Harriet Beecher Stowe on Motherhood and Writing
By Nava Atlas | On January 8, 2015 | Updated September 16, 2022 | Comments (0)
Motherhood and writing aren’t always compatible, but more women are making it work today. In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s time, it was manifold times more difficult.
I wish I had known about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s life of motherhood and writing when my children were growing up. Her experiences of raising a family in the mid-1800s put the usual gamut of mom-ish complaints into perspective, especially as she burned with the desire to write as a means of social protest.
Ultimately, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book she’s best known for, was the 19th century’s biggest international bestseller (after the Bible) and actually went a long way to changing public attitudes toward slavery.
While it’s generally agreed that it’s not a great piece of literature, it’s considered one of the most influential novels of the 19th century.
Not enough sleep, lack of time and privacy, and run-of-the-mill household chaos pale in comparison to the circumstances in which Stowe conducted her writing life. She gave birth to seven children. Aside from the toddler son who died of cholera, another son drowned while attending college at age nineteen.
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. She loved and respected her husband, Calvin Stowe, but he was a man of the cloth who never made much money. Compelled to write as a means to support the family, she didn’t have the option of setting down her pen.
Staying in the writing habit served her well once the time was finally right to begin writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was 39 years old, still in the thick of raising children.
In Silences (1962), Tillie Olsen details the price she personally 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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Perceptive and Personal Quotes by Harriet Beecher Stowe
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Endless interruptions …
Here’s a typical letter written by Stowe describing her circumstances:
“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)
Writing in the midst a chaotic life
Stowe 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.
(Adapted from The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life by Nava Atlas)
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