Harriet Beecher Stowe Biography

Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. Her abolitionist novel is often credited with promoting so much empathy for slaves from readers in the North and so much anger from readers in the South that it was an instigator of the Civil War. Stowe’s family was instrumental in her own development as an antislavery advocate. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a prominent abolitionist preacher, and her brother was the very famous minister Henry Ward Beecher. Although she had concentrated on being a wife and mother for a number of years, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 (which allowed escaped slaves to be returned to their “masters”) so incensed Stowe that she felt it was her duty to write the novel. She died in 1896 at the age of 85.

Facts and Trivia

  • Upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War!”
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the first American novel to have an African American protagonist.
  • Reflecting years later on her purposes in writing the novel, Stowe said in her journal, “I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother I was oppressed and brokenhearted with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity, because as a lover of my country I trembled at the coming day of wrath.”
  • Although Stowe’s intentions in creating her novel may have been altruistically motivated, many African Americans feel that being called an “Uncle Tom” is a slur of the worst order. Many find the title character to be the epitome of submissiveness.
  • In 1870, Stowe created an integrated school for both children and adults in Mandarin, Florida, a move toward integration that would not truly be realized in America for another fifty years or more.
  • Before her death, Stowe was probably suffering from dementia. She not only believed herself to be writing Uncle Tom's Cabin for the first time, rewriting whole passages unconsciously from memory, but would wander into other people's houses. In Mark Twain's autobiography (who lived nearby) he described her sneaking up behind people, in their own homes, and suddenly shouting, or coming inside and playing the piano, "singing ancient and melancholy songs with infinitely touching effect."

Biography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2127

Article abstract: Stowe’s popular novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin attacked slavery as a threat to the Christian family and helped to end this institution in the United States. In this and later novels, Stowe wrote as an early advocate for women—one who wished to help them by creating a “women’s sphere” in the home.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Harriet Beecher Stowe Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Early Life

Lyman Beecher, Harriet Beecher’s father, was a stern New England Calvinist preacher whose image of a God who predestined humans to heaven or hell left a mark on his children. The fact that Harriet’s mother died when she was four made Harriet’s father’s influence even more important. By the age of six and a half, the young “Hattie,” as she was known to her family, had memorized more than two dozen hymns and several long chapters in the Bible. As an adult, however, Harriet Beecher would substitute for her father’s dogmas a religion of hope that stressed the love and compassion of Christ rather than the divine judgment that her father preached. Some people hold that she “feminized” her father’s religion. Throughout her life, she retained a strong sense of religious mission and zeal for social improvement.

At age twelve, Harriet moved to Hartford to live with her older sister Catharine, a purposeful woman who had started the Hartford Female Seminary. Harriet attended Catharine’s school and stayed on as a teacher and guardian of young children. In 1832, she moved with her family to Cincinnati, Ohio, where her father had been offered the post as president of the new Lane Theological Seminary. Three years after arriving in Cincinnati (in January, 1836), Harriet Beecher married Calvin Stowe, a Lane professor.

These years in the West prepared Stowe for her later career. She had eight children between 1836 and 1850, and if she and Calvin had not alternated taking “rest cures” in Vermont over the years, she might have had more. In 1834, Harriet won a fifty-dollar prize for “A New England Sketch,” which was published in the Western Monthly Magazine. From that point on, the members of her family saw her as a person of literary promise, even though she claimed that this activity was only a way of supplementing the always meager family income. In 1842, Calvin wrote to his wife, “[My] dear, you must be a literary woman. It is written in the book of fate.”

While in Cincinnati, Harriet also experienced the intense emotions aroused by the slavery issue during these years. On one visit to a Kentucky plantation, she saw slaves whom she later used as models for some of the characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1836, a local mob attacked the print shop of an abolitionist in the city, and the struggle between the abolitionists and the moderates at Lane eventually drove her father to retire and her husband to take a job at Bowdoin College in Maine in 1850.

Life’s Work

When President Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe in the fall of 1862, he greeted her as “the little lady who made this big war.” He was not alone in believing that Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) had been a crucial event in arousing the antislavery sentiments that led to the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. Although Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not the best novel of the nineteenth century, it certainly had the greatest impact. Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 300,000 copies the year it was published, and Stowe’s great work helped to end slavery by personalizing that “peculiar institution.” Slavery was wrong, the novel argued, because it was un-Christian. More specifically, slavery tore children from their mothers and thus threatened the existence of the Christian family. It has been said that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “a great revival sermon,” more effective than those of her father. Harriet herself later wrote that the book was written by “the Lord Himself. . . . I was but an instrument in his hands.”

Each of the main characters in this melodramatic novel displayed virtues and vices that were important to Stowe. The main character, Tom, was sold by a kind master, Mr. Shelby, to a second one, Augustine St. Clare, who had ambiguous feelings about slavery and planned to free Tom. Before he could do so, St. Clare was killed and Tom was sold to a singularly evil man, Simon Legree, who finally beat Tom to death when the slave refused to tell him the hiding place of two slaves who were planning to escape.

Aside from Tom, the strongest characters in the novel were female. The slave Eliza, also sold by Mr. Shelby, escaped with her son (who would have been taken from her) by jumping across ice floes on the Ohio River. She and her husband George were finally reunited in Canada. Little Eva, the saintly and sickly child of Augustine St. Clare, was a Christ-like figure who persuaded her father to free Tom before she herself died. Mary Bird, the wife of an Ohio senator, shamed her husband into helping Eliza when she sought comfort at their home. Senator Bird violated the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850—which he had helped to pass and which required Northerners to return escaped slaves—by helping Eliza. Ophelia, a cousin of Augustine St. Clare who came from Vermont to help him care for his invalid wife and child, was the model of a well-organized homemaker who was especially proud of her neat kitchen. Another courageous female was the slave Cassy, who quietly poisoned her newborn with opium after she had had two other children sold away from her.

