Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96) was an American writer born in Litchfield, Connecticut, the daughter of a preacher, Lyman Beecher. Young Harriet grew up in a deeply religious atmosphere. In 1832, she moved with her father to Cincinnati, Ohio where he had charge of a seminary. There she met and married Calvin E. Stowe, a widower and a professor in the school. They had seven children. Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky, was in the very midst of the controversy over slavery. She sometimes talked to fleeing slaves, and once she even visited a Kentucky plantation whose slaves were used as models for her novel.
In 1850, her husband was called to Bowdoin College and she was happy to be back in the more congenial air of New England. That same year the Fugitive Slave Law was passed. It infuriated the abolitionists, including the Beecher family. This led her to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the novel that was said to have started the Civil War in the United States. This writer was selected over the other writers because of the great impact her novel made on America’s perception over slavery and the events that followed after its publication. Without doubt, the Civil War would have come in any case.
Just the same, the tremendous moral force of the book made many people, who might otherwise have been lukewarm, take a firm stand against slavery. At current time, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been relegated to the list of required reading which made it lose some of its appeal. I thought it would be best to look at the context of its creation and what better way but to look closely at its creator, her background and her influences. There are numerous books and articles that can be found about the life and works of Mrs.
Stowe. I have chosen two to be used as the major references. The first is from Twayne’s United States Authors on Harriet Beecher Stowe, Chapter 1: The Early Years. This chapter detailed the childhood of Harriet and how it was like growing up in the Beecher household ruled by the Calvinist preacher, despot and father, the Reverend Lyman Beecher. Orphaned from their mother at an early age, the Beecher siblings were brought up by their father under a strict Calvinist upbringing. Every day was a religious experience.
He dominated the household with his sternness and terrorized his children with his preaching of damnation and hellfire. He believed in man’s fallibility and sought to remind and humble his children of this fact every chance he got. It was said that “within his home Lyman was a bully of the worst stripe, a benevolently intentioned and systematically complete bully” (“The Early Years,” 1). However, Harriet also suffered from neglect simply because she was female. The patriarch heaped his attention on his sons whom he successfully groomed to become preachers like him.
She, on the other hand, was sent off to Hartford to her sister Catherine who was twelve year her senor, to get an education. Her sister was an impressive intellectual, establishing the Hartford Female Seminary. She was deeply religious and once suffered from near mental collapse because of her fear that her dead fiance will go straight to hell since he was not able to convert before he died. Quite domineering, she badgered Harriet into assisting her which the young girl found unbearable. She stayed with her sister for eight grueling years. Regardless, she was able to travel and mingle with people her own age.
This proved to be her salvation as she was able to form her own beliefs regarding religion that was centered on the mercy of Jesus rather than the certainty of hell. Then the Beecher clan all moved from Boston to Cincinnati as her father accepted the post of president of the Lane Theological Seminary. Now, Harriet had to contend with both her sister with whom she still served as assistant and her father to whom she had to go home. To escape, she turned to writing. She also met the widower Calvin Stowe whose proposal of marriage she accepted.
The only thing they had in common at that time was their shared affection for Eliza, his dead wife. Between 1836 and 1850, she gave birth to eight children. With such a big family, she was bound to the home more than ever. In order to augment the household income, she used her writing skills into a money making venture by submitting magazine sketches. Calvin Stowe’s appointment to the faculty of Bowdoin College which allowed them to move to Brunswick, Maine was a turning point for Harriet. Among others, she was going back to New England and would be free from the grasp of her father and sister.
Her life until then was unremarkable. She was a housewife who was concerned mostly with chores, frustrations and debts. Though she lived in tumultuous times she did not participate in it. This was due to reasons as follows: Her private duties as obedient daughter and wife had demanded almost more energy than she had to give, and she had taken refuge from overwork in the consolation of heavenly love; to mistrust the world, to accept it as the abode of cruelty and injustice, was the philosophy by which she lived (“The Early Years,” 7).
