Harriet Beecher Stowe Harriet Beecher Stowe American Literature Analysis

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Harriet Beecher Stowe American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Stowe began her writing career with small sketches and stories that earned her a modest place among the minor writers. They were examples of the domestic fiction popular in many of the magazines of the time, especially in ladies’ magazines and gift annuals. The characteristic elements of the sketch, with its looseness in plot and characterization, is also employed in her longer stories. Her stories and sketches are informed by personal details owed to her own experiences and to her New England background, which yielded a rich element of local color to her works.

Another earmark of most of her mature writing is also apparent in her early sketches: the need to participate in the moral debates of her time. With her story “Let Every Man Mind His Own Business,” collected in The Mayflower, she hoped to contribute to the temperance crusade. Another important theme, the pathetic death of a perfect child, which stands at the core of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was already apparent in “Uncle Tim” and “Little Edward.”

Her habit of writing sketches for magazines or periodicals that paid by the page, which she could write between her housekeeping chores, shaped her style. She did not cultivate the copybook English of the Godey’s Lady’s Book but wrote as she thought and talked. Because she stuck closely to topics that concerned and interested her, there was a naturalness and almost a colloquial quality about her style. Because she was always pressed for time, she never rewrote passages, corrected punctuation and grammar, or practiced the time-consuming task of stylistic refinement. Content, for her, was decidedly more important than form. She considered herself the lucky recipient of inspiration, and very often she transformed visual images directly into literary text, which is thus descriptive and lacking the proper qualities of plot.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

First published: 1851-1852, serial; 1852, book

Type of work: Novel

Tom, a slave, is separated from his family and sold to a plantation in the South, where he loses his life because of the abuses of his brutal owner.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was Stowe’s first novel. Initially printed by installments in the National Era, an antislavery weekly published in Washington, D.C., from June 5, 1851, to April 1, 1852, it was a best-selling book of previously unheard of proportions. It was an instant success and soon acquired fame in many parts of the world.

It is not easy, however, to make a clear judgment of the merits of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Those who exclude works that cater to the taste of the masses from the realm of high culture have difficulty describing its artistry in positive terms. Moreover, Stowe has been criticized for her depiction and characterization of black people, which led to numerous stereotypical and trivial imitations on the stage, in almanacs, in songs and poems, and even in paintings.

Stowe’s depiction of women has often been objectionable to modern sensibilities, because her women seem to be restricted to moral issues as they play themselves out in the domestic sphere. Underlying her portrayal of black people and women is an acceptance of the power of Christianity that is alien to modern readers. These three interwoven issues, the place of women and black people and the role of Christianity, are at the core of the novel and make it a central literary and political document of the American experience in the 1850’s.

If one accepts the standards set by male writers of the American tradition, which depicted masculine confrontation with nature, as exemplified in the frontier myth of the American male, Stowe’s novel seems naïvely visionary, lacking in complex philosophical content, overly melodramatic, and awkwardly plotted. It was earmarked as a book for women and children. It was not until critics such as Jane Tompkins reexamined...

(The entire section is 965 words.)