It was no accident that so many of the heroes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin were women motivated by a Christian love of neighbor or that the most dramatic events in the novel focused on the way slavery destroyed families. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was particularly effective in arousing antislavery sentiment and particularly infuriating to Southern defenders of slavery, precisely because it dramatically attacked one of the strongest arguments of slaveholders, the religious one that saw slavery as an essential part of the patriarchal system of authority established by God and sanctioned by Scripture. For Stowe, Christianity began at home with a strong family. Any institution that undermined the family was necessarily unchristian.

In many ways, Harriet Beecher Stowe was a lay preacher whose writings were sermons. Like some other nineteenth century advocates of women’s rights, Stowe believed that women were morally superior to men. She did not believe that women should govern the country or replace men in the world of business, but rather that they should set a moral example for society through their control of the “domestic sphere,” where they could influence society by shaping the lives of their children. Stowe advocated greater equality between the men’s sphere and the women’s sphere. Women deserved greater respect because most of them—slave or free—were mothers, and therefore they had a greater understanding of both love and the “sacredness of the family” than men did.

In some of her later novels, especially Pink and White Tyranny: A Society Novel, My Wife and I (both 1871) and We and Our Neighbors (1875), Stowe continued to argue that women could improve the world by being guardians of morals in the home. She was not a “radical” advocate of full social equality for women, and she was critical of reformers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Yet, despite her active professional career as a writer, which made her the principal wage earner in the family after 1853, Stowe continued to maintain that she wrote only to supplement the family income. She also continued to write novels in which strong women—for example, Mary Scudder in The Minister’s Wooing (1859) and Mara in The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862)—acted as female ministers who taught their families the path to salvation from the well-ordered kitchen that was, in effect, a domestic pulpit.

This complex woman continued to publish until she was nearly seventy. Although Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a greater impact on American history than any other single novel, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s literary reputation rests on those novels that portrayed life in the New England villages of her youth: The Pearl of Orr’s Island, Oldtown Folks (1869), and Poganuc People: Their Loves and Lives (1878). Although peopled by stern Calvinist ministers and wise, compassionate women, these works were not consciously written to correct a social injustice, as was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1873, Stowe used some of her income to buy a large home in Hartford, Connecticut, where she and Calvin spent their last years. Calvin died in 1886, ten years before his sometimes controversial wife.

Summary

Harriet Beecher Stowe will always be remembered primarily as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which helped to end slavery in the United States and to spark the bloodiest war in American history. In the 1850’s and 1860’s, she remained one of America’s most popular writers. Many of her works were first serialized in The Atlantic Monthly and then published as books, which earned her a steady and comfortable income.

Historians now recognize that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s contribution to American history goes beyond these accomplishments. Although one cannot view this traditionally religious woman as a modern feminist, she did play an important role in women’s history. Writing was one of the few “respectable” careers open to women in nineteenth century America, since women could write at home and legitimately argue that their work was necessary to supplement family income. It is somewhat ironic that Stowe’s fiction, which powerfully affected the course of events outside the “domestic sphere,” was written to earn greater respect for women as leaders of the home and family. It is also interesting that a century after Stowe’s reputation was at its peak, Betty Friedan’s pathbreaking book The Feminine Mystique (1963) would attack the central idea of Harriet Beecher Stowe: that women’s primary role should be to lead and shape the home and family.

It is a tribute to Harriet Beecher Stowe that Friedan’s work was necessary. Stowe softened the harsh Calvinism of her father by emphasizing a religion of love more congenial to women; she also defended a separate “sphere” for female activity in American life. It can be argued that both of these things were necessary to raise the status of women in America. That, in turn, made it easier for other women to demand later the greater freedom that women enjoy in the United States a century after Stowe’s death.

Bibliography

Adams, John R. Harriet Beecher Stowe. New York: Twayne, 1963. This short biography emphasizes the connection between Stowe’s personality and her writings. Adams sees Stowe as a subservient person who finally declared her independence from domestic restrictions by writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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.

Crozier, Alice. The Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. This study provides the best synopses of Stowe’s works. The author stresses Stowe’s religious motivation and notes that most of her novels were widely read and respected by educated readers of her day.

Degler, Carl N. At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. The passages on Stowe show a self-reliant woman who was equal to her husband in many ways. She managed her own financial affairs, was more interested in her writing than in routine domestic chores, and even gave her husband advice on how to control his sexual urges.

Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Doubleday, 1988. The introduction to this work and a later section on Stowe show how she feminized the religion of the Calvinist preachers of her father’s generation. Douglas sees Stowe’s contribution to American life as an ambiguous one that both helped and hindered her twentieth century sisters.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. New York: Bantam Books, 1981. This famous work, always mentioned in textbooks but less often read, offers the best way to acquire an understanding of what was important to Stowe—and to many of her female readers in nineteenth century America. Many editions are available.

Wilson, Robert Forrest. Crusader in Crinoline: The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972. This lengthy biography, originally published in 1941, remains the best single source for a full account of Stowe’s life. It must be supplemented with some of the newer studies cited previously.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Next

Critical Essays

Explore Study Guides