Stowe, Harriet Beecher

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Stowe, Harriet Beecher 18111896


As an active figure of the nineteenth century and the so-called feminine fifties, Harriet Beecher Stowe lived and wrote, negotiating between extremes of unfolding cultural elements. During that time, young girls commonly learned that the meek could and should inherit the world by practicing self-discipline and humility. As they matured, women might learn that they could through their own wit and activity earn a place in an emerging capitalist economy. Stowes life and writings approach such cultural contradictions as played out in the realms of race, sex, class, religion, and changing ideas of what constitutes noble identity and behavior.

Stowes best-selling Uncle To ms Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, first appeared as serialized in 18511852 in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era. In 1852 these sketches were published in book form and widely translated into theater and over forty languages. As Stowe states in her preface, The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system necessarily cruel and unjust. Appealing to her readers various faculties, Stowe shows that the institution of slavery is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. By 1862 when she met with President Abraham Lincoln, the cultural impact of Uncle Toms Cabin had become so great that Lincoln is said to have acknowledged, So youre the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!

Public reaction to Stowes million-seller in large part reflects debates in American racial history. After receiving scathing contemporary pro-slavery reviews, she documented her sources by publishing the five-hundred-page A Key to Uncle Toms Cabin (1854). Later, Harlem Renaissance writers and others have sharply criticized Stowes Christ-like portrayal of the martyr Uncle Tom as obsequious and a role model obstacle in the struggle for racial equality.

Born on June 14, 1811, Stowes early life prepared her well for facing slavery and womens issues head-on and resolutely. She gained rhetorical skills early from her austere and demanding Protestant evangelist father, Lyman Beecher, and later from her brother, abolitionist and theologian Henry Ward Beecher. Available to her were books, sermons, and philosophical discussions. In a home peopled by siblings, relatives, and boarders, she developed a lively mind as well as a reverence for an idealized image of womanhood. Stowe attended the Hartford Female Seminaryfounded and run by her sister Catherine Beecherand later taught there. Unlike other womens schools that prepared women for marriage, Beechers seminary taught women to use their own judgment and to become socially useful. Such teachings evolve as a concluding lesson in Uncle Toms Cabin as readers are urged to see to it that in their actions they feel right. In 1836 Harriet Beecher married the Bible scholar Calvin Ellis Stowe and subsequently bore seven children before moving to Bowdoin, Maine, in 1850.

Later in life Stowe spoke and wrote to protect the womens rights movement from those who advocated free love and free divorce. Her later works question the cultural bases of capitalism and consumerism by revisiting the early 1850s virtues of humility, charity, self-discipline, and social usefulness, but these works generally lack the fire that had established her earlier place in literary history. She died on July 1, 1896.

SEE ALSO Feminism; Slave Resistance; Slavery; Suffrage, Womens; U.S. Civil War; Uncle Tom; Womens Movement


Hedrick, Joan. 1994. Harriet Beecher Stowe, a Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Henning, Martha L. 1996. Harriet Beecher Stowes Uncle Toms Cabin : Modeling Communal Willfulness. In Beyond Understanding, Appeals to the Imagination, Passions, and Will in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Womens Fiction. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Knox, Thomas W. 1887. Life and Work of Henry Ward Beecher. Hartford, CT: The Hartford Publishing Company.

Parker, Rev. E. P. 1869. Harriet Beecher Stowe. In Eminent Women of the Age, eds. James Parton et al., 296331. Hartford, CT: S. M. Betts & Company.

Sklar, Kathryn Kish. 1973. Catharine Beecher; A Study in American Domesticity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Sundquist, Eric J., ed. 1986. New Essays on Uncle Toms Cabin. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Martha L. Henning

Stowe, Harriet Beecher

views updated May 29 2018

Stowe, Harriet Beecher 1811–1896

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on June 14, 1811. She authored several books, two of which were abolitionist novels: Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or Life of the Lowly (1852) and Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856). Stowe’s other works relevant to the study of race include A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853) and Sojourner Truth or the Lybian Sybil (1863). While Dred is Stowe’s more radical novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has made the largest impact on the construction and study of race and racism because of its popularity and its consequent role as a site of controversy in the field.

