Harriet Beecher Stowe: Literary Author - American Slavery

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      HARRIET BEECHER STOWE (1811-1896).—It was, however, left for the daughter of an orthodox Congregational clergyman of New England to surpass every other antislavery champion in fanning into a flame the sentiment against enslaving human beings.

      Harriet Beecher Stowe, the sister of Henry Ward Beecher, the greatest pulpit orator of anti-slavery days, was born in Litchfield, Connecticut. When she was twenty-one, she went with her father, Lyman Beecher, to Cincinnati. Her new home was on the borderland of slavery, and she often saw fugitive slaves and heard their stories at first hand. In 1833 she made a visit to a slave plantation in Kentucky and obtained additional material for her most noted work.

Harriet Beecher Stowe Literary Contribution to American Literature
Harriet Beecher Stowe

      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 INFLUENCE OF SLAVERY.—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.

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