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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) - original name Harriet Elisabeth Beecher


American writer and philanthropist, best-known for the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851-52). Stowe wrote the work in reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it illegal to assist an escaped slave. In the story 'Uncle Tom' of the title is bought and sold three times and finally beaten to death by his last owner. The book was quickly translated into 37 languages and it sold in five years over half a million copies in the United States. Play adaptations, "Tom shows" of the novel had a phenomenal success, too.

"Eliza made her desperate retrest across the river just in the dusk of twilight. The gray mist of evening, rising slowly from the river, enveloped her as she disappeared up the bank, and the swollen current and floundering masses of ice presented a hopeless barrier between her and her pursuer." (in Uncle Tom's Cabin)

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, into a large family. She had two sisters (Catharine and Mary), one half-sister (Isabella), five brothers (William, Edward, George, Henry Ward, and Charles), and two half-brothers (Thomas and James). Harriet herself was the seventh child of her parents, Lyman and Roxana Beecher. "Wisht it had been a boy!" said her father after her birth. (Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers by Jean Fritz, 1994, p. 7) Lyman was a controversial Calvinist preacher, a fiery man who saw himself as a soldier of Christ. Roxana, a granddaughter of General Andrew Ward, died of tuberculosis at 41 – Harriet was four at that time. Two years later a stepmother took over the household.

Stowe was named after her aunt, Harriet Foote, who influenced deeply her thinking, especially with her strong belief in culture. Samuel Foote, her uncle, encouraged her to read works of Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. At night, she listened to the wind whistling through the chimneys and rats scratching in the walls of the old house.

When Stowe was eleven, she entered the seminary at Hartford, Connecticut, kept by her elder sister Catharine. The school had advanced curriculum and she learned languages, natural and mechanical science, composition, ethics, logic, mathematics, subjects that were generally taught to male students. Four years later she was employed as an assistant teacher. Her father married again – he became the president of lane Theological Seminary.

Catharine and Harriet founded a new seminary, the Western Female Institute. With her sister Stowe wrote a children's geography book. In 1834 Stowe began her literary career when she won a prize contest of the Western Monthly Magazine, and soon Stowe was a regular contributor of stories and essays. Her first book, The Mayflower, appeared in 1843.

In 1836 Stowe married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor at her father's theological seminary. He was a widower; his late wife had been Stowe's friend. The early years of their marriage were marked by poverty. Over the next 14 years Stowe had 7 children. In 1850 Calvin Stowe was offered a professorship at Bowdoin, and they moved to Brunswick, Maine. In Cincinnati Stowe had come in contact with fugitive slaves. She learned about life in the South from her own visits there and saw how cruel slavery was. In addition the Fugitive Slave Law, passed by Congress in 1850, arose much protest – giving shelter or assistance to an escaped slave became a crime.

And finally a personal tragedy, the death of her infant Samuel from cholera, led Stowe to compose her famous novel. Stowe's series of fictional sketches of slaves were first published in the anti-slavery newspaper The National Era, from June 1851 to April 1852, and later collected in a book form; the first print run was 5,000 copies. In the preface to the European edition of the novel in 1852 Stowe maintained thgat compromise on slavery was no longer possible. Attacks on the veracity of her portrayal of the South led Stowe to publish A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), in which she presented her source material.

To some extent Stowe's stories were based on true events and in addition to the life of Josiah Henson, who had been born into slavery, and after escaping to Canada told his story in his autobiography, published in 1849. "I could not control the story, the Lord himself wrote it," Stowe once said. "I was but an instrument in His hands and to Him should be given all the praise." (Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America, edited by Rosemary Skinner Keller, Rosemary Radford Ruether, 2006, p. 1046) According to a popular anecdote, when the author met Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1862 the president joked, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war" – Stowe was less than five feet high.