Stowe was one of twelve children in a family of several noted abolitionists, including her father, the Calvinist minister Lyman Wheeler Beecher, and her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, a minister renowned for his militant abolitionism. Stowe grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, and Boston, but the family’s move to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1832 was most important to her antislavery novels. A major haven for runaway slaves from Kentucky and other slave states, Cincinnati was also where a white mob destroyed the presses of an abolitionist newspaper in 1836. In Cincinnati, Harriet Beecher married the minister Calvin Stowe and became the mother of seven children, one of whom died in infancy. Stowe returned to live in New England in 1850.

Stowe’s literary style has been called romantic racialism, and it drew on eighteenth–century categories of race that treated peoples from different geographical areas as differing in character. Stowe is contradictory on whether she saw racial categories as unchanging or as comprising a general sprit that could be shaped by environment. Uncle Tom’s Cabin presents its hero, whom she treats as humble, loyal, and spiritual, as a representative of African character. Yet Dred imagines African spirituality as subject to change and allied with prophecy and a just vengeance. As with many white abolitionists, Stowe’s antislavery stance did not presuppose a belief in equality.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been controversial because it entwines complex power relations of race, gender, and class and includes contradictions. Equally important, the novel achieved unprecedented popularity. Within a year of its publication, it sold 300,000 copies in the United States and more in Great Britain. It was also translated into many languages. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a sentimental and melodramatic novel, traces the path of Uncle Tom, who, refusing to flee slavery, is sold away from his family until he is bought by the evil Simon Legree. Legree finally murders Tom when Tom heroically refuses to reveal the whereabouts of escaping slaves but, like a Christian martyr, submits to Legree’s blows without defending himself. The novel also traces the path of intelligent, strong–willed slaves who escape, notably George and Eliza Harris and Cassy. Yet these are characters of mixed ancestry, seen by Stowe and many of her contemporaries as inheriting intelligence and will from their white lineage. The novel also includes Topsy, a comic and mischievous slave child drawn from minstrel shows as a foil to the serious and spiritual white heroine, Little Eva.

Initially, the most pointed challenge to Uncle Tom’s Cabin came from slavery’s advocates, who charged that Stowe knew about neither African–descended people nor the purportedly benevolent, paternal institution of slavery. The most vicious responses attacked Stowe as unwo–manly for writing on political issues and in tones suitable for the pulpit. At the other end of the political spectrum, Martin R. Delaney, the noted African–American writer and activist, objected to the novel’s ending, which, tapping the American Colonization Society’s agenda, sent its fugitive slaves away to Liberia. Frederick Douglass praised Uncle Tom’s Cabin as valuable to abolitionism but countered Tom’s passivity in the hero of his own 1852 novella, The Heroic Slave. At the same time, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was widely praised by many readers black and white.

Stowe also wrote A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which attempted to establish a factual basis for her characters and events by citing newspaper articles, advertisements for slave auctions and fugitive slaves, and witnesses to slavery. Stowe’s second novel, Dred, responds to criticisms of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from slavery’s advocates, and as Robert S. Levine argues in “The African–American Presence in Stowe’s Dred” (1996), she also responds to her African American critics. Dred incorporates discussion of sources within it and features a rebel slave loosely based on Nat Turner, whose vengeance she treats as justifiable.

American culture has given the characters and plot of Uncle Tom’s Cabin a long symbolic life beyond Stowe’s novel. As Eric Lott observes in Love and Theft (1993), competing pro– and antislavery plays took up Stowe’s characters during the 1850s to enact the developing sectionalism that would produce the Civil War. In the late nineteenth–century backlash to reconstruction, traveling “Tom Shows” toured the nation with exaggerated versions of Topsy and entertaining versions of Uncle Tom.

Between World War II and the twenty–first century, as writers and scholars grappled with issues of race and gender under new historical circumstances, Stowe’s novel came to serve as a source of controversy over racism and of inquiries into race and gender. Key historical contexts were the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement, second–wave feminism, and the presence in academia of African–American men and women and feminist scholars in debate and conversation with one another. Amid its radicalism, Uncle Tom’s Cabin made otherwise indifferent people feel the horror and sense the injustice of slavery. Stowe wrote a dozen other books, but this one book was so powerful that it has survived in the nation’s memory.

