Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Discussion Topics

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Does Uncle Tom’s Cabin levy blame on the North as well as on the South?

What qualities in Uncle Tom’s Cabin give this book so much more impact than all other antislavery literature of the time (including Harriet Beecher Stowe’s own Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp)?

Is it profitable to argue about the literary merits of Uncle Tom’s Cabin?

Stowe wrote several novels set in New England. What are her preoccupations in these books?

Had she lived in the twenty-first century, Stowe might very well have chosen to be something other than a novelist. On the basis of the interests displayed in her books, what occupation might she have pursued?

Other literary forms

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In 1843, Harriet Beecher Stowe (stoh) gathered a number of her sketches and stories into a volume called The Mayflower: Or, Sketches of Scenes and Characters of the Descendants of the Pilgrims (1843). For forty years thereafter, she published short fiction and miscellaneous essays in magazines. In A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), she assembled a mass of sources and analogues for the characters and incidents of her most famous novel. Her 1869 Atlantic Monthly article “The True Story of Lady Byron’s Life” and a subsequent elaboration, Lady Byron Vindicated (1870), caused a sensation at the time. She also published a geography for children (1833, her earliest publication, issued under her sister Catharine’s name), poems, travel books, collections of biographical sketches, and a number of other children’s books.

Stowe’s stories and sketches remain readable. Her best collection, Sam Lawson’s Oldtown Fireside Stories (1872), differs from the novel Oldtown Folks mainly in that it has little in the way of plot. Selections from Stowe’s frequently long and chatty letters can be found in the Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1889), written by her son, Charles Edward Stowe, and in more recent biographies, but hundreds of her letters remain unpublished and scattered in various archives.

Achievements

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Known primarily today for her antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe also interpreted the life of her native New England in a series of novels, stories, and sketches. Along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes, she contributed to the first issue of The Atlantic Monthly (November, 1857) and for many years thereafter contributed frequently to that Boston-based magazine. As an alert and intelligent member of a famous family of Protestant ministers, she understood the Puritan conscience and outlook as well as anyone in her time, and as a shrewd observer of the commonplace, she deftly registered Yankee habits of mind and speech. All of her novels feature authentic New England characters; after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Dred, she turned to settings that included all six New England states. Despite a contradictory idealizing tendency, she pioneered in realism.

One of the first American writers to apply a talent for dialect and local color to the purposes of seriousnarrative, Stowe exerted a strong influence on Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and other regionalists of the later nineteenth century. Without a doubt, however, her greatest achievement was the novel that, beginning as an intended short serial in a Washington antislavery weekly, the National Era, forced the American reading public to realize for the first time not only that slavery was a national problem but also that slaves were people with hopes and aspirations as legitimate as their own. Critics as diverse as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Heinrich Heine, William Dean Howells, and Leo Tolstoy in the nineteenth century, and Edmund Wilson and Anthony Burgess in the twentieth, have used superlatives to praise Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Bibliography

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Adams, John...

(This entire section contains 570 words.)

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R.Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston: Twayne, 1989. An introduction to the life and works of Stowe. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Ammons, Elizabeth, ed. Critical Essays on Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. This useful collection contains essays on Stowe by literary critics and modern feminist scholars. Dorothy Berkson’s essay “Millennial Politics and the Feminine Fiction of Harriet Beecher Stowe” is particularly good.

Boydston, Jeanne, Mary Kelley, and Anne Margolis. The Limits of Sisterhood: The Beecher Sisters on Women’s Rights and Woman’s Sphere. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. A superb study of Stowe and her sisters, Catharine and Isabella. Brief but insightful essays address each woman as an individual and as a sister. Primary documents are appended to each chapter, providing excellent resources. Illustrations, careful documentation, and a detailed index make this an invaluable text.

Brown, Gillian. Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Examines themes in works by Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville.

Donovan, Josephine. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”: Evil, Affliction, and Redemptive Love. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Places Uncle Tom’s Cabin in literary and historical context. As her subtitle suggests, Donovan views Stowe’s masterpiece as a book about evil and its redemption, taking it more or less at face value and reading it with the approach she believes Stowe intended—which has a decidedly feminist bent.

Hedrick, Joan D. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Stowe’s family kept a tight rein on her literary remains, and the only previous attempt at a full-scale independent biography, Forrest Wilson’s Crusader in Crinoline (1941), is now very much out of date. Hedrick’s book makes use of new materials, including letters and diaries, and takes fresh approaches to Stowe occasioned by the Civil Rights and women’s movements.

Lang, Amy Schrager. Prophetic Woman: Anne Hutchinson and the Problem of Dissent in the Literature of New England. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. An excellent feminist study, focusing on Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Stowe’s role in the history of Puritan suppression of women who achieve public notice. Stowe’s novel constitutes a culmination in this process and presents a model of women as moral superiors who represent the possibility of a future without slavery.

Stowe, Charles Edward, comp. Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe. 1889. Reprint. Detroit: Gale Research, 1967. Compiled by her son, this is the first full-length biography of Stowe, drawn from her letters and her journal. Though not critical, it offers extensive excerpts of her personal writings and of correspondence from other renowned writers. An annotated primary bibliography and a detailed index are included.

Sundquist, Eric J., ed. New Essays on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. A collection of essays on Stowe’s most famous novel. The introduction discusses changing literary theories as they relate to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The six diverse contributions by notable scholars include analyses of genre and gender issues. A selected bibliography also notes additional criticism.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Tompkins addresses Uncle Tom’s Cabin from the perspective of “the politics of literary history.” Nineteenth century popular domestic novels represent attempts to reorganize culture from a woman’s perspective, and Stowe’s novel is representative of “America’s religion of domesticity” as empowerment of women. An excellent and influential study.

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Critical Essays