Harriet Beecher Stowe: Contribution as American Author

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      Harriet Beecher Stowe was an author and social activist best known for her popular anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.


"I did not write it. God wrote it. I merely did his dictation.". — Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe Literary Contribution to American Literature
Harriet Beecher Stowe


      Harriet Beecher Stowe was born on June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a leading Congregations list minister and the patriarch of a family committed to social justice. Stowe achieved national fame for her anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, which fanned the flames of sectionalism before the Civil War. Stowe died in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 1, 1896.

Early Life

      Harriet Elizabeth Beecher was born on June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut. She was one of 13 children born to religious leader Lyman Beecher and his wife, Roxanna Foote Beecher, who died when Harriet was a child. Harriet's seven brothers grew up to be ministers, including the famous leader Henry Ward Beecher. Her sister Catharine Beecher was an author and a teacher who helped to shape Harriet's social views. Another sister, Isabella, became a leader of the cause of women's rights.

      Harriet enrolled in a school run by Catharine, following the traditional course of classical learning usually reserved for young men. At the age of 21, she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where her father had become the head of the Lane Theological Seminary.

      Lyman Beecher took a strong abolitionist stance following the pro-slavery Cincinnati Riots of 1836. His attitude reinforced the abolitionist beliefs of his children, including Stowe. Stowe found like-minded friends in a local literary association called the Semi-Colon Club. Here, she formed a friendship with fellow members and seminary teacher Calvin Ellis Stowe. They were married on January 6, 1836, and eventually moved to a cottage near in Brunswick, Maine, close to Bowdoin College.

Later Life

      Stowe continued to write and to champion social and political causes for the rest of her life. She published stories, essays, textbooks and a long list of novels, including Oldtown Folks and Dred. While none of these matched Unde Tom's Cabin in terms of popularity, Stowe remained well-known and respected in the North, particularly in reform-minded communities. She was often asked to weigh in on political issues of the day, such as Mormon polygamy.

      Despite the moral rectitude of the Beechers, the family was not immune to scandal. In 1872, charges of an adulterous affair between Henry Ward Beecher and a female parishioner brought national scandal. Stowe maintained that her brother was innocent throughout the subsequent trial.

      While Stowe is closely associated with New England, she spent a considerable amount of time near Jacksonville, Florida. Among Stowe's many causes was the promotion of Florida as a vacation destination and a place for social and economic investment. The Stowe family spent winters in Mandarin, Florida. One of Stowe's books, Palmetto Leaves, takes place in northern Florida, describing both the land and the people of that region. Stowe died on July 1, 1896, in Hartford, Connecticut. She was 85. Her body is buried at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, under the epitaph "Her Children Rise up and Call Her Blessed."

Career and Literary Contribution

      Along with their interest in literature, Harriet and Calvin Stowe shared a strong belief in abolition. In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law; prompting distress and distress in abolitionist and free black communities of the North. Stowe decided to express her feelings through a literary representation of slavery, basing her work on the life of Josiah Henson and on her own observations. In 1851, the first installment of Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, appeared in the National Era. Uncle Tom's Cabin was published as a book the following year and quickly became a best seller.

      Stowe's emotional portrayal of the impact of slavery, particularly on families and children, captured the nation's attention. Embraced in the North, the book and its author aroused hostility in the South. Enthusiasts staged theatrical performances based on the story, with the characters of Tom, Eva and Topsy achieving iconic status.

      After the Civil War began, Stowe traveled to Washington, D. C., where she met with Abraham Lincoln. A possibly apocryphal but popular story credits Lincoln with the greeting, "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." While little is known about the meeting, the persistence of this story captures the perceived significance of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the split between North and South.