SEE ALSO Abolition Movement



Stowe, Harriet Beecher. 1994 (1852). Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or the Life of the Lowly. Edited by Elizabeth Ammons. New York: Norton.

_______. 2000 (1856) Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. Edited by Robert S. Levine. New York: Penguin.


Ammons, Elizabeth, ed. 1980. Critical Essays on Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston: G. K. Hall.

Hedrick, Joan D. 1994. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Levine, Robert S. 1996. “The African–American Presence in Stowe’s Dred.” In Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies, edited by Henry B. Wonham, 171– 190. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Lott, Eric. 1993. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sundquist, Eric, ed. 1986. New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Cambridge, NJ: Cambridge University Press.

Warren, Kenneth W. 2004. “The Afterlife of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” In The Cambridge Companion to Harriet Beecher Stowe, ed. Cindy Weinstein, 219–234. Cambridge, NJ: Cambridge University Press.

Ellen J. Goldner

Stowe, Harriet Beecher

views updated May 21 2018

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Born: June 14, 1811
Litchfield, Connecticut
Died: July 1, 1896
Hartford, Connecticut

American writer

The impact created in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin made her one of the most widely known American women writers of the nineteenth century.


Harriet Elizabeth "Hattie" Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on June 14, 1811, into a family of powerful and very demanding individuals. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a fiery, evangelical Calvinist (a strict religious discipline) who drove his six sons and two daughters along the straight and narrow path of devotion to God, to duty, and to himself. Much of her father's religious influence would show up in her writings as an adult. Her mother, Roxana Foote Beecher, died when she was four, leaving a legacy of quiet gentleness and a brotherthe Beecher children's uncle Samuel Foote. Uncle Sam, a retired sea captain, brought a sense of romance and adventure into the household, as well as a measure of warm tolerance which might otherwise have been absent.

In October 1832 Harriet's family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where the elder Beecher became director of the Lane Theological Seminary and where his older daughter, Catherine, opened her Western Female Institute, a school in which Harriet taught. She began to study Latin and the romance languages and made her first attempts at writing fiction, although her sister did not approve.

In 1834 Harriet began writing for the Western Monthly Magazine and was awarded a fifty-dollar prize for her tale "A New England Sketch." Her writing during the next sixteen years was to be infrequent, for on January 6, 1836, she married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor in the Lane Seminary. They had seven children during a period of financial hardship. At the same time she had the opportunity to visit the South, and she observed with particular attention the operation of the slave system there. The atmosphere at the Lane Seminary was that of extreme abolitionists (those fighting to end slavery). Harriet herself did not at that time pursue this position. In 1849 she published her first volume, The Mayflower, a slender book, but one that convinced her husband that she should seriously pursue a literary career.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

In 1850 Harriet's husband Calvin Stowe was called to a chair job at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where they had their last child. She then set about writing Uncle Tom's Cabin, which first appeared in serial form in 1851 through 1852 in the National Era, a Washington, D.C., antislavery newspaper. The book was published in 1852 in a two-volume edition by the house of John P. Jewett and sold three hundred thousand copies in its first yearten thousand in the first week. During the first five years of its publication, the book sold half a million copies in the United States alone.

Though Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was received with wild attention, its reception was (except for the abolitionist press) almost completely in opposition. In the South each newspaper was a sea of fury, and in the North there were universal charges that the world of the slave had been misrepresented. The action of the book traces the passage of the slave Uncle Tom through the hands of three owners, each meant to represent a type of Southern figure. The first is a kind planter, the second a Southern gentleman, and the last the wicked Simon Legree, who causes the death of Uncle Tom. The fortunes of the slaves in the book curve downward, and the finally successful dash for freedom taken by George and Eliza makes up the high drama of the book. But the overall treatment of slave and master reveals something far more complex than abolitionist ideas: the high, clear style contains much that is warmly, even fiercely sympathetic to the world of the old South.

Stowe answered her critics in 1853 with A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book designed to document the facts of the novel, but she also responded to her success by traveling widely, receiving praise in England and in Europe. In 1856 she published her novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. This, too, was a slave novel, and its reception was hardly less enthusiastic than that of Uncle Tom's Cabin. In England alone, during the first month, over one hundred thousand copies were sold. Although Stowe then turned to instructive writings, producing a series of novels based on New England and drawing heavily on local color, her reputation for years to come was connected with the instructional power of her first two novels. Indeed, when she was introduced to President Abraham Lincoln (18091865) in 1862, he is said to have exclaimed, "So this is the little lady who started our big war!"

