Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)
Contributing Editor: Jane Tompkins
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The primary problems you are likely to encounter in teaching Stowe are
(1) the assumption that she is not a first-rate author because she has
only recently been recognized and has traditionally been classed as a "sentimental"
author, whose works are of historical interest only; (2) by current standards,
Stowe's portrayal of black people in Uncle Tom's Cabin
and (3) a lack of understanding of the cultural context within which Stowe
In dealing with the first problem, you need to discuss the way masterpieces
have been selected and evaluated. Talk about the socioeconomic and gender
categories that most literary critics, professors, and publishers have
belonged to in this country until recently, explaining how class and gender
bias have led to the selection of works by white male authors.
The second problem calls for an explanation of cultural assumptions
about race, which would emphasize the way--historically-- scientific beliefs
about race have changed in this country between the seventeenth century
and our day. For her time, Stowe was fairly enlightened, although her writing
perpetuates stereotypes that have since been completely discredited.
The third problem requires that the instructor fill the class in on
the main tenets of evangelical Protestantism and the cult of domesticity,
which were central to Stowe's outlook on life and to her work. Beliefs
about the purpose of human life (salvation), the true nature of reality
(i.e., that it is spiritual), the true nature of power (that it ultimately
resides in Christian love), and in the power of sanctity, prayer, good
deeds, and Christian nurture would be crucial here.
One useful device is to have different groups of students (three or
four in each group) read some of the classic works of American criticism--e.g.,
F. O. Matthiessen, Richard Chase, R. W. B. Lewis, D. H. Lawrence--and then
report to the class why the assumptions that underlie these works made
it impossible for their authors to include Stowe or other women authors
in their considerations. The purpose is to demonstrate how critical bias
determines from the start what work will be thought important and valuable
and which will be completely ignored or set at a discount. (The groups
meet with me to plan their presentation to the class beforehand. Usually
I encourage them to use an imaginative format--e.g., talk show, debate,
Students love to talk about Augustine St. Clair and to speculate whether
Uncle Tom or George Harris is the real hero of Uncle Tom's Cabin
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Two of the historical issues that are important have already been referred
to: evangelical Christianity, and the cult of domesticity. To this should
be added the abolitionist crusade in the 1850s, the furor over the passage
of the Fugitive Slave Law, and the change in the temper of the country
after the Civil War--a turn from moral to social reform, and from romanticism
to realism in literature--which accounts for the change in the temper and
tone of Stowe's writing in this period.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
The biblical overtones of much of Stowe's prose, the emotionalism of
her rhetoric, her addresses to the reader, and the highly oratorical nature
of her prose need to be discussed in relation to the predominance of sermons
and religious writing in the 1850s and of the view of language which held
that words should appeal to the feelings and make ideas accessible to as
wide a range of people as possible. In other words, the ideology of Stowe's
style is evangelical and democratic, rather than elitist and aestheticizing,
aiming for clarity and force over formal innovation.
It should be stressed that Stowe was a brilliant writer of dialogue,
one of the masters of American realism before realism became the dominant
literary mode; she also had a powerful grasp of literary character. (It
is no accident that three of the characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin
have become bywords in American culture--little Eva, Uncle Tom, and Simon
Legree). Stowe also exploited the philosophical possibilities of the novel
as a genre, discussing and dramatizing in fictional form complex theological,
moral, and political issues of her day.
The astounding popularity of Stowe's first novel is worth noting--she
was probably the best-known American of her time throughout the world.
Uncle Tom's Cabin
appealed to people regardless of social class,
although it was unpopular in the South, after its initial reception there
(which was favorable in some quarters) and was met with only a qualified
enthusiasm by black readers in the North. Changes in beliefs about race,
gender, religion, and literary value have made Uncle Tom's Cabin
somewhat less universally appealing today, though it still retains its
power to move readers in a way that very few works of the period do.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Stowe can be usefully compared to Emerson
whose vision of ideal existence, as put forward in essays like "Self-Reliance"
and "The American Scholar" is sharply at odds with hers. Emerson's
emphasis on individual integrity and self-cultivation, envisioning a time
when "man will deal with man as sovereign state with sovereign state"
contrasts with Stowe's ideal of a community of co-workers, bound together
by Christian love, mutual sympathy, and a common purpose (for instance,
the Quaker kitchen scene in Uncle Tom's Cabin
, and the circle of
women around Miss Prissy in The Minister's Wooing
author whom it is interesting to compare with Stowe: His view of slavery
was diametrically opposed to Stowe's-- he condoned it--and his approach
to writing, as well as to life in general, is skeptical where hers is believing;
self-doubting where hers is self-trusting; detached and withdrawn where
hers is active and participatory.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Topics for discussion
Discussion questions should depend on the interest of the instructor.
But I would encourage people to use Stowe's work as an opportunity to discuss
the issue of canon formation: What makes a literary work "good"?
Can ideas of what is good change over time? Why in our own century was
Stowe ignored in favor of writers like Hawthorne and Melville
Another approach might foreground students' emotional responses to Stowe's
writing (it's helpful to ask students to write first about how they felt
and use that as a basis for discussion). Some questions to ask: What's
the role of emotion in understanding a work of literature? Is Stowe's writing
2. Some students might want to compare Stowe to other authors, especially
Hawthorne and Emerson. Others might want to think about the text in a more
personal way, perhaps looking at issues of race in Uncle Tom's Cabin
as a starting point for considering their own experience of race, or asking
what contemporary issues they find comparable in importance to the issue
of slavery in Stowe's day.