1867). Queer Little People (1867). Men of Our Times (1868). The American Woman's Home (with C. E. Beecher, 1869). Oldtown Folks (1869). Little Pussy Willow (1870). My Wife and I (1871). Pink and White Tyranny (1871). Sam Lawson's Old Town Fireside Stories (1872). Palmetto Leaves (1873). Women in Sacred History (1873, reissued as Bible Heroines, 1878). Deacon Pitkin's Farm (English version, 1875, similar American collection, Betty's Bright Idea, and Other Tales, 1876). We and Our Neighbors (1875). Footsteps of the Master (1876). Poganuc People (1878). A Dog's Mission; or, The Story of Old Avery House, and Other Stories (1881). Nellie's Heroics (1888). Our Famous Women (1884). The Collected Works of Harriet Beecher Stowe (16 vols., 1896).
Adams, J. R., Harriet Beecher Stowe (1963). Crozier, A., The Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1969). Ellsworth, M. E. T., "Two New England Writers: Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mary Wilkins Freeman" (thesis, 1981). Elrod, E. R., "Reforming Fictions: Gender and Religion in the Works of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rose Terry Cooke, and Mary Wilkins Freeman" (thesis, 1991). Hedrick, J., Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (1994). Jakoubek, R. E., Harriet Beecher Stowe: Author and Abolitionist (1989). Kirkham, E. B., The Building of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1977).
American Authors, 1600-1900 (1966). Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature (1991). DAB (1957). NAW (1971). The Reader's Companion to American History (1991).
—LEAH J. SPARKS