Later years

In 1869 Stowe again toured Europe, renewing an earlier friendship with Lord Byron's (17881824) widow. As a result, the novelist published Lady Byron Vindicated (1870), charging the dead poet with having violated his marriage vows by having a sexual relationship with his sister. Byron was a legend by this time, and the charges resulted in Stowe losing much of her loyal British audience. Undisturbed, however, she continued her series of novels, poems, and sketches, as well as her autobiography, never lacking a devoted and enthusiastic American audience.

The later years of Stowe's life were spent, in large part, in Florida, where she and her husband tried, with only moderate success, to manage the income from her literary activities. Stowe died in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 1, 1896.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's personality and her work are mint products of her culture. They represent a special combination of rigid Calvinist discipline (fight against it though she tried), sentimental weakness for the romanticism of Sir Walter Scott (17711832) and Lord Byron, and a crusading sense of social and political responsibility.

For More Information

Fritz, Jean. Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1994.

Hedrick, Joan D. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Wilson, Forrest. Crusader in Crinoline: The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1941. Reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher (1811-1896)

views updated May 23 2018

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)



Impact. Harriet Beecher Stowes first novel, Uncle Toms Cabin (1852), not only was the best-selling novel before the Civil War but also became a highly effective instrument in the movement to abolish slavery in the 1850s. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have commented upon meeting Stowe, So this is the little lady who made this big war! The remark is certainly an overstatement, but it indicates Stowes fame and the extent to which her writing was seen as influencing the moral attitudes of the nation.

Early Years. Stowe was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, the daughter of the respected Congregational minister Lyman Beecher and Roxana Foote. She was raised in an environment that emphasized strict moral principles and intellectual energy, elements that shaped her future writing. She attended the Hartford Female Seminary, which was run by her sister Catharine, and later taught there. In 1832 Lyman Beecher was appointed president of the Lane Theological Seminary, and the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Stowe continued schoolteaching until 1836, when she married Calvin Stowe, a professor at the seminary. She began writing stories both as an escape from the drudgery of raising her seven children and as a way to earn extra income for the family. In 1843 The Mayflower y her first collection of sketches and stories, was published by Harper.

Uncle Toms Cabin. The Stowes moved to Brunswick, Maine, in 1850, and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act the same year caused her to begin writing Uncle Toms Cabin. The novel was printed in forty installments by The National Era between June 1851 and April 1852, then published in book form by John P. Jewett of Boston in March 1852. It was an immediate success. By May, 50,000 copies had been sold. Within a year the total had reached 300,000. The book was widely pirated in Europe, and 1.5 million copies were printed in London alone. The story and its characters were written into plays, featured in songs, and incorporated into souvenir and keepsake items, making it the most popular book of its time.

A National Lesson . Much of the appeal of Uncle Toms Cabin was due less to its moralistic message than to the emotional force behind the story. Stowe argued that Christian feeling and human compassion, not cold reason, should be the guide for moral behavior and societys laws. Accordingly, she tells her story in compelling episodes with strongly defined characters and sharp melodramatic and sentimental language. The novels two main plotsthe flight of Eliza, George, and Harry Harris northward to freedom and the descent of pious Uncle Tom southward to suffering and deathmove swiftly and are skillfully charged with suspense. In the process, Stowe explores the complicity of both North and South in the evils of slavery and calls for a renewed moral effort to abolish the institution.

Other Books . Though Uncle Toms Cabin remains her best-known work, Stowe wrote prolifically for the rest of her career. In 1853, as an attempt to rebut criticism of her portrayal of slavery, Stowe published A Key to Uncle Toms Cabin, which contained the court records, handbills, eyewitness reports, and other documents that she had used as sources while writing the novel. She treated the antislavery theme again in Dred (1856), then began a series of novels dealing first with colonial New England life and, later, post-Civil War society. In 1870 she again caused a literary sensation when she published Lady Byron Vindicated, which revealed Lord Byrons incestuous relationship with his half-sister and defended Byrons wife, Anne, who had been Stowes friend. At her death in 1896, Stowes collected works filled sixteen volumes.


