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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe was the sister of seven ministers and the daughter of an eighth. Her father, Lyman Beecher, of enthusiastic temperament and Calvinist convictions, was one of the most influential churchmen of his day, and her brother, Henry Ward, became the best-known pulpit orator of his. Harriet’s elder sister, Catharine, pioneered the movement for women’s education in this country, and her half-sister, Isabella, became an outspoken advocate of women’s suffrage. Harriet’s husband, Calvin Stowe, was a respected theologian, sought after by institutions of higher learning. But by the time she was in her thirties, all Harriet had done was the normal thing—she had married and had children. One would have thought that, weighed down by the cares of child-rearing (she had six children) and housekeeping (without electricity or central heating or very much money), and subject to depression and ill-health, a person in Harriet’s position could not possibly have surpassed the other members of her family in moral leadership and worldly renown. In fact, she wrote to her husband, at the age of thirty-one: “Life is half gone! What have we done? . . . It is time to prepare to die.” But Harriet Beecher Stowe became the most famous member of her illustrious family, and the greatest crusader of them all.

Her father had predicted it . . . sort of. He had said that if Harriet were a boy “she would do more than any of them.” How she did it is hard to get hold of. For most of her life Harriet lived in an atmosphere dominated by ministers and educators, alive with theological and intellectual debate, so her cultural background had certainly prepared her for authorship. At the age of thirteen, she was sent from her home in Litchfield, Connecticut, to the female seminary her sister had founded in Hartford and spent eight years there under Catharine’s care, learning Latin and French and Italian, studying history and moral theology, and teaching in the seminary herself. In 1832, when the whole family moved to Cincinnati (a city then considered the “Athens of the West”), where her father had been appointed president of the Lane Theological Seminary, she and Catharine taught school together again and joined the Semi-Colon Club, where they met the city’s literati. But it was not long before she met Calvin Stowe, a professor of theology at Lane, and began her long stint as a mother and household drudge.

The Stowes were poor by middle-class standards and couldn’t always afford to have domestic help. Because of her husband’s frequent trips, Harriet often had the whole menage on her hands, though she was currently in poor health herself and had very little money. The picture her letters give of her at this time is of a person half-humorously, half-desperately trying to keep things going. Torn between babies to nurse and diapers to change, overturned chamber pots to clean up after, untrained servant girls to instruct, half-written stories to finish, puddings to make, children to mind, clothe, comfort, and teach, letters to write, dishes to wash, bills to pay, Harriet seems to have led the most fragmented and harried existence imaginable, emotionally teetering back and forth between depression and hilarity. In order to put something between herself and this constant attrition, she began to write. Her sketches—published in magazines like the New York Evangelist and Godey’s Lady’s Book—paid for basic furniture (she bought mattresses with her first check) and minimal household help.

It was during this period in Cincinnati, while she was struggling to keep house, bring up babies, and earn money writing, that she first became acquainted with runaway slaves, the Underground Railroad, and the ferment surrounding abolition. In 1834 the major portion of Lane Theological Seminary’s student body resigned because the school’s Board of Trustees had forbidden them to live with and work on behalf of the city’s black population. In 1836 violent anti-abolitionist riots broke out in Cincinnati. In 1838, on a visit to her brother, William, in Putnam, Ohio, Harriet became convinced of the urgency of the abolitionist cause (her father was what was then known as a gradualist). And in 1845 she wrote her first sketch on the subject, adopting a position that was both dangerous and unfashionable. She entitled it “Immediate Emancipation.” Slavery and abolition were not only abstract moral issues for Stowe. Lane Theological Seminary, on which her entire family depended for a livelihood, never recovered from the student resignations and was hard put to pay its faculty salaries. So when Calvin was appointed to a chair at Bowdoin College, it must have been with some sense of relief that Harriet set off, pregnant, three children in tow, to make the long journey by rail and steamboat to Brunswick, Maine. (There is a story that she and her children were so shabbily dressed that a stationmaster along the way refused to let them inside the waiting room.) Harriet’s letter describing the work involved in refurbishing the large, old, unlived-in house they had rented reproduces some of the chaotic scenes of her domestic life in Cincinnati. She describes the birth of her son, Charles Edward, as a welcome relief from the frantic effort. But the move to Brunswick began a new era in her life.

