Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Harriet Beecher Stowe Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In 1869, after finishing her sixth novel, Oldtown Folks, Harriet Beecher Stowe began a correspondence with Eliot by sending her a copy of the novel. Although an international celebrity, Stowe wanted the approval of this younger and less famous woman who had contributed notably to a movement—literary realism—just beginning to be critically recognized. Like Stowe, Eliot came from a deeply religious background and had formed a union with an unromantic and bookish, but supportive, man. Unlike the American novelist, Eliot had rejected religion for rationalism and Romanticism for realism. Had Calvin Stowe’s first wife not died, it would have been unthinkable for Harriet Beecher to live with him as Eliot did with George Henry Lewes. In life, the former Miss Beecher cheerfully married the unexciting scholar; in The Minister’s Wooing, she would not permit her heroine Mary Scudder to marry her scholarly suitor (as Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, 1871-1872, was permitted to marry hers, Dr. Casaubon).

Stowe’s hope, in a measure fulfilled, that Eliot would like Oldtown Folks may be taken as signifying her desire to be recognized as a realist, even though her own realism was strongly tinged with the Romanticism Eliot had come to despise. The young Harriet Beecher had probably learned something from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), but most of her other reading—The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), and the works of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron—had little to teach an incipient realist. Nor did American literature in the 1830’s, when she began to write, furnish any likely models. As a result, the reader finds in her works a mingling of realist and Romantic elements.

Stowe’s settings, particularly the New England ones, ring true. She understood her cultural roots, and she proved able to recollect childhood impressions almost photographically. She possessed a keen ear for dialect and a sharp eye for the idiosyncrasies of people she scarcely seemed to have noticed until they turned up in her writing. She used the novel to probe urgent social issues such as slavery and women’s rights. Although she liked nature and worked hard at describing it accurately, she disdained her native region’s characteristic transcendental interpretations of it. She displayed the realist’s aversion to mystery, mysticism, and the making of history into legend.

The Romantic tendencies of Stowe’s fiction stand out against its realistic background. Her heroines are invariably saintly, as are certain of her black male characters such as Uncle Tom and, in Dred, Uncle Tiff. Her recalcitrant heroes often undergo rather unconvincing conversions. Occasionally, she introduces a mythic, larger-than-life character such as Dred. In common with most of the generation of American realists who followed her, she never renounced the heroic but sought to demonstrate its presence among humble and common people. Her heroes differ from those of Twain, William Dean Howells, and Henry James, however, in drawing their strength from a firm Christian commitment: Stowe’s piety has been something of an impediment to her modern readers.

The looseness of plotting about which Stowe’s critics have complained so much derives in large measure from her inability to develop convincing central characters in most of her novels. Four of her last five novels have plural nouns—words such as “neighbors” and “folks” and “people”—in their titles, but even Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not about Uncle Tom in the sense that Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849-1850, serial; 1850, book) or Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) is about its title character. In fact, Stowe changed the title of Dred for a time to Nina Gordon, a more central character but one who dies many chapters from the end. My Wife and I and Oldtown Folks are narrated by relatively colorless central characters.

One of Stowe’s most persistent and...

(The entire section is 4,988 words.)