Noel B. Gerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Biography (New York: Praeger, 1976);

Forrest Wilson, Crusader in Crinoline: The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1941).

Stowe, Harriet Beecher

views updated Jun 27 2018


Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of one of America's most famous and popular books, helped to strengthen the abolition movement by bringing white Americans and people around the world to the realization of the cruelties and misery endured by black slaves in the 1850s. Her book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, was one of the biggest sellers of the nineteenth century, second only to sales of the Bible. Since its publication, the book has never been out of print.

Stowe was born June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut. She was the seventh child of prominent Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher and his wife Roxana Foote Beecher, who died when Harriet was five. The Stowes grew up in an environment steeped in a Protestant tradition that demanded living a pious and moral life. Stowe's younger brother, henry ward beecher, eventually became one of the country's most famous preachers and a major leader of the abolition movement. Her sister, Catharine, established several schools for young women throughout the United States.

Stowe attended Catharine's Hartford Female Seminary, one of the only schools open to young women at the time. She received an excellent education, and blossomed as a writer under her sister's tutelage. In 1832, she accompanied her sister and father to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Catharine opened another school and

their father became president of Lane Theological Seminary. The following year, in 1833, Stowe coauthored and published her first book—a children's geography—under her sister's name.

"Women are the real architects of society."
Harriet Beecher Stowe

In 1834, Harriet Beecher married widower Calvin Stowe, a poorly paid professor of biblical literature at Lane. During the first seven years of her marriage, Stowe bore five of the seven children they would ultimately have. In order to support their rapidly expanding family, she began writing magazine articles, essays, and other works. In 1843, Stowe published a collection of short stories called The Mayflower.

During the 18 years she lived in Cincinnati, Stowe became an observer of the conflicting worlds of abolitionism and slavery. Across the Ohio River was the slave state of Kentucky. Stowe's family helped to hide runaway slaves. Her husband and brother aided one runaway by transporting her to the next station on the Underground Railroad, the name given to the system of guides and safe houses that enabled escaped Southern slaves to reach freedom and safety in Northern states and Canada. Stowe was engrossed by firsthand accounts and newspaper and magazine articles detailing the horrors of the slave trade and the terrifying incidents that took place as slaves tried to escape.

In 1850, Calvin Stowe got a teaching position at Bowdoin College and the Stowe family moved to Brunswick, Maine. It was there that Stowe penned most of her soon-to-be classic. In 1851–1852, The National Era, an antislavery paper based in Washington, D.C., published in serial form, Stowe's moving account of several members of a slave family and their desperate attempt to flee from a system that rendered them the property of white owners. Stowe's narrative struck an immediate chord. Despite the newspaper's small circulation, word of mouth and the passing of issues among neighbors immediately gave Stowe's tale a larger audience.

In March 1852, her story was published as Uncle Tom's Cabin, or, Life Among the Lowly. The book became an immediate best-seller with sales reaching 500,000 copies by 1857. With its dramatic narrative and heart-rending scenes of the slave Eliza fleeing across a frozen river with her small son in her arms to prevent him from being sold away from her, Stowe's book helped sway much of the public to support, or at least sympathize with, the abolitionist cause. While many Southerners criticized the book, Stowe's harrowing tale gained an increasingly wider audience. Stowe used her newfound renown to speak and write against slavery. In particular, she urged women to become active and to use their powers of persuasion to influence others on the subject.

Although none of her later writings had the impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe continued to write numerous stories, essays, and articles. Between 1862 and 1884 she published almost one book per year. Stowe died on July 1, 1896, in Hartford, Connecticut.

further readings

Crane, Gregg D. 2002. Race, Citizenship, and Law in American Literature. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Hedrick, Joan D. 1995. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Johnston, Norma. 1994. Harriet: The Life and World of Harriet Beecher Stowe. New York: Simon and Schuster.


Abolition; Slavery.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher

views updated Jun 11 2018

Stowe, Harriet Beecher

views updated May 18 2018

Stowe, Harriet Beecher (1811–96) US novelist. A prolific writer, Stowe is best known for Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851–52), a powerful and influential anti-slavery novel.

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