Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1811-1896

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Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1811-1896

  • Born in Litchfield, CT, to Lyman Beecher and his first wife, Roxanne

  • Beecher was a very famous Calvinist minister, stressing eternal damnation except for those who were predestined to be saved

  • Harriet grows up in a lively intellectual environment, but also resents certain restrictions placed on her because of her gender

    • Her father once said, “Hattie is a genius. I would give a hundred dollars if she was a boy.”

  • 1832: Family moves to Cincinnati, Ohio. The slave state of Kentucky is across the river, so she has the chance to view slavery up close

    • During this time, she is continuing to work as a teacher and writing short stories and essays

  • 1836: Marries Calvin Stowe, a theology professor

    • They have 7 children in 14 years; her married life isn’t ideal; Calvin never makes much money; at one point she leaves for a rest cure of sorts; only three of their seven children outlive her

    • Struggles with how to reconcile her social/political concerns and ambitions with her duties as a wife and mother

    • Finds power in the domestic sphere—the power of influence

  • 1849/1850: Family moves to Maine; the Fugitive Slave Law is passed; Stowe’s one year old son dies

    • Inspires Uncle Tom’s Cabin

    • “‘The time has come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak’” (qtd. in Lauter 2547)

  • 1852: Uncle Tom’s Cabin is published

    • Works to make the idea of slavery concrete for Northerners

    • Tries to evoke sympathy for slaves

    • Shows Northern complicity with slave system

    • Helps push abolition from the margins to the mainstream

    • Public embraced it immediately

      • First edition sells out in days

      • By end of 1852, over 300,000 have been sold

      • Over 1 million sold by end of century

      • Translated into 22 languages between 1852 and 1860

      • People bought Uncle Tom’s Cabin souvenirs based on favorite characters (Lauter 2548)

      • Also inspired “anti-Tom” literature from the South

  • 1853: A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin; a compendium of source material

  • 1856: Dred; novel that explores the possibility of a violent revolution to end slavery

  • Eventually the family settles in Hartford and Stowe begins writing New England regionalist texts:

    • 1856: The Minister’s Wooing

    • 1862: The Pearl of Orr’s Island

    • 1869: Oldtown Folks

  • Her reputation does not survive long after her death

  • By 1980, though, her reputation enjoys a revival, in large part because of women critics like Jane Tompkins

    • They argue that Stowe deserves critical attention for several reasons including: the book’s popularity, the cultural work it tries to do, its influence on other writers, and Stowe’s contribution to domestic fiction

    • At the same time, critics have also had a hard time with the racial politics of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and how it relies on stereotypes

Works Cited and Consulted:

Baym, Nina, editor. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume A. NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003.

Lauter, Paul, Editor. The Heath Anthology of American Literature: Volume A. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.

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