Last reviewed: June 2018
June 14, 1811
July 1, 1896
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. Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe
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.