Harriet Beecher Stowe Stowe, Harriet Beecher

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(Feminism in Literature)

Stowe stirred the conscience of the nation and the world with her famous antislavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (1852). Its overtly didactic advocacy of abolitionism and humanitarianism made the work popular, controversial, and influential. Despite her prolific output of novels, short stories, and nonfiction works, Stowe is chiefly remembered for Uncle Tom's Cabin because of its compelling historical significance. Critics have generally agreed that Stowe's works address the great issues and events which shaped her century: slavery, the rise of industrialism, the decline of Calvinism, and the role of women in society. Feminist commentators have argued that, despite their sentimental tone, Stowe's novels contain a sustained and ardent critique of patriarchal social conventions.


Stowe was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on June 14, 1811, the seventh of eight surviving children in a deeply religious family. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a Presbyterian minister, and her mother, Roxanna Foote, was a well-educated Episcopalian from a prosperous family. When Stowe was five years old, her mother died of consumption, and her older sister Catherine took over as a mother figure to Harriet and her younger brother Henry Ward. Stowe's disposition as a child has been described as sad, even depressed. Hoping to ease this depression, Catherine took her younger sister, at the age of thirteen, to Hartford to live in the women's seminary she had established. There Stowe learned languages, natural and mechanical science, composition, ethics, logic, and mathematics. In 1832 Stowe's father was appointed as president of Lane Theological Seminary, and the family, including Stowe, relocated with him to Cincinnati, Ohio. Once the Beecher family had settled in their new home, Harriet and Catherine founded a new seminary called the Western Female Institute.

In Cincinnati Stowe met her husband, Calvin Stowe, who taught biblical studies at Lane. They married in 1836 and had seven children by 1850. The early years of their marriage were marked by poverty, and Stowe wrote stories and essays for magazines in part to supplement her husband's meager income. While living in Cincinnati, Stowe first came into contact with fugitive slaves from the South; further, she visited a plantation in neighboring Kentucky and witnessed first-hand the poor treatment of slaves. In 1850 Stowe's husband accepted a teaching position at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and the family moved from Ohio back to New England. That same year, Congress passed the controversial Fugitive Slave Law, which made it illegal to help an escaped slave. A staunch supporter of abolitionism, Stowe responded to this legislative action by writing Uncle Tom's Cabin. The work was first serialized in the antislavery newspaper The National Era before being published in book form. Uncle Tom's Cabin evoked swift and strident reactions from readers on both sides of the slavery issue; indeed, some ardent abolitionists considered the novel too lenient on the institution of slavery, while most Southern slave-owners reviled it as slanderous and inaccurate. Based on the notoriety that she had gained from Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe received invitations to publish her writings in many of the most influential literary magazines of the day, including the Atlantic Monthly. She also became an international celebrity, traveling to Europe several times between 1853 and 1859. During her travels, Stowe became acquainted with such literary figures and famous admirers as George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lady Byron, and Queen Victoria.

During the Civil War, Stowe resided in Hartford, Connecticut, where she wrote periodical articles on such topics as the social integration of freed slaves and developing a policy of political and economic compassion towards the Confederacy once it had been reincorporated into the Union after the war. After the conflict, Stowe invested in several ventures...

(The entire section is 28,194 words.)