This was about to change with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the novel which led President Abraham Lincoln to greet her as “the little lady who made this big war. ” This remark was cited from the second reference used for this paper, the article on Harriet Beecher Stowe by Ken Wolf from the Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century. For the first part, he gave a brief account of her early life and for the second part, he concentrated on her life’s work. Uncle Tom’s Cabin first appeared in 1851-52 as a serial in an abolitionist paper.
The anti-slavery sentiments were already at its peak at that time. The Fugitive Slave Law was just passed where all citizens whether they are from the north or south are obliged to return fleeing slaves to their owners or face criminal charges. The disagreements between the abolitionists and moderates were turning physically violent such as pro-slavery mobs attacking abolitionists print shops such as the one in Connecticut near the residence of the Beechers. The publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 was indeed timely.
On that year alone, it already sold 300,000 copies. Harriet’s message was clear. Slavery was wrong, the novel argued, because it was un-Christian. More specifically, slavery tore children from their mothers and thus threatened the existence of the Christian family (Wolf, 2). This book was a personal one for the author. All that she believed in were embodied in the novel. She even used the name of Calvin Stowe’s deceased wife and her good friend, Eliza, as the main female character.
While the main protagonist was male, that being Tom who had kindly masters but still got sold off twice and eventually ended up being beaten to death, the novel was filled with strong female characters. A main theme was the recurring circumstance of slavery separating families and the attempts of the slave mothers to prevent it. We see Eliza jumping on ice floes to effect her and her son’s escape. We see Cassy who preferred to kill her newborn herself than allow it to be sold off later. There was Eva who persuaded her father to free Tom, but both unfortunately died before they did.
There was also Mary Bird who ”shamed her husband”, Senator Bird of Ohio into helping Eliza even if he was violating the Fugitive Slave Law which he helped pass. Her novel was most effective in arousing sentiments of anti-slavery because the author approached her arguments using the religious zeal that her father bestowed upon them stressing that “Christianity began at home with a strong family. Any institution that undermined the family was necessarily unchristian” (Wolf, 2). This struck deep at the conscience of the American people.
Her succeeding novels likewise had female characters playing prominent roles. She believed that women are the purveyors or morality. She was not an advocate of female equality and continued not to participate in the suffragists movement or the equal rights for women. She believed in the family and the role women play within it. She also continued to write her novels based on characters she is most familiar with such as Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856) regarding a slave rebellion attempt, The Minister’s Wooing (1859) which was a jab on the inflexible dogma of her father’s Calvinism.
This novel was also partly historical. Her next novel is likewise historical, Agnes of Sorrento (1862) about the Florentian social and religious reformist monk, Gironalo Savonarola. The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862), Oldtown Folks (1869) and Poganuc People (1878) are childhood reminiscences of New England. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the only one of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s that aimed at direct reform. Though it sparked a war, as literature, it is not great. It is overly sentimental and the picture it draws is exaggerated.
In spite of these flaws, it remains one of the most powerful novels ever written to right a wrong. Her other novels published after it had none of the appeal of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but she continued to be one of America’s popular writers at that time. Her other greatest contribution to history was her depiction of women as being in the same level as men in terms of intellect, bravery and morality. She was able to put across her message of empowerment across in a society dominated by men of the importance of women’s and mother’s role in the family and in society as regards moral regeneration.
Before I conducted this research, I was under the impression that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written more as a reaction against the peculiar institution of slavery. Reading about the life of Harriet Beecher Stowe, it became evident that though her book came out of indignation against slavery, it also owed something to her Puritan conscience. Her belief’s and childhood experiences come across into her books such as her belief on women’s equality which she never did experience having been subjected to neglect because of her gender.
While she persistently believed that the role of women is confined within the walls of the home, she was successful in opening a new perspective of women. Admittedly, I have not read any of her other works however, given her background that I know now, it would be interesting to read The Minister’s Wooing to gain a better idea on how it was to live with a severe Calvinist minister and how and if she was able to relate it to her own experiences in growing up with one and make it comical.
Courtney from Study Moose
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