Stowe's fame opened her doors to the national literary magazines. She started to publish her writings in The Atlantic Monthly and later in Independent and in Christian Union. For some time she was the most celebrated woman writer in The Atlantic Monthly and in the New England literary clubs. In 1853, 1856, and 1859 Stowe made journeys to Europe, where she became friends with George Eliot, Elisabeth Barrett Browning, and Lady Byron. Noteworthy, Uncle Tom's Cabin sold more copies in Great Britain than in America  in the first year of its publication. However, the British public opinion turned against her when she accused Lord Byron in 'The True Story of Lady Byron's Life' (1869) of a "secret, adulterous intrigue with a blood relation", his half-sister. The text first appeared in Macmillan's Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly. Stowe further challenged the image of Byron in Lady Byron Vindicated (1870). The polemic caused nothing but trouble for both the Atlantic Monthly and Stowe.

To evade the czarist censor Uncle Tom's Cabin was smuggled into Russia in Yiddish. Leo Tolstoy listed it in What Is Art? (1898) as an example of the highest art, "flowing from love of God and man". (What Is Art? by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Aylmer Maude, 1904, p. 166). However, when Tolstoy first read the book he did not draw parallels between the slaves on his own estate and the situation of slaves in the novel, but wrote in a diary entry: "It's true that slavery is an evil thing, but ours is a very benevolent evil." (Tolstoy by A. N. Wilson, 2001, p. 102) Even after the Revolution, the novel remained enormously popular in the Soviet Union, where more than one hundred editions have been published since 1857.

Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), Stowe's second novel, told about a two  Southern slave-owning families, and plotting a slave rebellion. The title character was inspired by Nat Turner, who lived in the Dismal Swamp after escaping from a plantation; the Appendix includes Turner's famous confessions. George Eliot  noted in her review in the Westminster Review in 1856 that the novel was clearly "animated by a vehement polemical purpose." (American World Literature: An Introduction by Paul Giles, 2019, p. 96) Stowe's vision of the South remained a sore point among many Southerners. Eventually the book was buried by Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel Gone with the Wind.

In Uncle Tom's Cabin the pious old Uncle Tom is sold by his well-intentioned Kentucy owner, Mr. Shelby, who has fallen into debts. The trader also singles out little Harry, Eliza's child, but Eliza takes Harry and heads for the river. Uncle Tom submits to his fate. He is bought first by the idealistic Augustine St Clare after saving her daughter, Little Eva, who falls from the deck of a riverboat. In his New Orleans house, Uncle Tom makes friends with Eva's black friend, the impish Topsy. "Never was born!' persisted Topsy... 'never had no father, nor mother, nor nothin'. I was raised by a speculator, with lots of others." Eva dies from a weakened constitution, and St. Clare is killed in an accident – he is stabbed while trying to separate two brawling men. Tom is sold to the villainous Simon Legree, a Yankee and a brutal cotton plantation owner. "I don't go for savin' niggers. Use up, and buy more, 's my way," he says. Two of Uncle Tom's female slaves, Cassy and Emmeline, pretend to escape and go into hiding. Tom will not reveal their whereabouts and Legree has his lackeys Quimbo and Sambo beat the unprotesting Tom to the point of death. Tom forgives them and dies, just as Mr. Shelby's son arrives to buy him back. Shelby decides to fight for the Abolitionist cause. A parallel plot centers on Eliza, her little child, and her husband George who escape to freedom in Canada using the 'underground railroad.' Other important characters are Miss Ophelia St. Clare, a New England spinster, and Marks, the slave catcher. Cassy meets on the boat north Madame de Throux, sister of George Harris, Eliza's husband. The Harris family leaves for Africa and George Shelby frees his slaves.

After the Civil War the sales of the novel declined. Stowe was criticized for her sentimentality and religiosity of her story. The term "Uncle Tom" was used pejoratively, meaning white paternalism and black passivity, undue subservience to white people on the part of black people. On the other hand, Tom's passivity was compared to Gandhi's strategy of peaceful resistance. James Baldwin said in 1949 in an essay that Stowe's "book was not intended to do anything more than prove that slavery was wrong; was, in fact, perfectly horrible. This makes material for a pamphlet but it is hardly enough for a novel". ('Everybody's Protest Novel' by James Baldwin, in Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, edited by Angelyn Mitchell, 1998, p. 150) In the 1970s Uncle Tom's Cabin, with its strong female characters, started to attract the attention of feminist critics, but otherwise Stowe had no defenders.