By the time she left for Maine, Harriet had managed to publish a score or so of short pieces, some of which she collected in a volume called The Mayflower (1843). These sketches give no indication of the power she would achieve later, but their sense of local color and didactic flavor persist throughout her career. What they lacked was passion. And this was sparked by two incidents that occurred after the Stowes had settled in Brunswick. When the Compromise of 1850 put the Fugitive Slave Law into effect, requiring northerners to help slave-owners recover escaped slaves, Harriet’s sister-in-law, a committed abolitionist, wrote to her saying that if she could write the way Harriet did she would “write something that [would] make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.” Harriet’s response was to rise to her feet and declare, “I will write something. I will if I live.” The second incident occurred one Sunday in church, when, during communion, Harriet had a vision of a black slave being beaten to death: she walked home, oblivious of everything, and, tears streaming down her face, wrote the scene that would become the capstone of her great masterpiece.

Stowe is best known for writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an almost miraculously successful book whose fame has overshadowed the rest of her literary output. The writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin released in Stowe a deep well of passion and eloquence which animated her the rest of her working life. After Uncle Tom’s Cabin she wrote a documentary source on American slavery, several more novels, biographical sketches of famous men, many journalistic sketches on a variety of topics, mostly domestic, a literary-biographical polemic, children’s books, theological essays, travel pieces, a book about Florida, poems, hymns (one of which became famous), and a great deal of what might be called inspirational literature. In a sense, almost everything that Stowe wrote was inspirational. Like her New England housekeepers, Stowe was always improving the time, which meant that she never ceased to entreat, warn, reprove, encourage, and otherwise instruct her readers.

As her career progressed, her style became more literary and her subjects less directly concerned with religion and reform, but the drive toward edification remained the motive force behind her work. Although her later novels, Pink and White Tyranny (1871), My Wife and I (1871), and We and Our Neighbors (1875), resemble novels of manners more than anything else, Stowe didn’t think of them that way. The preface to Pink and White Tyranny announces: “this story is not to be a novel as the world understands the word, is...a story with a moral; and for fear that you shouldn’t find out exactly what the moral is...we shall tell you in the proper time succinctly...and send you off edified as if you had been hearing a sermon.”

By openly declaring her writing desk a pulpit, Stowe may have been trying to reassure herself that in portraying personal relationships among the urban middle classes she was still doing the Lord’s work. Yet such anxiety was natural, given her family background, the evangelical impulse that had always motivated her, and the moralizing temper of the society she wrote for. American literature for most of the nineteenth century bore the imprint of an evangelical Protestant culture, Calvinist in its belief in submission to the will of an all-powerful Providence, and reformist in its hope that all human beings would some day be “one with the sympathies of Christ” and would work to make the country’s institutions more merciful and just. It was because Uncle Tom’s Cabin sprang from such mainstream moral and religious beliefs that it was able to galvanize national opinion as dramatically as it did.

When Stowe began writing that book, she had no idea that its influence would reach so far. The novel started out as a series of sketches, scheduled to run for about fourteen weeks in an anti-slavery newspaper called the National Era. As Stowe said in a letter to the editor, Gamaliel Bailey, the series was intended “to hold up in the most lifelike and graphic manner possible Slavery. . . . There is no arguing with pictures, and everybody is impressed by them, whether they mean to be or not.” Everybody was impressed. Letters started flooding in, and soon Stowe’s original fourteen weeks stretched to ten months. The chapters that poured out were not composed under the same conditions that had produced the sketches. Catharine came to take care of the children so that Harriet would have time to work, and Calvin gave up his office at Bowdoin so that she would have a place to work in. Harriet wrote like a person possessed, or inspired. Later, she would say of the novel “God wrote it.”

Despite the success of the serial version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Stowes had a hard time finding a publisher for the book because of its abolitionism. But when the book came out it sold like wildfire—ten thousand copies in the first few days, three hundred thousand in the first year. No book except the Bible had ever sold so well. The adulation Stowe received for her work was tremendous not only in this country but abroad as well, where it was immediately pirated and translated into dozens of languages. Letters came from famous people all over the world. Scores of stage versions appeared (it was these versions that made the “Eliza crossing the ice” episode famous; in the novel it occupies only half a sentence). Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of Stowe’s popularity occurred on her first trip to Britain, when all through the night people thronged the stations of small towns on her route from London to Scotland just to see her train go by.

