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Author of the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century, and among the best-paid writers of her day, Harriet Beecher Stowe has been designated a leading creator of what might be called ”the New England myth.” Her idealistic vision of Yankee village life charmed a readership growing uneasily conscious of industrialization after the Civil War. Despite her idealism, however, Stowe is best known for her antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly (1852), a novel that, it is sometimes suggested, pushed the nation over the brink of the Civil War.
Biographical and Historical Context
Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on June 14, 1811, to well-known Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher and his wife Roxana (Foote) Beecher, Harriet Elizabeth Beecher was raised in an atmosphere of stern Calvinist piety. As a teenager, she read widely and was commended for her outstanding memory. Her father saw her special qualities, but he had trouble appreciating them in a daughter.
Harriet is a great genius,” he wrote in a private letter.
I would give a hundred dollars if she was a boy.” Genius or not, Harriet’s learning depended almost entirely on her sister Catharine’s attention to her gifts. As headmistress of the Hartford Female Seminary, Catharine set her sister a rigorous study schedule; it suited Harriet well and even left time for her to edit the School Gazette.
First Literary Earnings
After moving to Cincinnati, Ohio, with her father in 1831, Harriet began to devote herself to writing. In 1833, she published her first book, Primary Geography for Children, on an Improved Plan, under Catharine’s name. Other literary efforts of this period included a character essay that Stowe based on Lyman Beecher’s stories about his adoptive father: ”A New Eng-land Sketch” (April 1834; later ”Uncle Tim”). This sketch won a local literary prize and an honorarium of fifty dollars.
On January 6,1836, Harriet married Calvin Stowe, a childless widower who was a Bible scholar in her father’s school. As his wife, she would give birth to seven children in fifteen years. To help out with the finances, she continued to write optimistic New England sketches to publish in such magazines as Godey’s Lady’s Book. In 1843, she collected the best of her work in The Mayflower; or, Sketches of Scenes and Characters among the Descendants of the Pilgrims.
Stowe’s husband took a position at Bowdoin College in Maine in 1850. Having returned to the New England life she loved, Stowe was again inspired to write, and by spring 1851, she had begun working on the novel that would bring her widespread fame and financial success. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which Stowe claimed was written by the Lord Himself,” appeared in 1852 to outstanding acclaim, selling ten thousand copies in the first week after its publication.
Uncle Tom and Civil War
Legend has it that President Abraham Lincoln, upon meeting the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, said, ”So this is the little lady who made this big war.” While most historians agree that the president probably did not say this, the story illustrates the devastating impact of the novel on a nation already leaning toward war.
The novel’s success brought Stowe international fame. She began traveling extensively in Europe, forming friendships with well-known writers Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot. Her travels inspired two more books, Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands (1854) and Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856). Neither was as critically acclaimed as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her next slave novel, The Minister’s Wooing (1859), however, was better written and helped maintain her status as a gifted writer.
Civil war broke out in 1861 and lasted until the Confederacy, or the union of southern states, surrendered in 1865. Interestingly, despite her renown as an antislavery writer, Stowe’s literary efforts returned to focus on domestic matters during the war—possibly due to the fact that one of her sons was fighting in it. Family concerns took up much of her attention throughout the following decade, during which time she is generally considered not to have written anything of lasting significance.
A Success-driven Downfall
Stowe’s postbellum writings—that is, books she wrote after the war—are considerably more polished, as a whole, than her earlier works. Old town Folks appeared in 1869 and was followed by Old-town Fireside Stories (1871), both of which sold extremely well. Many modern readers consider these New England stories her best-imagined and most realistic work.
Confident of her standing in the wake of this popular and critical success, Stowe embarked on the publication that led to scandal. In the course of her travels, she had befriended Lady Byron, wife of the immensely famous English poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. As Stowe felt compelled to reveal in ”The True Story of Lady Byron’s Life,” published in Atlantic Monthly, Lord Byron had left his wife and embarked on an incestuous affair with his half sister Augusta Leigh.
The results of publicizing this affair, which at the time was shocking to the point of disbelief, were disastrous for Stowe. She fell from grace among the literary community, most of the members of which considered her choice to publish the essay extremely indecent. Although she would continue to write, and even to publish, Stowe never regained her former esteem among the public in her lifetime. She died in the care of a home nurse on July 1,1896.
Works in Literary Context
Stowe’s work is often classified as regionalism, or literature that emphasizes the landscape, dialect, customs, and folklore of a particular geographic region. She is considered a primary architect of the ”New England myth” and is sometimes referred to as a sentimentalist—a pejorative
term describing writers who tend to idealize characters and events instead of creating a more complete, realistic picture. Her major antislavery works, however, transcend both regionalism and sentimentalism and are sometimes placed alongside other major abolitionist works of the mid-nineteenth century, such as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845).
