Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe

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.

It may be overstating the case to claim that the book helped to ignite the Civil War, though some historians do believe that this book laid the groundwork. President Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying when he met Stowe in 1862, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

This incident, or at least what the president said to the author, may be a legend. But what is considered true is that the book helped create a shift in pubic opinion about slavery. There was also a swift and serious backlash from slavery apologists as well as theatrical adaptations. Though the public — both in the U.S. and England — bought the book in droves, critics weren’t always kind to the book.


The annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin

How Harriet Beecher Stowe was inspired to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin


Financial rewards

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.


Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe page on Amazon


More about Harriet Beecher Stowe on this site

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Biographies about Harriet Beecher Stowe

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2 Responses to “Harriet Beecher Stowe”

  1. I agree; the right state of mind plus caffeine triggers the right mood for me, more than a particular space. In fact being in such a solitary profession, I tend to move around a lot with my laptop … various spaces at home, out in cafés, in airports, etc. I also find that a real-life deadline does wonders for my motivation …

  2. Ah yes, a room of one’s own. My favorite, Louisa May Alcott desired that too. I use the sitting area of our master bedroom as my “room” but I am finding that the right state of mind will trigger that same “room” (which I also dub a “sacred space.”) The most effective trigger right now is a cup of coffee – puts me right in the mood! 🙂

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