Authors: Harriet Beecher Stowe

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American novelist

June 14, 1811

Litchfield, Connecticut

July 1, 1896

Hartford, Connecticut

Biography

Harriet Elizabeth Beecher Stowe presented two regional backgrounds in her fiction: the South before the Civil War and the rural area of New England and Maine. Her novels of the antebellum South were less authentic as well as more melodramatic in style. They were more popular, however, because of the timeliness of their theme and the antislavery feeling they created. {$I[AN]9810001424} {$I[A]Stowe, Harriet Beecher} {$S[A]Stowe, Catharine;Stowe, Harriet Beecher}{$S[A]Beecher Stowe, Harriet;Stowe, Harriet Beecher} {$I[geo]WOMEN;Stowe, Harriet Beecher} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Stowe, Harriet Beecher} {$I[tim]1811;Stowe, Harriet Beecher}

Harriet Beecher Stowe

(Library of Congress)

Harriet Elizabeth Beecher was the daughter of a famous minister, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, and the sister of Henry Ward Beecher. She was educated in the school of her older sister Catharine, who encouraged her inclination to write. The family moved to Cincinnati when Harriet was eighteen. There she married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor in the Lane Theological Seminary. The Stowes had seven children, including a set of twin daughters.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written after the Stowes had moved to Maine, brought its author immediate and worldwide fame. The literature of the period generally was influenced by a humanitarian impulse, and Stowe had a ready audience for her romantic, even melodramatic history of the relations of a group of southern white families and their slaves. She said of her material, “Two nations, the types of two exactly opposite styles of existence, are here struggling; and from the intermingling of these two a third race has arisen, and the three are interlocked in wild and singular relations, that evolve every possible combination of romance.” She added, “It is the moral bearings of the subject involved which have had the chief influence in its selection.” To promote the antislavery cause, Stowe toured North America and England, and to convince skeptical readers of the truths behind her novel she published A Key to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a collection of firsthand narratives and information about slavery. The novel itself became the best-selling work of fiction in the nineteenth century United States.

The success of her first novel encouraged Stowe to write a second on the same theme. The Dred Scott decision, stating that African Americans did not have the rights of citizenship, served as the catalyst for the novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, in which she further expounded on her theme that slavery led to the general corruption of Christian principles. This book, like its predecessor, was faulted by critics for artificiality of language, contrived plotting, and sentimental characterizations, and it did not attain the popularity of her first novel.

Stowe next turned to her New England background, writing four novels—The Minister’s Wooing, The Pearl of Orr’s Island, Oldtown Folks, and Poganuc People—that are generally considered to be of greater literary merit than her first two. She also wrote society novels, and in Agnes of Sorrento produced a didactic historical romance. Stowe was the first writer to use New England dialect for the sake of realism and thus became a pioneer in the local-color tradition of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and Sarah Orne Jewett. Her constant interpolation of Christian aphorisms, however, and her use of routine plots kept these novels on the level of conventional nineteenth-century romance. Although Stowe’s reputation faltered somewhat after the publication of Lady Byron Vindicated, which was considered scandalous, her short stories and nonfiction articles were in constant demand by periodicals such as Independent, Christian Union, and The Atlantic Monthly. A daughter of the transcendental period, she was the most famous sentimental novelist of her time.

Author Works Long Fiction: Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly, 1852 Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, 1856 The Minister’s Wooing, 1859 Agnes of Sorrento, 1862 The Pearl of Orr’s Island, 1862 Oldtown Folks, 1869 Pink and White Tyranny, 1871 My Wife and I, 1871 We and Our Neighbors, 1875 Poganuc People, 1878 Short Fiction: The Mayflower: Or, Sketches of Scenes and Characters of the Descendants of the Pilgrims, 1843 Sam Lawson’s Oldtown Fireside Stories, 1872 Poetry: Religious Poems, 1867 Nonfiction: A Key to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” 1853 Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands, 1854 Lady Byron Vindicated, 1870 Palmetto Leaves, 1873 Children’s/Young Adult Literature: First Geography for Children, 1833 (as Catharine Stowe) Miscellaneous: The Oxford Harriet Beecher Stowe Reader, 1999 (Joan D. Hedrick, editor) Bibliography Adams, John R. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston: Twayne, 1989. An introduction to the life and works of Stowe. Includes bibliographical references and an index. 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. Boydston, Jeanne, Mary Kelley, and Anne Margolis. The Limits of Sisterhood: The Beecher Sisters on Women’s Rights and Woman’s Sphere. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. A superb study of Stowe and her sisters, Catharine and Isabella. Brief but insightful essays address each woman as an individual and as a sister. Primary documents are appended to each chapter, providing excellent resources. Illustrations, careful documentation, and a detailed index make this an invaluable text. Brown, Gillian. Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Examines themes in works by Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. Donovan, Josephine. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”: Evil, Affliction, and Redemptive Love. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Places Uncle Tom’s Cabin in literary and historical context. As her subtitle suggests, Donovan views Stowe’s masterpiece as a book about evil and its redemption, taking it more or less at face value and reading it with the approach she believes Stowe intended—which has a decidedly feminist bent. Hedrick, Joan D. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Stowe’s family kept a tight rein on her literary remains, and the only previous attempt at a full-scale independent biography, Forrest Wilson’s Crusader in Crinoline (1941), is now very much out of date. Hedrick’s book makes use of new materials, including letters and diaries, and takes fresh approaches to Stowe occasioned by the Civil Rights and women’s movements. Lang, Amy Schrager. Prophetic Woman: Anne Hutchinson and the Problem of Dissent in the Literature of New England. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. An excellent feminist study, focusing on Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Stowe’s role in the history of Puritan suppression of women who achieve public notice. Stowe’s novel constitutes a culmination in this process and presents a model of women as moral superiors who represent the possibility of a future without slavery. Stowe, Charles Edward, comp. Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe. 1889. Reprint. Detroit: Gale Research, 1967. Compiled by her son, this is the first full-length biography of Stowe, drawn from her letters and her journal. Though not critical, it offers extensive excerpts of her personal writings and of correspondence from other renowned writers. An annotated primary bibliography and a detailed index are included. Sundquist, Eric J., ed. New Essays on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. A collection of essays on Stowe’s most famous novel. The introduction discusses changing literary theories as they relate to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The six diverse contributions by notable scholars include analyses of genre and gender issues. A selected bibliography also notes additional criticism. Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Tompkins addresses Uncle Tom’s Cabin from the perspective of “the politics of literary history.” Nineteenth century popular domestic novels represent attempts to reorganize culture from a woman’s perspective, and Stowe’s novel is representative of “America’s religion of domesticity” as empowerment of women. An excellent and influential study.

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