(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 30)

When most people hear the name Harriet Beecher Stowe, they think not of the woman herself but of her most famous creation, Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1851-1852). Nearly every American is familiar with this novel’s staunch abolitionist stance and the role it had in shaping the antebellum popular imagination. The blatant sentimentality of the book—its flagrantly emotional appeal to popular tastes—and its deft manipulation of stereotypes in its portrayal of African Americans have served to obscure Stowe’s achievements. Even Abraham Lincoln’s praise for her as “the little woman” who was responsible for the Civil War has a condescending ring to it. Joan D. Hedrick, in an impressive act of scholarship, reexamines the life of Harriet Beecher Stowe, revealing a detailed portrait of one of the first female professional writers in America.

As Hedrick observes, Stowe’s long life (1811-1896) spanned nearly all the nineteenth century. As the seventh of the thirteen children that were eventually born to Lyman Beecher, Stowe is to be credited for finding her own voice amid this large and talented brood. Hedrick is quite adept at reconstructing her childhood, a crucial phase in the future writer’s life. Though large families were the norm at this time, the Beecher family was anything but typical. A contentious Congregationalist minister and a spellbinding orator, Lyman Beecher pursued a lifelong mission to affect American popular culture through his Calvinist beliefs. His first wife, the intelligent, educated, and worldly Roxana Foote, tried to bring order to the domestic turmoil caused by his public activities. Hedrick makes much of this patriarchal atmosphere, and with justification. Lyman Beecher was a patriarch in a double sense—not only in the legal aspect as head of the household but also in the biblical fashion. Roxana, on the other hand, fully embodied the feminine ideal of the period. Sacrificing her intellectual pursuits in favor of her growing family, she became a paragon of self-denial and died when Harriet was but a small child. As Hedrick’s text makes clear, Roxana’s complaisance was reflected in Harriet’s behavior: The latter never balked at her father’s ministerial demands or her sister Catharine’s educational schemes.

Harriet’s education, too, was of a very high order. This came in part through self-study and overhearing her father instruct her brothers. Education of a different sort—learning of the misery of the underprivileged—came through her association with the bonded servants who were always a part of the family. This was an important factor in her later involvement in abolition and in her creation of the most explosive text of the antebellum period, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Yet Hedrick underscores the fact that even in formal education the young Miss Beecher was far ahead of most women of her time. Harriet was most fortunate in being sent to Sarah Pierce’s school, a girls’ school with a national reputation. Hedrick, noting the patriarchal tone of this era, demonstrates that women were not educated for their own good but to enable them to serve their future husbands well. It was fortuitous that Harriet was born into the Beecher clan, because this family’s dedication to education was second only to spreading the gospel. Her sister Catharine was a pioneer in the education of women. Thus, when Catharine founded the Hartford Female Seminary, it was only natural that Harriet should attend. Hedrick devotes a considerable amount of space to Harriet’s time at this institution. The Hartford Female Seminary was one of the nation’s foremost schools for women at this time. During a period when the yoke of patriarchy forced “free” women to live lives little better than slaves, Catharine created and operated an all-female institution that was “a school of equals.”

According to Hedrick, Harriet’s attendance at the school provided a relief from the oppressive patriarchal atmosphere that locked women into predetermined roles in the outside world. One of this biography’s chief merits, among many, is Hedrick’s emphasis on the limited and even bleak outlook for women during this period. Aside from marriage, with the life-threatening prospect of childbirth and domestic slavery, an educated woman could look forward only to the celibate spinsterhood of a life of teaching. Thus Hedrick correctly centers on Harriet’s life at the Hartford Female Seminary as being crucial to her development as a woman and as a writer. Here Harriet began her role as a teacher, became editor of the school newspaper, and had charge of her students’ spiritual growth. Hedrick clearly shows that Harriet’s role as a teacher and preacher to the public in her fiction (particularly in Uncle Tom’s Cabin) had its roots in her education.

Catharine Beecher’s nervous breakdown from overwork in 1829 provides one of the most fascinating episodes in the book. Rather than turn her duties over to a man during her absence, Catharine...

(The entire section is 2055 words.)