Regionalism is an American literary movement of the late nineteenth century that is characterized by the realistic depiction of small town and rural life. The movement, which was an early stage in the development of American realistic writing, assisted in the development of distinct identities among certain regions like New England, the South, and the West. One of the period’s most famous writers was Mark Twain.
Many of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novels and sketches, sometimes considered forerunners of Twain’s, represent key works of New England regionalism. Old town Folks and Old town Fireside Stories, often considered to be her best written works, consist of numerous detailed, intimate sketches of New England and the people who lived there. Stowe was explicit in her desire to capture real moments of New England life: when she revised The Mayflower years after its publication, she asked readers to recall ”the good old catechizing, churchgoing, school going, orderly times” of the New England past.
Works in Critical Context
Despite its popular success during her lifetime, Stowe’s work has become controversial due to its depiction of blacks. The sentimentalism derided by early critics is now largely overlooked, while its particular focus on nineteenth century New England often is not. Her better known works, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Oldtown Folks, overcome this drawback, breaking away from merely regional concerns to address the universal; however, the former is not as widely praised now for its universality as it once was.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
This novel brought Stowe widespread fame during her lifetime and was widely praised by critics and the public alike. Mark Twain, a brilliant satirist and contemporary of Stowe’s, called it ”a drama which will live as long as the English tongue shall live.” Even the renowned British novelist Charles Dickens wrote to Stowe to express his approval of the novel: ”I have read it with the deepest interest and sympathy, and admire, more than I can express to you, the generous feeling which inspired it, and the admirable power with which it is executed.”
Many modern readers, however, have criticized the novel for its portrayal of blacks, who must be submissive in order to be saved. Author James Baldwin stated in his well-known essay ”Everybody’s Protest Novel,” ”[I]f, being mindful of the necessity of good works, [Stowe] could not cast out the blacks . . . she could not embrace them either without purifying them of sin.” Noted author Charles Johnson states in his introduction to the 150th anniversary edition of the novel that it presents, ”a portrait of black people that, from a twenty-first-century perspective, is ineluctably racist.”
Like many of Stowe’s works, Oldtown Folks has been faulted for its attention to the particular, idealized world of mid-nineteenth century New England, along with certain literary defects with which her work was often plagued. Nineteenth century critic J. R. Dennett remarked that willing critics ”will discover matter for fault-finding throughout the book. There is none of Mrs. Stowe’s books . . . in which she has not failed as completely in the creation of a character as she has succeeded in the depiction of [New England] character[s].”
Dennett’s remarks, however, point to what has indeed been considered great about Stowe’s work: her characterization of New Englanders. In a 1927 essay, Constance Mayfield Rourke said of Oldtown Folks that it was ”Filled to the brim with lively notations of people and places . . . the richest and raciest of Mrs. Stowe’s novels.” Many modern critics have agreed. Writing in 1974, John R. Adams remarked, ”When completed [ Old-town Folks] was acclaimed … as her major work and still holds that position.”
- Gienapp, William E. Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Rourke, Constance Mayfeld. Trumpets of Jubilee. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1927, pp. 87-148.
- ”Review of Oldtown Folks.” American Literature Vol. 69, No. 1 (March 1997): 39.
- Adams, John R. ”Structure and Theme in the Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe.” American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 24, Part 1 (Fall 1974): 50-55.
- Baldwin, James. ”Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Partisan Review, Vol. 16, No. 6 (June 1949): 578-585.
- Bornstein, George. ”Best Bad Book: Black Notes and White Notes to the Tale of Uncle Tom. Times Literary Supplement I. 5426 (March 30, 2007): 3-4.
- Randall, Ericka. ”Review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Women’s Studies Vol. 36, I. 3 (April-May 2007): 221.
- ”The Life and Work of Lord Byron 1788-1824.” English History. Accessed November 21, 2008, from http://englishhistory.net/byron.html.
- ”Prose Fiction.” Antislavery Literature. Accessed November 20, 2008, from http://antislavery.eserver.org/prose.
- ”A Short Biography of Frederick Douglass.” Frederick Douglass Comes to Life. Accessed November 21, 2008, from http://www.frederickdouglass.org/douglass_bio.html.
- Metcalf, Stephen. Uncle Tom’s Children: Why Has Uncle Tom’s Cabin Survived—and Thrived?” Slate. Accessed November 28, 2008, from http://www.slate.com/id/2118927.
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