Harriet Beecher Stowe
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Harriet Beecher Stowe (June 14, 1811 – July 1, 1896), American author and abolitionist, is best known for the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She grew up in a large, socially progressive family of ministers, authors, reformers, and educators who were well known in their time.
Among her siblings were the prominent minister Henry Ward Beecher, and educator Catharine Beecher. Harriet showed an early talent for writing and in her early twenties had a steadily paying profession, contributing articles to numerous publications.
Her husband, Calvin Ellis Stowe was a biblical scholar and educator. The two were married in 1836. He was a firm supporter of her talents, but was no help in the household, and not much of a provider. Struggling with divided loyalties, her assertion to her husband in this letter, “If I am to write, I must have a room to myself” neatly presages Virginia Woolf’s declaration that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
A working mother and writer desires to do more
Harriet Beecher Stowe sold anything and everything (sketches, poems, religious tracts, etc.) she could to support her growing family, since her husband was a poor clergyman. Though she bore seven children and struggled in genteel poverty, she found a way to write for profit and purpose. Still, there were always conflicting feelings. In 1841 she wrote to her husband:
“Our children are just coming to the age when everything depends on my efforts. They are delicate in health, and nervous and excitable and need a mother’s whole attention. Can I lawfully divide my attention by literary efforts?”
The book Stowe longed to write “to make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is” was put off from one year to the next:
“As long as the baby sleeps with me nights I can’t do much at anything, but I will do it at last.”
At age 39, still in the midst of tending to her large family, Stowe found a way to disseminate the story she longed to tell, publishing monthly installments of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in an abolitionist newsletter. With each issue, public interest built.
Inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin
However much Stowe longed for money and privacy, it could be argued that being a mother played a pivotal role in creating her magnum opus, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When she lost her beloved son Samuel Charles to cholera at age 18 months, the grief was crushing. Later she claimed that this loss helped her empathize with slave mothers who whose children were torn from them to be auctioned off.
She wrote in an 1853 letter:
“I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed and broken-hearted with the sorrows and injustice I saw … It is no merit in the sorrowful that they weep, or to the oppressed and smothering that they gasp and struggle, not to me, that I must speak for the oppressed — who cannot speak for themselves.”
Meeting escaped slaves while living in Cincinnati and hearing about their plights was another impetus for Harriet’s desire to use her talent to give slavery a human face, and expose its injustice. The passing of the Fugitive Slave act of 1853 gave her the final push to write the story she so long to tell. Later she would say that she did not actually write it on her own, but merely took dictation from God.
First international bestseller
Stowe became the first American author whose book could claim the distinction of being an international best seller. After the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, no book sold faster out of the gate; 1.5 million copies were sold worldwide by the end of its first year, and in the entire nineteenth century, only the Bible sold more copies. The book not only helped change the course of history, but changed the business of publishing as it was known.
Having struggled financially in all her married life, Stowe was amazed by the income she received from the sale of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, telling a friend and fellow abolitionist in an 1853 letter:
“You ask with regard to the remuneration which I have received for my work here in America. Having been poor all my life and expecting to be poor the rest of it, the idea of making money by a book which I wrote just because I couldn’t help it, never occurred to me. It was therefore an agreeable surprise to receive ten thousand dollars as the first-fruits of three month’s sale. I presume as much more is now due.”
More novels and legacy
Stowe suffered devastating losses as a mother. Aside from the aforementioned Samuel Charles, another son drowned while attending college at age 19. A third son, having returned whole from serving for the Union in the Civil War, moved to San Francisco and went missing, never to be heard from again. Stowe was solely in charge of the domestic duties and children, as were all women of her time. Writing was done in the midst of vast responsibilities and intermittent grief. It was a wonder that she was able to be so productive.
Stowe continued to write novels (Dred, The Minister’s Wooing, Oldtown Folks, and The Pearl of Orr’s Island) as well as essays and articles. Though the literary merits of her work have long been debated, there is little dispute that Uncle Tom’s Cabin caused a major shift in public perception of slavery.
Harriet Beecher Stowe died in 1896 in Hartford, CT, at age 85.
Harriet Beecher Stowe page on Amazon
More about Harriet Beecher Stowe on this site
- How Harriet Beecher Stowe was inspired to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin
- Harriet Beecher Stowe, Motherhood, and Writing
- 8 Feminist Quotes by Harriet Beecher Stowe
- Perceptive and Personal Quotes by Harriet Beecher Stowe
- Quotes from the Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
- Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856)
- The Minister’s Wooing (1859)
- The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862)
- Oldtown Folks (1869)
- Lady Byron Vindicated (1870)
- My Wife and I (1871)
Biographies about Harriet Beecher Stowe
- The Stowe Society
- Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Life
- Harriet Beecher Stowe on Biography.com
- Reader discussion of Stowe’s books on Goodreads
Read and listen online
- Harriet Beecher Stowe’s works on Project Gutenberg
- Audio versions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s books on Librivox
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