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Harriet Beecher Stowe:
“A Little Bit of a Woman”

By Barbara Smith


The woman credited with sparking the Civil War came to Christ at thirteen, during one of her father’s sermons. She wrestled throughout her eighty-five years with questions and spiritual conflicts for she endured grave trials: her mother died while Harriet was a very young child; her husband, though an erudite theologian, could not provide financially and suffered bouts of poor health; she lost four children tragically; and she enjoyed the acclaim of the rich and powerful of her generation. In spite of these upheavals, her basic faith in the Lord Jesus Christ held and sustained her.

Harriet was born in Connecticut in 1811, the daughter of Lyman Beecher. He was a persuasive preacher, theologian, a founder of the American Bible Society who was active in the anti slavery movement, and the father of thirteen children. Her mother who died when Harriet was four years old, was a woman of prayer, asking the Lord to call her six sons into the ministry. All eventually preached; Henry Ward Beecher, the youngest son became the most prominent. After her mother’s death, Harriet grew close to her sister, Catherine, teaching in her school and writing books with her soon after she turned thirteen. Harriet was brilliant and bookish, and idolized the poetry of Lord Byron.

When her father became president of Lane Theological Seminary in Ohio, she moved with him and met Calvin Stowe -- a professor and clergyman who fervently opposed slavery. He was nine years her senior and the widower of a dear friend of hers, Eliza Tyler. Their subsequent marriage in 1836 was born of the common grief they shared. In later years, Mark Twain’s daughter Susy Clemens saw Calvin Stowe merrily reported to her father, “Santa Clause has got loose.”(Husbands and Wives, William J. Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 1989, page 111).

The work of the Underground Railroad deeply touched both Calvin and Harriet. They sheltered fugitive slaves in their home until they moved to Maine when he accepted a position at Bowdoin College in 1850. Throughout the years their loving commitment grew solidly. Harriet wrote to her husband of many years, "If you were not already my dearly beloved husband, I should certainly fall in love with you."

Within two years, she had three children, increasing household responsibilities and financial worries as Calvin’s salary from the college diminished. As a homemaker she lovingly and kindly cared for her children while she wrote for local magazines and papers. Over the years she wrote ardent letters to her surviving children, admonishing them to seek Christ and conform their hearts and lives to Him.

Although her first forty-one years were lived in gentile privation and anonymity, she quickly became a literary sensation when they published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Success never lessened her need for her husband. Both encouraged and comforted each other as storms dampened their spiritual fires. Calvin encouraged her to establish a writing career, and served as her literary agent in both America and England.

For almost thirty years she produced a book a year and through her writing supplemented her husband's modest earnings. Her husband was regarded as a distinguished Biblical scholar, and she persisted in nagging him to write; eventually he published The Origin and History of the Books of the Bible, which was well-received and financially successful. Money was a concern through her life: some investments failed and two to three of her grown children continued financially dependent on her.

As a mother who grieved for lost children, Harriet Beecher Stowe felt a bond with slave mothers who lost their children to the auction block. She lost four her seven children. Samuel Charles, "Charley" died at eighteen months from cholera and an older son, Henry, drowned while a student at Dartmouth College. Years later, her son Frederick who was an alcoholic from the age of sixteen, died. He never recovered from the wounds he sustained at Gettysburg in the Civil War, nor could he cope with his mother's success. He simply disappeared in San Francisco after the War despite Harriet’s grandiose schemes to rescue him. Georgiana, married to an Episcopal priest and a mother, died in her forties, having lost her health and mind to morphine addiction. Twin daughters, Eliza and Isabella, and a son, Charles Edward lived and were comforts to their parents. She lived ten years after her husband died, but retired from the limelight, and died in 1896.

Throughout America's history, some Christians - for example the Quakers and some radical sectarians - criticized slavery; many excused it. (Robert Dabney defended slavery in his biography of Stonewall Jackson.) By the late 1840s' the anti slavery movement had expanded, energized by newspaper editors, lecturers, authors and clergymen. For abolitionists nothing justified slavery and Mrs. Stowe's novel exploded the myth that magnanimous masters treated their slaves adequately. She showed that even kindly slave owners, when desperate for cash, separated and sold slaves "down the river."

Mrs. Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin soon after passage of Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which granted Southerners the right to pursue fugitive slaves into free states. This law aroused many abolitionists to action - and writing. She created memorable characters who portrayed the inhumanity of slavery and the insidious, corrupting influence this "peculiar institution" had upon the whole nation. Uncle Tom, Little Eva, George Shelby, Cassy, Chole, Topsy and Simon Legree galvanized anti slavery sentiment. After Mrs. Stowe became acclaimed, at one point she asserted she did not write Uncle Tom's Cabin; God wrote it, and she served merely as His instrument.

First printed as a serial in the National Era, an abolitionist paper, Uncle Tom's Cabin, was later printed as a book in 1852. It sold 3,000 copies on the first day, 300,000 the first year, and eventually sold more than 3,000,000 world wide and was translated into twenty-two different languages. Her admirers included Jenny Lind, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, George Eliot and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Nevertheless, she managed a wry opinion of herself; saying she was “a little bit of a woman, somewhat more than forty, about as thin and dry as a pinch of snuff, never very much to look at in my best days and looking like a used up article now.”

She said hers was a factual depiction of slavery, and in 1853 wrote A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents Upon Which It is Based . President Lincoln read it before announcing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. Yet today few people take the novel seriously. How could the novel that Abraham Lincoln described as having "made this great war," lose its vast audience?

Readers may avoid her work today because we are more familiar with its caricature then we are with her novel. In the late 1800s, crude traveling shows adulterated Mrs. Stowe’s themes called "Tom Shows" that were racist burlesques of her carefully drawn characters and their ordeals. Uncle Tom's Cabin (or, Life Among the Lowly) is a graphic tale of many lives bruised and crushed by slavery -- both blacks and whites. Consider how Mrs. Stowe presents Tom: he is a man of strength and moral nerve. Read how Tom saw his life as Simon Legree paused in the midst of a deadly beating:

"Tom looked up to his master, and answered, `Mas'r, if you was sick, or in trouble, or dying, and I could save ye, I'd give ye my heart's blood; and, if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, I'd give 'em freely, as the Lord gave his for me. O, Mas'r! don't bring this great sin on your soul! It will hurt you more than 't will me! Do the worst ye can, my troubles'll be over soon; but, if ye don't repent, yours won't never end!' "

Uncle Tom's Cabin is both a good read and an important document of history -- an illuminating companion to any study of the Civil War. It is one of the most influential books written, and is a useful guide to understanding how the exploitation of one generation continues to afflict us today. If you consider reading this novel aloud around the dining room table, be mindful of the gravity of the novel's theme. (Families who are looking for literature for younger children about abolitionists might consider reading Thee, Hannah! by Marguerite de Angeli around the table.)

Read and appraise the success of the work. This woman wrote passionately to prick her countrymen's consciences to end their blind allegiance to an inhuman institution. We would do well to read Uncle Tom's Cabin and ask God for the zeal and talent to speak equally well to our generation.


©Barbara W Smith




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