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From Bookworm to Victorian Oprah
"Unfortunate is the hen who hatches a duck but she must make the most of it."
- Harriet Beecher Stowe
in an 1864 letter
Even in a family of eccentrics, young Harriet Beecher was considered a bit odd. Brilliant, but odd.
One minute she was lethargic, dreamy, her mind adrift in an internal world; her appearance dull, her shoulders drooping.
The next, she was animated and entertaining, surprisingly pretty; shrewdly - and often comically - observant of the drama of everyday life.
"A strange, inconsistent being," her stepmother, Harriet Porter Beecher, once called her.
She has a peculiar habit of "owling about," her brother Henry complained.
"She is as odd as she is intelligent and studious," her father, the famous preacher Lyman Beecher, said of his fourth daughter.
In short, Harriet, who was born in 1811, had the makings of a writer as early as age 7 or 8, when she would steal away to the kitchen garret of her family's ramshackle Litchfield home and there, amid the rows of old bonnets, bins of shelled corn and pungent dried herbs, escape into the magical prose of "The Arabian Nights."
A precocious and ambitious student, she easily mastered lessons meant for older students and volunteered at age 9 to write weekly essays.
At 12, her essay titled "Can the Immortality of the Soul be Proved by the Light of Nature?" was selected to be read before all the literati of Litchfield. By 13, she was an inveterate bookworm who had to be startled out of her reveries with a scolding from her father.
As much as Lyman Beecher was bemused by Harriet's strange habits, he also recognized her special talents, noting in a letter when she was only 8, "Harriet is a great genius - I would give a hundred dollars if she was a boy."
Lyman's remark was sexist, but it was also practical. Lyman was a committed Calvinist and wanted to spread the good word. In the Victorian era, only sons could be preachers. Indeed, daughters weren't even allowed to stand up before a group of people, never mind speak to them.
In time, however, Harriet, who received her secondary education in Hartford and spent her later life there, would prove her father's vision limited. From her perch in a family of celebrity ministers and activists, Harriet found a way through her writings - most particularly "Uncle Tom's Cabin" - to preach her views with an eloquence and urgency that had far more impact on the world than any sermonizing done by her seven preacher brothers.
From the mid-19th century through its end, there is hardly a major moral or religious issue that Harriet did not address - whether slavery or women's suffrage or temperance.
She wrote about European art and architecture, efficiency and housework, and about how to avoid spoiling your children.
In 1860, she wrote to her editor at The Atlantic Monthly that she would like the "freedom and latitude" to strike "any where when a topic seems to be on the public mind."
As Edward Wagenknecht wrote in his 1965 biography of Stowe, "All in all, it may be doubted whether any American woman had her say so publicly upon so wide a variety of personal and public questions, and I doubt that any other has matched her in kind since."
How Harriet managed to become a kind of Victorian Oprah - with an opinion on most subjects and the clout to be heard internationally - has much to do with the prominence of her illustrious family as well as with her own inborn talent.
The Beecher name alone seemed to endow each family member with a sense of responsibility or destiny to contribute, to act upon a national stage, and a confidence that when they spoke, the world would listen.
Harriet chose fiction as her chief means of expression and influence. She would, in fact, revolutionize American fiction with "Uncle Tom's Cabin," while also transforming public sentiment about slavery, with a writing style that fused the two aspects of her personality - the introvert and the raconteur, the logical and the visceral. She mixed high-brow purpose with a colloquial style.
The impact on readers was dramatic and immediate.
"Everybody imagined there were horrible slave masters, but no one had really thought about their effect on the family," said Mark Schenker, dean of academic affairs at Yale College. The book had readers asking: "You mean they sell children to different families? You mean they split up families?"
The book was dubbed America's first protest novel and was the first to be designated "the great American novel" because of the national scope of its themes and the range of regional characters portrayed.
Ultimately, Stowe would turn out 10 novels, and more than a hundred tales and sketches, while raising seven children and enduring much personal tragedy, severe illness and periods of depression.
But never again would any of her works carry the history-shaping clout of "Uncle Tom's."
The poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, congratulated Stowe on "one of the greatest triumphs recorded in literary history," while writing in his diary, "At one step she has reached the top of the staircase upon which the rest of us climb on our knees year after year."
"I am trying to cultivate a general spirit of kindliness towards everybody. Instead of shrinking into a corner to notice how other people behave, I am holding out my hand to the right and to the left, and forming casual and incidental acquaintances." From a letter written by Harriet while in Cincinnati.
Almost nothing is more propitious for a young writer than to leave home. Although her family came with her, Harriet's departure for Cincinnati in 1832, at 21, had just that transforming effect upon her.
The move was inspired by her father, who was determined to save the West from the Roman Catholics and any other nonevangelical Protestants, and by her sister, Catharine, who planned to open a new school for women and needed Harriet to teach.
From the start, Harriet embraced her new home as a place for growth. It opened her eyes to other cultures, other religions, made her less a New Englander and more an American.
Here, also, Harriet and Catharine were invited to join a literary society called the Semi-Colon Club, which offered Harriet a sympathetic audience for her early writings, as well as friendships.
