Harriet Elizabeth Beecher Stowe (June 14, 1811 - July 1, 1896) is an American writer and reformer, best known as the author of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. The sensationally popular novel presented an empathetic portrait of slave life and played a significant role in engendering moral opposition to slavery prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War. Stowe wrote the work in reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it illegal to assist an escaped slave. In the book she expresses her moral outrage at the institution of slavery and its destructive effects on both races and especially on maternal bonds.
Stowe was born into a family with deep religious convictions and a social conscience that would leave a historical legacy in educational reform, the revision of Calvinist theology, abolition, literature, and women’s suffrage.
After the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe became an international celebrity and a popular author. In addition to novels, poetry, and essays, she wrote non-fiction books on a wide range of subjects including homemaking, the raising of children, and religion. She wrote in an informal conversational style and presented herself as an average wife and mother. Her style and her narrative use of local dialect predated works like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn by 30 years.
Born in Litchfield, Connecticut and raised primarily in Hartford, Harriet Beecher Stowe was the seventh of 11 children born to Rev. Lyman Beecher, an abolitionist Congregationalist preacher, from Boston and Roxana Foote Beecher, a granddaughter of General Andrew Ward who was a member of General George Washington’s staff in the Revolutionary War. Many of her brothers and sisters became famous reformers. Henry Ward Beecher(1813-1887), a noted minister in Brooklyn, New York, was active in the abolitionist movement. Catharine Beecher (1800-1878) founded many schools for young women throughout the country and was a prolific author while her half-sister, Isabella Beecher (1822-1907), became active in the women's suffrage movement.
Her mother died of tuberculosis at 41, when Harriet was only four. Two years later a stepmother took over the household. Stowe was named after her aunt, Harriet Foote, who deeply influenced her thinking. Samuel Foote, her uncle, encouraged her to read works of Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott.
When Stowe was eleven, she entered the seminary at Hartford kept by her elder sister Catherine. The school had advanced curriculum and she learned languages, natural and mechanical science, composition, ethics, logic, and mathematics. At that time, Hartford Female Seminary was one of only a handful of schools that took the education of girls seriously. Four years after entering as a student she became an assistant teacher.
Her father married again and in 1832 the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio where he became the President of Lane Theological Seminary. Cincinnati was a hotbed of the abolitionist movement and this is where she gained first-hand knowledge of slavery and the Underground railroad that led her to write Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Catherine and Harriet founded a new seminary in Cincinnati, the Western Female Institute, and together they co-authored a book, Primary Geography for Children. After the publication of the book Stowe received a special commendation from the Bishop of Cincinnati because it conveyed a positive image of the Catholic religion. Stowe's religious tolerance was unusual for Protestants at the time.
Stowe also became a member of the Semi-Colon Club, a local literary society in which members wrote articles which were read and discussed by other participants. Her experiences in this club sharpened her writing style. During her early married years, Harriet began to publish stories and magazine articles to supplement the family income.
In 1834, Stowe began her literary career when she won a prize contest of the Western Monthly Magazine, and soon she was a regular contributor of stories and essays.
In 1836 Harriet Beecher married Calvin Stowe, a clergyman and widower who was a professor at Lane Theological Seminary. Calvin's wife, Eliza, had befriended Harriet Beecher when she first arrived, and when Eliza died young, Harriet and Calvin were drawn together by a shared loss. Their first children, twin girls whom they chose to name Harriet and Eliza, were born on September 29, 1836, and were followed by her son Henry Ellis (1838), Frederick William (1840), Georgiana May (1843), Samuel Charles (1848), and Charles Edward (1850). Throughout their marriage, Calvin encouraged Harriet in her career as an author. Her first book, The Mayflower, appeared in 1843.