Although Uncle Tom’s Cabin is still irresistible reading, its belief system no longer corresponds to the one that is dominant today. Its racial stereotypes are offensive—Stowe believed that Negroes as a race were emotional, spiritually gifted, loyal, and childlike—and her characterization of Uncle Tom has become a touchstone for modern critiques of racism. But the moral force of her attack on slavery remains, and it is important to understand why the particular form of her attack had such an unparalleled effect in her own day. In writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin Stowe took the most sacred beliefs of her culture—the sanctity of the family and redemption through Christian love—and turned them into an attack on the evils of slavery. The original sub-title of the novel (The Man Who Was a Thing) presents her case succinctly. By treating slaves as things to be bought and sold, rather than as human beings, slavery implicitly denies that slaves have souls to save, and therefore it is a sin. As a sin, it destroys not only the soul of the slave-owner, but the social fabric as well, for in separating wife from husband and parent from child, it destroys the institution on which human society rests—the family. In showing how slavery subverts Christianity and attacks the family at the same time, Stowe appealed to the wealth of feeling her age had invested in the sacredness of the home and of family ties. It was a brilliant strategy. After Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared, Northern legislators used its arguments to convince their colleagues of slavery’s evils.

But despite, or rather, because of its enormous popularity, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has not come down to us as an American literary classic. Its power to move millions of people has been held against it by a critical tradition that, since the 1940s, has identified formal complexity and difficulty of apprehension with literary merit. The fact that it was written by a woman, in language that made overt appeals to the emotions, carried a political message, and asked its readers to change put it squarely in the category labeled “propaganda.” That the most powerful book ever written by an American has been excluded from our literary canon precisely because of its power should make us question the grounds on which some of our present “classics” have been chosen.
Jane Tompkins
University of Illinois / Chicago

In the Heath Anthology
Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl (1863)
from Preface to the First Illustrated Edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1897)
The Minister's Wooing
      XXIII: "Views of Divine Government" (1859)
Uncle Tom's Cabin
      Chapter I: "In Which the Reader Is Introduced to a Man of Humanity" (1852)
      Chapter VII: "The Mother's Struggle" (1852)
      Chapter XI: "In Which Property Gets into an Improper State of Mind" (1852)
      Chapter XIII: "The Quaker Settlement" (1852)
      Chapter XIV: "Evangeline" (1852)
      Chapter XL: "The Martyr" (1852)
      Chapter XLI: "The Young Master" (1852)

Other Works
The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853)
Dred (1856)
The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862)
Lady Byron Vindicated (1870)
Pink and White Tyranny (1871)
Sam Lawson's Oldtown Fireside Stories (1872)
Poganuc People (1878)
The Writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1896)

Cultural Objects
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Uncle Tom's Cabin
The complete text of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture
Multimedia, hyptertext-driven site with analytical directions for the study of Stowe's book in relation to American culture.

A Celebration of Women Writers
A brief biography and links to material by and about Stowe from her period.

Secondary Sources

Elizabeth Ammons, ed., Critical Essays on Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1980

Jean W. Ashton, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Reference Guide, 1977

Jeanne Boydston, Mary Kelley and Anne Margolis, The Limits of Sisterhood: The Beecher Sisters on Women's Rights and Woman's Sphere, 1988

Gillian Brown, Domestic Individualism, 1990

Lawrence Buell, "Hawthorne and Stowe as Rival Interpreters of New England Puritanism," New England Literary Culture, 198

Joan Hedrick, "Peaceable Fruits," The Ministry of Harriet Beecher Stowe," American Quarterly 40:3 (September, 1988): 307-332

Joan D. Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life, 1994 Amy Schrager Lang, "Feel Right and Pray," Prophetic Woman: Anne Hutchinson and the Problem of Dissent in the Literature of New England, 1987

Lora Romero, Home Fronts: Nineteenth-Century Domesticity and Its Critics, 1997

Jane Tompkins, "Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History," Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1985

Eric Sundquist, ed., New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1986

Robert Forest Wilson, Crusader in Crinoline, 1941