      Fundamentally, she remained a religious writer whose art mid-politics were shaped by her religious concern. Her original experience in a seminary brought in the book, Mayflower: Sketches and Scenes and Characters among the It-scendents of the Puritans (1843). Her most famous novel / hide Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly was the most popular American book of the 19th century. First it was published serially in the National Era magazine (1851-1852), and it was an immediate success. The book became so popular that forty different publishers printed it in England alone. It was quickly translated into 20 languages, receiving the praise of such authors as Georges Sand in France, Heinrich Heine in Gennany, and Ivan Turgenev in Russia. Its passionate appeal for an end to slavery in the United States inflamed the debate that, within a decade, led to the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). The reasons for the success of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ are obvious. It reflected the idea that slavery in the United States, the nation that purportedly embodied democracy and equality for all, was an injustice of colossal proportions. In 1853 she wrote ‘A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and in 1856, ‘Dread: A Tale of the Dismal Swam’and in 1859,’ The Minister’s Wooing’.

      Stowe herself was a perfect representative of the old New England Puritan stock. Her father, brother, and husband all were well-known, learned protestant clergymen and reformers. Stowe conceived the idea of the novel - in a vision of an old, ragged slave being beaten - as she participated in a church service. Later, she said that the novel was inspired and “written by God.” Her motive was the religious passion to reform life by making it goodlier. The Romantic period had ushered in an era of feeling in her life the virtues of family and love reigned supreme. Her novel attacked slavery precisely because it violated even domestic values.

      Uncle Tom, the slave and central character, is a true Christian martyr who labors to convert his kind master. He prays for St. Clare’s soul as he dies, and is killed defending slave women. Slavery is depicted as an evil not for political or philosophical reasons but mainly because it divides families, destroys normal parental love, and is inherently un-Christian. The most touching scenes show an agonized slave mother unable to help her screaming child and a father sold away from his family. These were the crimes against the sanctity of domestic love. Stowe’s novel was not originally intended as an attack on the South; in fact, she had visited the south, liked southerners, and portrayed them kindly. Southern slave-owners are good masters and treat Tom well. St. Clare personally abhors slavery and intends to free all of his slaves. The evil master Simon Legree, on the other hand, is a northerner and the villain ironically, the novel was meant to reconcile the North and South, which were drifting toward the civil War a decade away. Ultimately the book was used by abolitionists and others as a polemic against slavery the and south.

      In 1836 she married Calvin E. Stowe, a colleague of her father in the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. During the next twelve years she had six children to rear.

      In 1850 Professor Stowe and his family moved to Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine. This year saw the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the citizens of free states to aid in catching and returning escaped slaves. This Act roused Mrs. Stowe, and she began Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was published in book form in 1852.

      Perhaps no other American book of note has been written under so great a handicap. When Mrs. Stowe began this work, one of her large family of children was not a year old, and the others were a constant care. Nevertheless, she persevered with her epoch-making story. One of her friends has given us a picture of the difficulties in her way, the baby on her knee, the new hired girl asking whether the pork should be put on top of the beans, and whether the gingerbread should stay longer in the oven.

      In Uncle Tom's Cabin Mrs. Stowe endeavored to translate into concrete form certain phases of the institution of slavery, which had been merely an abstraction to the North. Of Senator John Bird, who believed in stringent laws for the apprehension of fugitive slaves, she wrote:—

 "… his idea of a fugitive was only an idea of the letters that spell the word,—or, at the most, the image of a little newspaper picture of a man with a stick and bundle, with 'Ran away from the subscriber' under it. The magic of the real presence of distress,—the imploring human eye, the frail, trembling human hand, the despairing appeal of helpless agony,—these he had never tried. He had never thought that a fugitive might be a hapless mother, a defenceless child…."

      In chapters of intense dramatic power, Mrs. Stowe shows a slave mother and her child escaping on the floating ice across the Ohio. They come for refuge to the home of Senator Bird.

 "'Were you a slave?' said Mr. Bird.
 "'Yes, sir; I belonged to a man in Kentucky.'
 "'Was he unkind to you?'
 "'No, sir; he was a good master.'
 "'And was your mistress unkind to you?'
 "'No, sir,—no! my mistress was always good to me.'"

      Senator Bird learned that the master and mistress were in debt, and that a creditor had a claim which could be discharged only by the sale of the child. "Then it was," said the slave mother, "I took him and left my home and came away."

