Stowe, Harriet Beecher: Introduction
HARRIET BEECHER STOWE: INTRODUCTION
Stowe stirred the conscience of the nation and the world with her famous antislavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (1852). Its overtly didactic advocacy of abolitionism and humanitarianism made the work popular, controversial, and influential. Despite her prolific output of novels, short stories, and nonfiction works, Stowe is chiefly remembered for Uncle Tom's Cabin because of its compelling historical significance. Critics have generally agreed that Stowe's works address the great issues and events which shaped her century: slavery, the rise of industrialism, the decline of Calvinism, and the role of women in society. Feminist commentators have argued that, despite their sentimental tone, Stowe's novels contain a sustained and ardent critique of patriarchal social conventions.
Stowe was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on June 14, 1811, the seventh of eight surviving children in a deeply religious family. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a Presbyterian minister, and her mother, Roxanna Foote, was a well-educated Episcopalian from a prosperous family. When Stowe was five years old, her mother died of consumption, and her older sister Catherine took over as a mother figure to Harriet and her younger brother Henry Ward. Stowe's disposition as a child has been described as sad, even depressed. Hoping to ease this depression, Catherine took her younger sister, at the age of thirteen, to Hartford to live in the women's seminary she had established. There Stowe learned languages, natural and mechanical science, composition, ethics, logic, and mathematics. In 1832 Stowe's father was appointed as president of Lane Theological Seminary, and the family, including Stowe, relocated with him to Cincinnati, Ohio. Once the Beecher family had settled in their new home, Harriet and Catherine founded a new seminary called the Western Female Institute.
In Cincinnati Stowe met her husband, Calvin Stowe, who taught biblical studies at Lane. They married in 1836 and had seven children by 1850. The early years of their marriage were marked by poverty, and Stowe wrote stories and essays for magazines in part to supplement her husband's meager income. While living in Cincinnati, Stowe first came into contact with fugitive slaves from the South; further, she visited a plantation in neighboring Kentucky and witnessed first-hand the poor treatment of slaves. In 1850 Stowe's husband accepted a teaching position at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and the family moved from Ohio back to New England. That same year, Congress passed the controversial Fugitive Slave Law, which made it illegal to help an escaped slave. A staunch supporter of abolitionism, Stowe responded to this legislative action by writing Uncle Tom's Cabin. The work was first serialized in the antislavery newspaper The National Era before being published in book form. Uncle Tom's Cabin evoked swift and strident reactions from readers on both sides of the slavery issue; indeed, some ardent abolitionists considered the novel too lenient on the institution of slavery, while most Southern slave-owners reviled it as slanderous and inaccurate. Based on the notoriety that she had gained from Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe received invitations to publish her writings in many of the most influential literary magazines of the day, including the Atlantic Monthly. She also became an international celebrity, traveling to Europe several times between 1853 and 1859. During her travels, Stowe became acquainted with such literary figures and famous admirers as George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lady Byron, and Queen Victoria.
During the Civil War, Stowe resided in Hartford, Connecticut, where she wrote periodical articles on such topics as the social integration of freed slaves and developing a policy of political and economic compassion towards the Confederacy once it had been reincorporated into the Union after the war. After the conflict, Stowe invested in several ventures in the deep South to employ freed slaves and to assist in the reconstruction of the Confederacy's devastated economy. Stowe spent her later years in poor health and seclusion under the care of her twin daughters who never married. She died at the age of eighty-five in 1896.
Stowe's early stories, published in local and religious journals and collected in The Mayflower (1843), are morally didactic sketches describing American life and people. While many critics have maintained that the stories are not particularly well crafted, they have also contended that the pieces offer valuable insights into Stowe's formative years of religious and moral instruction. Uncle Tom's Cabin, her second published work, was written at the suggestion of her sister-in-law, who urged Stowe to use her literary skills to aid the abolitionist cause. Though Stowe claimed that her Christian passion compelled her to write the novel, she also conducted extensive research before composing her novel, writing to Frederick Douglass and others for help in creating a realistic picture of slavery in the Deep South. The novel, inspired by the real life of the slave Josiah Henson, traces the fortunes of a slave, Uncle Tom, who is sold by his owner in Kentucky to pay off debts to Augustine St. Clair in New Orleans. Eva, the young daughter of St. Clair, becomes fond of Tom and life is relatively happy. However, following the deaths of St. Clair and his daughter, Tom is sold to a cruel cotton plantation owner, Simon Legree. The novel also tells a parallel tale of another slave, Eliza, who is sold by the same slave trader as Tom, and who tries to escape after learning that her son is to be taken away from her and sold to another slaveholder. While the principal aim of Uncle Tom's Cabin is to expose the horrors of the institution of slavery, the novel also addresses questions about the position of women in nineteenth-century America. In particular, the work elucidates the role of the mother as the agent of moral regeneration in a corrupt and godless society. The novel also depicts women as equal to men in intelligence, bravery, and spiritual strength, and female characters direct the book's morality, serving as vital advisors who counsel their husbands to defy convention and popular opinion.