In 1850, Professor Stowe joined the faculty of his alma mater, Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine. The Stowe family moved to Maine and lived in Brunswick until 1853. While living in Brunswick Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin, a scathing, albeit sentimental anti-slavery novel that created a sensation. The novel outraged Southern defenders of slavery while engendering sympathy for the plight of slaves in the North and spurring the abolitionist movement. First appearing in serial form from 1851 to 1852 in an abolitionist organ, the National Era, Uncle Tom's Cabin sold more than 10,000 copies the first week it was published as a book. It was quickly translated into 37 languages and it sold over half a million copies in the United States over five years. Attacks on the veracity of her portrayal of the South led Stowe to publish The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), in which she presented her source material. A second anti-slavery novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), told the story of a dramatic attempt at slave rebellion.
From Brunswick, the Stowes moved to Andover, Massachusetts, where Calvin became a professor of theology at Andover Theological Seminary from 1853 to 1864. Stowe's fame opened doors to the national literary magazines. She started to publish her writings in The Atlantic Monthly and later in Independent and in Christian Union. For some time she was the most celebrated woman writer in The Atlantic Monthly and in the New England literary clubs. In 1853, 1856, and 1859 Stowe made journeys to Europe, where she became friends with George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Lady Byron. However, the British public opinion turned against her when she charged Lord Byron with incestuous relations with his half-sister. Both The Atlantic Monthly and Stowe suffered serious criticism after it was published.
After Calvin's retirement from Andover, the family moved to Hartford, Connecticut. In the 1860s the Stowes also purchased property in Mandarin, Florida, and began to travel south each winter. In Florida Stowe helped establish schools for African-American children and fostered the development of an ecumenical church open to members of all denominations. Her brother Charles (a minister, composer of religious hymns, and prolific author) joined the Stowes in Florida, to help the cause of the newly freed people.
Stowe's later works did not gain the same popularity as Uncle Tom's Cabin. She published novels, studies of social life, essays, and a small volume of religious poems. The Stowes lived in Hartford in summer and spent their winters in Florida, where they had a luxurious home. The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862), Old-Town Folks (1869), and Poganuc People (1878) were partly based on her husband's childhood reminiscences and are among the first examples of local color writing in New England. In 1873, Stowe moved to her last home, the brick Victorian Gothic cottage-style house on Forest Street in Hartford, where her family became acquainted with Samuel Clemens. Clemens and his family moved into a house adjacent to theirs and under the pen name Mark Twain wrote some of his most famous books while living in this house. Clemens was just about the same age as the Stowe twins, Harriet and Eliza.
Stowe died in 1896, two years after her husband, in Hartford. She is buried on the grounds of Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.
Published in 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin, or, Life Among the Lowly, profoundly affected attitudes toward slavery in the United States in the years prior to the American Civil War. A sensationally popular work, Uncle Tom's Cabin offered a sentimental and moralistic perspective of life in the antebellum South, depicting the cruel reality of slavery while also affirming the redemptive power of Christian love.
Stowe wrote the novel as a response to the 1850 passage of the second Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 (which punished those who aided runaway slaves, stripped the rights of fugitives, as well diminished the rights of freed Blacks). Stowe was influenced by the autobiography of Josiah Henson, a slave on a tobacco plantation in North Bethesda, Maryland who escaped in 1830 by fleeing to Upper Canada (now Ontario), where he helped other fugitive slaves arrive and become self-sufficient. Stowe also evidently drew on American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, a volume co-authored by Theodore Dwight Weld and the Grimké sisters, as a source of some of the novel's content. Stowe claimed to have based the novel on a number of interviews with escaped slaves during the time she was living in Cincinnati, Ohio, across the Ohio River from Kentucky, a slave state. In Cincinnati the Underground Railroad had local abolitionist sympathizers and was active in efforts to help runaway slaves on their escape route from the South.
Uncle Tom's Cabin first appeared as a 40-week serial in National Era, an abolitionist periodical, on June 5, 1851. Because of the story's popularity, the publisher contacted Stowe about turning the serial into a book. While Stowe questioned if anyone would read Uncle Tom's Cabin in book form, she eventually consented to the request. Published in book form on March 20, 1852, the novel soon sold out its complete print run. A number of other editions were soon printed.