      Mrs. Stowe's knowledge of psychological values is shown in the means taken to make it appear to Senator John Bird that it would be the natural thing for him to defeat his own law, by driving the woman and her child seven miles in the dead of night to a place of greater safety.

      All sections of the country do not agree in regard to whether Uncle Tom's Cabin gives a fairly representative picture of slavery. This is a question for the historian, not for the literary critic. We study Macbeth for its psychology, its revelation of human nature, its ethics, more than for its accurate exposition of the Scottish history of the time. We read Uncle Tom's Cabin to find out how the pen of one woman proved stronger than the fugitive slave laws of the United States, how it helped to render of no avail the decrees of the courts, and to usher in a four years' war. We decide that she achieved this result because the pictures, whether representative or not, which she chose to throw on her screen, were such as appealed to the most elemental principles of human nature, such as the mother could not forget when she heard her own children say their evening prayer, such as led her to consent to send her firstborn to the war, such as to make Uncle Tom's Cabin outsell every other book written by an American, to cause it to be translated into more than thirty foreign languages, to lead a lady of the Siamese court to free all her slaves in 1867, and to say that Mrs. Stowe "had taught her as even Buddha had taught kings to respect the rights of her fellow creatures."

      It may be noted in this connection that Mark Twain, who was of southern descent and whose parents and relatives owned slaves, introduces in his greatest work, Huckleberry Finn (1884), a fugitive slave to arouse our sympathies. The plot of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) turns on one of Mrs. Stowe's points of emphasis, the fear of the mother that her child would be sold and taken away from her, down the river.

      The story of Uncle Tom's Cabin is intensely dramatic, and it accomplished its author's purpose far beyond her expectations. When we study it merely as a literary performance, we shall notice the effect of the handicap under which Mrs. Stowe labored at the time of composition, as well as her imperfect conception of the art technique of the modern novel. There are faults of plot, style, and characterization. Modern fiction would call for more differentiation in the dialogue of the different characters and for more unity of structure, and yet there are stories with all these technical excellencies which do not live a year. We may say with W. P. Trent, a Virginian by birth, and a critic who has the southern point of view: "Uncle Tom's Cabin is alive with emotion, and the book that is alive with emotion after the lapse of fifty years is a great book. The critic of today cannot do better than to imitate George Sand when she reviewed the story on its first appearance—waive its faults and affirm its almost unrivaled emotional sincerity and strength."

      The question of human slavery profoundly modified the thought and literature of the nation. In these days we often make the mistake of thinking that all of the people of New England disapproved of slavery at the end of the first half of the nineteenth century. The truth is that many of the most influential people in that section agreed with the South on the question of slavery. Not a few of the most cultivated people at the North thought that an antislavery movement would lead to an attack on other forms of property and that anarchy would be the inevitable result.

      Opposition to slavery developed naturally as a result of the new spirit in religion and human philosophy. This distinctly affirmed the right of the individual to develop free from any trammels. The Dial and Brook Farm were both steps toward fuller individuality and more varied life and both were really protests against all kinds of slavery. This new feeling in the air speedily passed beyond the color line, and extended to the animals.

      One of the earliest to advocate the abolition of slavery was WILLIAM LLOYD GARRISON (1805-1879), a printer at Newburyport, Massachusetts. In 1831 he founded The Liberator, which became the official organ of the New England abolitionists. He influenced the Quaker poet Whittier to devote the best years of his life to furthering the cause of abolition. Emerson and Thoreau spoke forcibly against slavery. Lowell attacked it with his keenest poetic shafts.


      Landmarks dedicated to the life, work and memory of Harriet Beecher Stowe exist across the eastern United States. The Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Brunswick, Maine, is where Stowe lived when she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin. In 2001, Bowdoin College purchased the house, together with a newer attached building, and was able to raise the substantial funds necessary to restore the house.

      The Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Hartford, Connecticut, preserved the home where Stowe lived for the final decades of her life. The home is now a museum, featuring items owned by Stowe, as well as a research library The home of Stowe's next-door neighbor, Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain), is also open to the public.

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