Harriet Beecher Stowe on Motherhood and Writing

Harriet Beecher Stowe

I wish I had known about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s life of motherhood and writing when my children were growing up. Her experiences in raising a family in the 1800s put the usual gamut of mom-ish complaints into perspective.

Not enough sleep, lack of time and privacy, and run-of-the-mill household chaos pale in comparison to the circumstances in which she conducted her writing life.

Stowe gave birth to seven children. Aside from the toddler son who died of cholera, 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.

 

Discontinuity was not an option

Discontinuity wasn’t an option for Stowe. Compelled to write for a living, she didn’t have the option of giving up writing. Staying in the habit served her well once the time was finally right to begin writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the age of 39. Stowe never stopped writing.

In Silences  (1962), Tillie Olsen details the price she paid for discontinuity, for putting writing on hold while raising four children:

“The habits of a lifetime when everything else had to come before writing are not easily broken, even when circumstances now often make it possible for writing to be first; habits of years—response to others, distractibility for daily matters—stay with you, become you. 

The cost of “discontinuity” (that pattern still imposed on women) is such a weight of things unsaid, an accumulation of material so great, that everything starts up something else in me; what should take weeks, takes me sometimes months to write; what should take months, takes years.”

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Harriet Beecher Stowe quote
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Perceptive and Personal Quotes by Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Writing in the midst a chaotic life

She demonstrated how writing could be accomplished in the crevices in a chaotic life — plots hatched and developed while attending to other duties; a few hours of writing snatched while children are otherwise occupied or cared for.

Writing when circumstances are less than ideal is incredibly difficult. But witness some of the childless writers in this collection: it can be incredibly difficult even under more ideal conditions. Stowe’s journey seems to convey that it’s never going to be easy, so you may as well continue to write, in whatever way your circumstances allow.

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Endless interruptions …

“Since I began this note I have been called off at least a dozen times—once for the fish-man, to buy a codfish—once to see a man who had brought me some baskets of apples—once to see a book man . . . then to nurse the baby—then into the kitchen to make a chowder for dinner and now I am at it again for nothing but deadly determination enables me to ever write—it is rowing against wind and tide.” (from an 1850 letter)

(Adapted from The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life by Nava Atlas)

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Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe page on Amazon

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