In the first year of publication, 300,000 copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin were sold. The novel sold equally well in England, with the first London edition appearing in May, 1852 and selling 200,000 copies. In a few years over 1.5 million copies were in circulation in England, and the book eventually was translated into every major language and became the best-selling novel in the world in the 19th century.
The book opens with a Kentucky farmer named Arthur Shelby facing the loss of his farm because of debts. Even though he and his wife, Emily Shelby, believe that they have a benevolent relationship with their slaves, Shelby decides to raise the needed funds by selling two of them—Uncle Tom, a middle-aged man with a wife and children, and Harry, the son of Emily Shelby’s maid Eliza—to a slave trader. Emily Shelby hates the idea of doing this because she had promised her maid that her child would never be sold; Emily's son, George Shelby, hates to see Tom go because he sees him as his friend and mentor.
When Eliza overhears Mr. and Mrs. Shelby discussing plans to sell Tom and Harry, she determines to run away with her son for fear of losing her only surviving child. Eliza departs that night, leaving a note of apology to her mistress. Meanwhile Uncle Tom is sold and placed on a Mississippi riverboat, where he meets and befriends a young white girl named Eva. When Eva falls into the river, Tom saves her, and in gratitude, Eva's father, Augustine St. Clare, buys and takes him with the family to their home in New Orleans. During this time, Tom and Eva begin to relate to one another because of the deep Christian faith they both share.
The escaping Eliza's meets up with her husband George Harris, but they are now being tracked by a slave hunter named Tom Loker. Eventually Loker and his men trap Eliza and her family, causing George to shoot Loker. Worried that Loker may die, Eliza convinces George to bring the slave hunter to a nearby Quaker settlement for medical treatment.
Back in New Orleans, after Tom has lived with the St. Clares for two years, Eva grows very ill. Before she dies she experiences a vision of heaven. As a result of her death and vision, the other characters resolve to improve themselves and throw off personal prejudices against Blacks, and St. Clare pledges to free Uncle Tom.
Tom sold to Simon Legree
Before he can follow through on his pledge, he is fatally stabbed while entering a New Orleans tavern and his wife instead sells Tom at auction to a vicious plantation owner named Simon Legree. Legree begins to hate Tom when Tom refuses Legree's order to whip his fellow slave. Tom receives a brutal beating, and Legree resolves to crush Tom's faith in God. But Tom refuses to stop reading his Bible and comforting other slaves. Tom also encourages another of Legree's slaves, Cassy, to escape, which she does, taking another (Emmeline) with her.
Uncle Tom's faith in God is tested by the hardships of the plantation. However, he has two visions, one of Jesus and one of Eva, which renew his resolve to remain a faithful Christian, even unto death. When Tom refuses to tell Legree where the escaped slaves have gone, Legree orders his overseers to kill him. As Tom is dying, he forgives the overseers, who, humbled by the character of the man they have murdered, become Christians. Shortly before Tom's death, George Shelby (Arthur Shelby's son) arrives to buy Tom’s freedom, but finds he is too late.
On their boat ride to freedom, Cassy and Emmeline meet George Harris' sister and accompany her to Canada. There, Cassy discovers that Eliza is her long-lost daughter who was sold as a child. Reunited, they travel to France and eventually Liberia, the African nation created for former American slaves, where they meet Cassy's long-lost son. George Shelby returns to the Kentucky farm and frees all his slaves, telling them to remember Tom's sacrifice and his belief in the true meaning of Christianity.
Uncle Tom's Cabin is dominated by Stowe's outrage over the evil of slavery. While Stowe weaves other subthemes throughout her text, such as the moral authority of motherhood and the redemptive role of the Christian faith, she emphasizes the immorality of slavery and its incompatibility with true Christianity.