Stowe's later works did not gain the same popularity as Uncle Tom's Cabin. She published novels, studies of social life, essays, and a small volume of religious poems. The Stowes lived in Hartford in summer and spent their winters in Florida, where they had a luxurious home. The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862), Old-Town Folks (1869), and Poganuc People (1878) were partly based on her husband's childhood reminiscences and are among the first examples of local color writing in New England. Poganuc People was Stowe's last novel. Her mental faculties failed in 1888, two years after the death of her husband. She died on July 1, 1896 in Hartford, Connecticut. The earliest film adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin were made in 1903. Edwin S. Porter's short film from that year was produced by  the Thomas Alva Edison Company.

For further reading: World's Greatest Hit: Uncle Tom's Cabin by H. Birdoff (1947); Patriotic Gore by E. Wilson (1962); Runaway to Heaven by J. Johnston (1963); Critical Essays on Harriet Beecher Stowe, ed. by Elizabeth Ammons (1980); Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin by Elsa Dixler (paperback 1985); Harriet Beecher Stowe in Europe by Charles Beecher, Joseph S. Van Why; ed. (1986); Harriet Beecher Stowe by John R. Adams (1989); Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life by Joan D. Hedrick (1994); Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers by Jean Fritz (1994); Harriet: The Life and World of Harriet Beecher Stowe by Norma Johnston (1994); Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, edited byHarold Bloom (1996); Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America by David S. Reynolds (2011); Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life by Nancy Koester (2014); All That Makes Life Bright: The Life and Love of Harriet Beecher Stowe by Josi S. Kilpack (2017); Rethinking Sympathy and Human Contact in Nineteenth-century American Literature: Hawthorne, Douglass, Stowe, Dickinson by Marianne Noble (2019); Heaven's Interpreters: Women Writers and Religious Agency in Nineteenth-century America by Ashley Reed (2020); Slavery, Capitalism, and Women's Literature: Economic Insights of American Women Writers, 1852-1869 by Kristin Allukian (2023); Why Antislavery Poetry Matters Now by Brian Yothers (2023) - See also: John Steinbeck and the novel The Grapes of Wrath, which social impact has been compared to that of Uncle Tom's Cabin

Selected works:

  • The Mayflower; or, Sketches of Scenes and Characters among the Descendants of the Pilgrims, 1843
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly, 1852 ( vols.) - Setä Tuomon tupa: lyhykäisesti kerrottu ja kuvauksilla valaistu (suom. 1856) / Tuomo sedän tupa  (nuorisolle mukaillut Maikki Friberg, 1893) / Setä Tuomon tupa (nuorisolle sovittanut A.H. Fogowitz, suom. Aatto S., 1893) / Setä Tuomon tupa: kuvauksia neekeriorjain elämästä Amerikan Yhdysvalloissa (suom. Niilo Liakka, 1899-1900) / Tuomo-sedän tupa (nuorisolle mukaillut Verneri Tukiainen, 1905) / Tuomo sedän tupa eli Alhaisten elämää (5. p., suom. Niilo Liakka, 1954) - Several film adaptations: 1903 (short, 13 min), dir.  Edwin S. Porter; 1903 (short), dir.  Siegmund Lubin; A Cabana do Pai Tomás, 1909, dir.  Antônio Serra; 1910 (short), dir.  Barry O'Neil, starring Frank Hall Crane, Anna Rosemond, Marie Eline, Grace Eline; 1910 (short), dir.  J. Stuart Blackton, starring Edwin R. Phillips, Florence Turner, Mary Fuller, Flora Finch, Genevieve Tobin; 1913 (short, 30 min), dir.  Otis Turner (30 min); 1913 (short), dir.  Kenean Buel, Sidney Olcott; 1914, dir.  William Robert Daly, starring Sam Lucas; 1918, La Capanna dello zio Tom, dir.  Riccardo Tolentino; 1918, dir.  J. Searle Dawley; 1927, Topsy and Eva, dir.  Del Lord, starring Rosetta Duncan, Vivian Duncan, Gibson Gowland; 1927, dir.  Harry Pollard, adapted by A.P. Younger and Harvey Thew; 1965, Onkel Tom's Hütte, dir.  Géza von Radványi, starring John Kitzmiller, Herbert Lom, Catana Cayetano, Olive Moorefield, O.W. Fischer; 1981, Samchon Tom ui odumak, dir.  Su-jeong Kang; 1987 (TV film), dir.  Stan Lathan, starring Avery Brooks, Kate Burton, Bruce Dern, Paula Kelly, Phylicia Rashad, Kathryn Walker, Edward Woodward
  • A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon which the Story is Founded, 1853
  • Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands, 1854
  • Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, 1856
  • The Minister's Wooing, 1859
  • The Pearl of Orr's Island: A Story of the Coast of Maine, 1862
  • Agnes of Sorrento, 1863
  • House and Home Papers, 1865 (first published  under the name Christopher Crowfield) - Pikku haltijoita (suom. Saimi Järnefelt, 1900)
  • Little Foxes; or, The Little Failings that Mar Domestic Happiness, 1866 (as Christopher Crowfield) - Repo ressuja eli ne pienet viat, jotka turmelevat kotionnen (suom. A. O., 1899) / Pikku kettuja (suom. Sohvi Reijonen, 1899)
  • Religious Poems, 1867
  • The Chimney Corner, 1868 (as Christopher Crowfield) - Lukinverkkoja, eli, Pieniä tomupiiloja jotka kotionneamme haittaavat (suom. N.N., 1880)
  • Men Of Our Times; or, Leading Patriots of the Day, 1868
  • Old Town Folks, 1869
  • 'The True Story of Lord Byron's Life' (magazine article), 1869
  • Lady Byron Vindicated, 1870
  • Little Pussy Willow, 1870 - Urpunen (suom. Kalevala-seura, 1880)
  • Pink and White Tyranny: A Society Novel, 1871
  • Oldtown Fireside Stories, 1871
  • My Wife and I, or, Harry Henderson's History, 1872 - Vaimoni ja minä: eli Harry Hendersonin elämäkerta (suom. Hj. Sandelin; Jyväskylä: H. F. Helminen, s.a.)
  • Sam Lawson's Oldtown Fireside Stories, 1872
  • Woman in Sacred History, 1873
  • Palmetto Leaves, 1873
  • We and Our Neighbors; or, The Records of an Unfashionable Street, 1873
  • Betty's Bright Idea, 1876
  • Captain Kidd's Money And Other Stories, 1876
  • Footsteps of the Master, 1877
  • Bible Heroines; Being Narrative Biographies of Prominent Hebrew Women in the Patriarchal, National, and Christian Eras, Giving Views of Women, 1878
  • Poganuc People: Their Loves and Lives, 1878
  • A Dog's Mission: The Story of the Old Avery House, 1881
  • The Poor Life, 1890
  • The Writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1896 (16 vols.)
  • Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1897 (ed. Annie E. Fields)
  • Regional Sketches: New England and Florida, 1972 (ed.  J.R. Adams)
  • Oldtown folks, 1987 (edited and with an introduction by Dorothy Berkson)
  • Pink and White Tyranny: A Society Novel, 1988 (introduction by Judith Martin)
  • Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Dwamp, 1992 (edited by Judie Newman)
  • Dred : A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, 2000 (edited with an introduction and notes by Robert S. Levine)
  • The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin, 2007 (edited with an introduction and notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Hollis Robbins; photos selected by Karen C. C. Dalton and Noam Biale)
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, and Contexts Criticism, 2018 (third edition; edited by Elizabeth Ammons)

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