Every writer has a goal, a motive, and/or an agenda, but sometimes an author’s ideas shine through their work with particular clarity. The American authoress featured in our discussion today was inspired by a great cause and her book played a large role in sparking the American Civil War.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was a writer with a mission: social reform, more specifically abolition. In the mid-19th Century, there were many reform movements- temperance, prison reform, abolition. A lady’s place was the home, but women found positive ways to advocate for reform and the pen was a powerful weapon. Mrs. Stowe was in the ranks of quiet writers from home desks, but her book had strong influence on the American mind and gained world-wide fame.
Born on June 14, 1811, Harriet Beecher was the daughter of minister and her family valued education and supported social reform movements. As a young woman, Miss Beecher enjoyed attending literary clubs and her home in Ohio gave her the opportunity to speak with and befriend escaped slaves from the South. In 1836, she married Calvin Ellis Stow, a minister, and they would live happily for many years and have seven children. The Stow Family home was a station on the Underground Railroad; the family actively assisted escaping slaves.
Her most famous book – Uncle Tom’s Cabin – was started in 1851 and published in newspaper serialization. Mrs. Stow was paid $400 for the newspaper edition. The following year, the story was published in book form and eventually sold 300,000 copies.
Mrs. Stow wrote approximately 30 books, including travel memoirs and novels, and collections of articles. Later in her life, she worked as magazine editor. Most fascinatingly, Mrs. Stow’s extensive writing “career” was accomplished from her home and much of it during the years when she was raising her children. She passed away on July 1, 1896, at the age of 86.
Though Mrs. Stow wrote on many social subjects relevant in her era, she found her “voice” addressing the horrors of slavery and advocating abolition. She used her skill as a writer to give a voice to those who were not allowed to tell their stories.
The Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, and it allowed slave catchers to pursue escaping slaves into the north and recapture them. It also allowed freedmen in the North to be dragged back to slavery if they did not have the proper papers in the opinion of the slave catchers. Only Canada would be a truly safe refuge until after the Civil War. The Fugitive Slave Act had been instilled as a sort of compromise between Northern and Southern interests. However, it created a horrible situations, and it rallied the abolitionist forces even stronger against slavery.
Shortly before she began writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Mrs. Stowe wrote: “I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound it speak… I hope every woman who can write will not be silent.”
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Mrs. Stowe’s writing style is simple, straight forward, and with religious themes . She tells the story of slavery in Kentucky and the Deep South. While vividly portraying the miseries and persecutions of the slaves, the novel also shows the conscience struggles and society trap that the owners endured.
With much pathos in her writing, Mrs. Stowe wrote scenes which have moved her readers for decades. She is descriptive in the narrative and crafted strong and motivated characters. The characters drive the story with their interactions, conflicts, and feelings, and led the reader to new conclusions because the reader cares about the characters.
It is a story with a mission: abolition. But it is not overly “preachy” – instead, the story tells the story of slavery and moves readers to anger and sympathy, inciting action.
Of course, in a novel, people’s hearts break, and they die, and that is the end of it; and in a story this is very convenient. But in real life we do not die when all that makes life bright dies to us.
The longest way must have its close – the gloomiest night will wear on to a morning.
Scenes of blood and cruelty are shocking to our ear and heart. What man has nerve to do, man has not nerve to hear.
Sir, I haven’t any country, anymore than I have any father. But I’m going to have one. I don’t want anything of your country, except to be let alone,–to go peaceably out of it; and when I get to Canada, where the laws will own me and protect me, that shall be my country, and its laws I will obey. But if any man tries to stop me, let him take care, for I am desperate. I’ll fight for my liberty to the last breath I breathe. You say your fathers did it; if it was right for them, it is right for me!
There was a reason President Lincoln allegedly said to Mrs. Stowe, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin ignited the hearts, tears, and actions of America. The South defended their “peculiar institution” by saying slavery wasn’t really like it was portrayed in the novel. The North’s abolition movement grew, and slavery would be abolished in 1865 by the 13th Amendment after four years of Civil War.
Mrs. Stowe wrote what she knew and what was in her heart. With the power of the pen and a woman’s skill for story-telling, she crafted a story that revealed evil and cruelty to the nation and the world.
P.S. Have you read Uncle Tom’s Cabin? What did you think of the story and the writing style? Tell us in a comment!
6 thoughts on “Harriet Beecher Stowe: Unwilling To Stay Silent”
I have read the book. I find I must agree with the southern position ,That it was a book of fiction written by one who had no first hand knowledge of the issue and definity had a agenda on her mind . Thank you for the article Sarah.
Yes, Mrs. Stowe certainly had an agenda. I think she mentioned that she highlighted the worst slavery stories she’d heard in her novel (apologies – I can’t recall the source to cite it.) She did live along the Ohio River for awhile and claimed that she spoke with many escaped slaves, so there’s probably quite a bit of truth mixed with some fiction…and it’s challenging to know what is documented fact and what might be exaggerated in the tale.
In learning more about Reconstruction, Stowe becomes something of a disappointment. Apparently she purchased a plantation ofter the war, but was a terrible manager of the people who worked for her. Allegedly she was rude and bossy, expecting to create some sort of personal world of her own making. I believe she finally gave up–people are easier to “manage” on paper than in real life.
I’ve read it and I say “Thank Heaven” for Mrs Stowe(funfact: one of my college dorms was located in a building names for Mrs Stowe)!!!!!! The southern position….100000% wrong(the North, of course, doesn’t have a clean record by any stretch of imagination)!!!! I suggest the commentator above consult the photographic evidence and the narratives of the freedmen and women. Then, explain to me the Underground Railroad…and all the “lovely” comments from Southern politicians and others. Please kindly read various non-fiction books…Frederick Douglass, David W Blight and so many others. Also, one that my Civil War book club read..”Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South” by Christopher Dickey
Thanks for sharing, Kirk. It is very important to read the primary sources!
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