Stowe saw motherhood as the "ethical and structural model for all of American life," argued critic Elizabeth Ammons and believed that only women had the moral authority to save the United States from the demon of slavery. While later critics have noted that Stowe's female characters are often domestic clichés instead of realistic women, Stowe's novel affirmed the importance of women's influence and helped pave the way for the women's rights movement in the following decades.
Uncle Tom's Cabin has exerted an influence equaled by few other novels in history. Upon publication, it ignited a firestorm of protest from defenders of slavery while eliciting praise from abolitionists. The novel focused Northern anger at the injustices of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law and helped to fuel the abolitionist movement.
Some critics highlighted Stowe's paucity of experience relating to Southern life, which (in their view) led her to create inaccurate descriptions of the region. For instance, she had never set foot on a Southern plantation. In response, in 1853 Stowe published A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, an attempt to document the veracity of the novel's depiction of slavery.
The immense impact of the novel by a little-known woman writer significantly led to a greater role for women in public affairs. For Stowe, the issue of slavery was essentially religious and emotional, and her stated purpose, "to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race" and to urge that readers "feel right" about the issue, advanced a nascent feminist agenda that few readers at the time recognized. Significantly, Stowe blamed the slave system rather than the slaveholders for the moral evil of slavery. She presented sympathetic portraits of two plantation owners and deliberately made its chief villain, Simon Legree, a displaced New Englander.
As the first widely read political novel in the United States, Uncle Tom's Cabin greatly influenced development of not only American literature but also protest literature in general. Scholars have postulated a number of theories about what Stowe was trying to say with the novel aside from condemning slavery. Some argue that Stowe saw her novel as offering a solution to the moral and political dilemma that troubled many slavery opponents: Whether the use of violence to oppose the violence of slavery and the breaking of proslavery laws was morally defensible. Stowe's solution was similar to Ralph Waldo Emerson's: "God's will would be followed if each person sincerely examined his principles and acted on them."
The book has even been seen as an attempt to redefine masculinity as a necessary step toward the abolition of slavery. In order to change the notion of manhood so that men could oppose slavery without jeopardizing their self-image or their standing in society, some abolitionists drew on principles of women's suffrage and Christian charity, and praised men for cooperation, compassion, and civic spirit. Others within the abolitionist movement argued for conventional, aggressive masculine role in cause of abolition. All the men in Stowe's novel are representations of either one kind of man or the other.
In recent decades, readers have criticized the book for what are seen as condescending racist descriptions of the book's black characters' appearances, speech, and behavior, as well as the passive nature of Uncle Tom. The phenomenal success of the novel and wide currency of the published reproductions had a significant role in ingraining certain stereotypes into the American imagination.
Uncle Tom, the title character, was initially seen as a noble long-suffering Christian slave. In more recent years, his name has become an epithet directed towards African-Americans who are accused of selling out to whites. Stowe intended Tom to be a "noble hero" and praiseworthy person. Throughout the book, far from allowing himself to be exploited, Tom stands up for his beliefs and is grudgingly admired even by his enemies.
Among other common stereotypes attributed to Uncle Tom's Cabin are the "happy darky" (in the lazy, carefree character of Sam); the light-skinned tragic mulatto as a sex object (in the characters of Eliza, Cassy, and Emmeline); the affectionate, dark-skinned female mammy (through several characters, including Mammy, a cook at the St. Clare plantation); and the Pickaninny stereotype of black children (in the character of Topsy).
In the last few decades these negative associations have to a large degree overshadowed the historical impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Beginning with criticism by James Baldwin that the novel was racially obtuse and aesthetically crude, later black critics attacked the novel, saying that the character of Uncle Tom engaged in "race betrayal," making Tom (in some eyes) worse than even the most vicious slave owner.
In recent years, though, scholars such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. have begun to reexamine Uncle Tom's Cabin, stating that the book is a "central document in American race relations and a significant moral and political exploration of the character of those relations."
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