Upon its publication, Uncle Tom's Cabin came under virulent attack from Southerners, who flatly denied the work's veracity. This passionate debate led Stowe to publish A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), which includes the primary sources upon which Stowe based the main characters; various religious and legal arguments on the subject of slavery and prejudice; and excerpts of newspaper articles which influenced the development of the novel's narrative. In 1856 Stowe published a second antislavery novel entitled Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, which details the circumstances surrounding an attempted slave rebellion. Three years later, Stowe published The Minister's Wooing (1859), a historical novel and domestic comedy that critiques the rigid theological doctrine of Calvinism. The novel recounts the story of Mary Scudder, who marries a Calvinist minister who advocates the abolition of slavery and who aids and abets fugitive slaves. Critics have noted that The Minister's Wooing provides important insights into slavery, history, and gender, with many of its characters based on historical figures, including the early black feminist Sojourner Truth. Another of Stowe's historical novels, Agnes of Sorrento (1862), is based on the fall of Girolamo Savonarola, the fifteenth-century monk who attempted to bring social and religious reform to Florence. Stowe's later novels, The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862), Oldtown Folks (1869), and Poganuc People (1878), are based partly on her husband's childhood reminiscences and are among the first examples of local color writing in New England. Stowe's notable nonfiction works include an 1863 essay about Sojourner Truth published in The Atlantic Monthly; Woman in Sacred History (1873), a compilation of sketches, poems, essays, and artwork about Biblical women; and a preface to Tell It All (1875)—a critique of Mormonism—in which Stowe calls for an end to polygamy, a practice that she considered to be another form of slavery.
Many literary historians have averred that Uncle Tom's Cabin is one of the most important works of American literature, culture, and history. Indeed, most critics agree that Stowe's reputation as a writer and social activist is due to the unparalleled success of that novel. Uncle Tom's Cabin had a modest inception, appearing in serial form in the antislavery weekly The National Era from 1851 to 1852. Despite initially reaching a relatively small circulation of abolitionist readers, word of mouth about the story spread; soon copies of it were passed from family to family until it achieved unprecedented status as a national sensation. The installments attracted the attention of Boston publisher J. P. Jewett, who published Uncle Tom's Cabin as a novel in March of 1852. The novel quickly surpassed all previous sales records for a book, selling 300,000 copies in the first year alone. With the success of the novel, Stowe became an international celebrity and was invited to write and speak about antislavery issues across the United States and in Europe. Public fascination with the Uncle Tom story also led to the production of numerous unauthorized dramatic adaptations of the work performed across the United States throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century. Stowe's subsequent works were also financially successful, although none achieved the popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin. By the early twentieth century, despite the fact that the novel had achieved iconic status as an historical artifact, the term "Uncle Tom" had come to be associated with any black person demonstrating a passive submission to the white social establishment. This burgeoning negative sentiment culminated in James Baldwin's 1949 critical assault on Uncle Tom's Cabin as racist because it faulted the system of slavery rather than its administrators. Ultimately, Baldwin concluded that the novel's moral position was fundamentally flawed because it did not encourage personal accountability for performing evil acts. Baldwin's views influenced much of the Stowe scholarship in succeeding decades until feminist critics began to reexamine the characters and themes in Uncle Tom's Cabin in the 1970s. These commentators advocated admiration for Stowe's underlying theme of feminine moral fortitude and approvingly compared Uncle Tom's passivity to Mahatma Gandhi's strategy of peaceful resistance in his struggle to free colonial India from Great Britain in the twentieth century. Stowe's other works also began to attract scholarly attention in the late twentieth century. Feminist critics reviewing her works have argued that a consistent theme in Stowe's writings is the fundamental necessity to infuse the rigid patriarchal order with nurturing femininity and humanitarianism. As a result, she is regarded by some as an important early Christian feminist who utilized Calvinist ideology to assert that the Madonna should serve as the paradigmatic mother for society; who used Christianity to criticize contemporary male-dominated institutions; and who appropriated the popular language of sentimentality and domesticity to bring national attention to issues of race, gender, and oppression.