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Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811 - 1896)

Stowe, Harriet Beecher

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in Litchfield, Connecticut and brought up with puritanical strictness. She had one sister and six brothers. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a controversial Calvinist preacher. Her mother, Roxana Foote, died at forty-one – when Stowe was four. Her aunt, Harriet Foote, deeply influenced Stowe's thinking, especially with her strong belief in culture. Samuel Foote, her uncle, encouraged her to read works of Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. When Stowe was eleven years old, she entered the seminary at Hartford, Connecticut, kept by her elder sister, Catherine. The school had advanced curriculum and she learned languages, natural and mechanical science, composition, ethics, logic, mathematics: subjects that were generally taught to male students. Four years later she was employed as an assistant teacher. Her father married again and became the president of Lane Theological Seminary.

Catherine and Harriet founded a new seminary, the Western Female Institute. With her sister, Stowe wrote a children's geography book. In 1834 Stowe began her literary career when she won a prize contest of the Western Monthly Magazine, and soon Stowe was a regular contributor of stories and essays. Her first book, The Mayflower, first appeared in 1843.

In 1836 Stowe married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor at her father's theological seminary. He was a widower; his late wife had been Stowe's friend. The early years of their marriage were marked by poverty. Over the next fourteen years Stowe had seven children. In 1850 Calvin Stowe was offered a professorship at Bowdoin, and the family moved to Brunswick, Maine. In Cincinnati Stowe had come in contact with fugitive slaves. She learned about life in the South from her own visits there and saw how cruel slavery was. In addition, the Fugitive Slave Law, passed by Congress in 1850, arose much protest - giving shelter or assistance to an escaped slave became a crime. And finally a personal tragedy, the death of her infant Samuel from cholera, led Stowe to compose her famous novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. It was first published in the anti-slavery newspaper The National Era, from June, 1851 to April, 1852, and later in book form. The story was to some extent based on both true events and the life of Josiah Henson. "I could not control the story, the Lord himself wrote it," Stowe once said. "I was but an instrument in His hands and to Him should be given all the praise." When Abraham Lincoln met Stowe he joked, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." The novel was smuggled into Russia in Yiddish to evade the czarist censor. It also remained enormously popular after the Revolution.

"I s'pect I growed. Don't think nobody never made me." (from Uncle Tom's Cabin)

Stowe's popularity opened her doors to the national literary magazines. She started to publish her writings in The Atlantic Monthly and later in Independent and in Christian Union. For some time she was the most celebrated woman writer in The Atlantic Monthly and in the New England literary clubs. In 1853, 1856, and 1859 Stowe made journeys to Europe and became friends with George Eliot, Elisabeth Barrett Browning, and Lady Byron. However, the British public opinion turned against her when she charged Lord Byron with incestuous relations with his half-sister. In Lady Byron Vindicated (1870) she accused Lord Byron in the writing. Both the magazine Atlantic, where the text first appeared, and Stowe, suffered.

Attacks on the veracity of her portrayal of the South led Stowe to publish The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), in which she presented her source material. A second anti-slavery novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), told the story of a dramatic attempt at slave rebellion. Stowe's later works did not gain the same popularity as Uncle Tom's Cabin. She published novels, studies of social life, essays, and a small volume of religious poems. The Stowes lived in Hartford in summer and spent their winters in Florida, where they had a luxurious home. The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862), Old-Town Folks(1869), and Poganuc People (1878) were partly based on her husband's childhood reminiscences and are among the first examples of local color writing in New England. Poganuc People was Stowe's last novel. Her mental faculties failed in 1888, two years after the death of her husband. She died on July 1, 1896 in Hartford, Connecticut.

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) synopsis: Pious, old Uncle Tom is sold by his well-intentioned Kentucky owner, Mr. Shelby, who has fallen into debt. The trader also singles out little Harry, Eliza's child, but Eliza takes Harry and heads for the river. Uncle Tom submits to his fate. He is bought first by the idealistic Augustine St. Clare after saving her daughter, Little Eve, who falls from the deck of a riverboat. In his New Orleans house, Uncle Tom makes friends with Eva's black friend, the impish Topsy, whom Eva tires to reform. "Never was born!" persisted Topsy... "never had no father, nor mother, nor nothin'. I was raised by a speculator, with lots of others." Eva dies from a weakened constitution, and St. Clare is stabbed to death while trying to separate two brawling men. Tom is sold to Simon Legree, a Yankee and a brutal cotton plantation owner. "I don't go for savin' niggers. Use up, and buy more, 's my way," he says. Two of Uncle Tom's female slaves, Cassy and Emmeline, pretend to escape and go into hiding. Tom will not reveal their whereabouts, and Legree has his lackeys Quimbo and Sambo beat the unresisting Tom to the point of death. Tom forgives them and dies, just as Mr. Shelby's son arrives to buy him back. A parallel plot centers on Eliza, her little child, and her husband George who escape to freedom in Canada using the 'underground railroad.' Other important characters are Miss Ophelia St. Clare, a New England spinster, and Marks, the slave catcher. Cassy meets Madame de Throux, sister of George Harris, Eliza's husband, on the boat north. The Harris family leaves for Africa, and George Shelby frees his slaves.

After the Civil War the sales of the novel declined. The sentimentality and religiosity of the story was considered a drawback. The first film adaptation was made in 1903. 'Uncle Tom' was used pejoratively, meaning white paternalism and black passivity, undue subservience to white people on the part of black people. In the 1970s Uncle Tom's Cabin, with its strong female characters, started to attract the attention of feminist critics. Stowe's vision found now defenders. Tom's passivity was compared to Gandhi's strategy of peaceful resistance.

Famous quotations by Harriet Beecher Stowe:

  • The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.

  • Suggested sites for Harriet Beecher Stowe:

    Encyclopedia article about Harriet Beecher Stowe
    Texts by Stowe
    Uncle Tom's Cabin
    The story of Uncle Tom and Eliza, who are going to be sold by a kindly slave owner during difficult financial times. The two decide to try and escape to a better life.

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