"This kind of pleasure in acquaintanceship is new to me," she wrote to her friend, Georgiana May.
This bookworm was beginning to enjoy herself. After a party involving four of her woman friends and two young men, she wrote to her brother, George, "As to what we did - don't ask me ... There was pulling of hair & cuffing of ears - & scampering, & screaming, - & pouring water on each other & dancing & hopping and every kind of ing."
Perhaps most important, Cincinnati provided Harriet with a front-row seat in the simmering debate over slavery. Located along the Ohio River, the boundary between what was the slave state of Kentucky and the free state of Ohio, the city was rife with tensions on the topic.
By 1836, the city was sizzling. James Birney, publisher of the abolitionist paper, The Philanthropist, had his office broken into and his press damaged. When he refused to stop publication, some of Cincinnati's most prominent citizens planned to have him mobbed.
Harriet, who had since married a professor and minister named Calvin Stowe and was pregnant with twins, was appalled. It would have been indecorous for a lady to speak out on the issue herself, so Harriet began her anti-slavery writing career using the pseudonym "Franklin" in a letter sent to the editor of the Cincinnati Journal.
The letter uses a technique Harriet would use to great persuasive effect all her writing life. It is written as a conversation between Franklin and a more conservative friend, allowing the reader to hear both sides of an argument as it might unfold naturally, almost like an informed talk radio discussion.
Also in Cincinnati, Harriet for the first time heard the voices of slaves and former slaves.
Eliza Buck, a former slave who worked as Harriet's cook, told how she was sold to a Kentucky slave master who became the father of all her children. Explaining the sexual realities of a slave woman's life, Buck said: "You know, Mrs. Stowe, slave women can't help themselves."
Later, Harriet would not mince words on this subject in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" when Cassie, a slave, speaks of being Simon Legree's mistress: "I've been on this place five years, body and soul, under this man's foot; and I hate him as I do the devil! ... Did I want to live with him? Was n't I a woman delicately bred; and he - God in heaven! What was he, and is he? And yet, I've lived with him these five years, an cursed every moment of my life, - night and day! And now, he's got a new one, - a young thing, only fifteen."
"Since I began this note I have been called off at least a dozen times - once for the fishman, to buy a codfish ... then to nurse the baby - then into the kitchen to make a chowder for dinner and now I am at it again, for nothing but deadly determination enables me ever to write - it is rowing against the wind and tide." - from a letter Harriet wrote to her sister-in-law in 1850.
If Harriet Beecher wanted to write, she probably couldn't have married better.
Calvin Stowe was thought to be the most brilliant biblical scholar of his times in the 1830s, when he came to teach at Cincinnati's Lane Seminary.
His greatest desire in life was to be what he called a "literary man." But he lacked the discipline required to publish and was given to torrents of melodrama and hypochondria.
These personality traits combined to make him a great booster of Harriet's work while also providing her with an urgent reason to write: They were desperately poor and needed money.
In 1842, Harriet, now 35 and the mother of five children, wrote to Calvin of her desire to be a "literary lady," but said, "Our children are just coming to the age when everything depends on my efforts. They are delicate in health, and nervous and excitable, and need a mother's whole attention. Can I lawfully divide my attention by literary efforts?"
Calvin insisted, "You must be a literary woman. It is so written in the book of fate."
Harriet met Calvin through the Semi-Colon Club. While the couple was well-suited intellectually, they had to reckon with vastly different temperaments, poverty, health problems, frequent childbearing and efforts to limit their family size through separation and sexual abstinence.
Calvin chided Harriet for becoming so consumed by whatever interested her at the moment - whether gardening or a particular issue - that she would let the rest of her household responsibilities lapse. That ability proved valuable to Harriet, however. With seven children, how else could she write?
Looking for ways to add to their income, Harriet hired young immigrants to do the housework and to watch the children. By doing so, she wrote to her friend, Georgiana, in 1838, "I have about three hours per day in writing, and if you see my name coming out everywhere - you may be sure of one thing, that I do it for the pay - I have determined not to be a mere domestic slave."
But during these years of childbearing, Harriet also contended with exhaustion, illness and depressed spirits.
In an 1845 letter, she wrote to her husband, "I am sick of the smell of sour milk, and sour meat, and sour everything, and the clothes will not dry, and no wet thing does, and everything smells mouldy; and altogether I feel as if I never wanted to eat again."
During the 1840s, Harriet relied on "blue pills," which doctors dispensed freely for almost any complaint. But the pills contained mercury and might have caused Harriet's ailments.
She eventually spent almost a year at a kind of health spa in Brattleboro, Vt., that offered a "water cure," where she recovered her health and her energy. Nine months after her return home, she gave birth to her sixth child, Samuel Charles, in January 1848. "Charley" was the healthiest child Harriet had had.
She rhapsodized about her youngest so much that Calvin wrote her, "You set your heart upon him so much, I fear the Lord will find it necessary to take him away from us."
His words proved all too prophetic. In the summer of 1849, cholera broke out. In early July, Charley became sick. Harriet used hydropathic remedies - a wet sheet - and he appeared to be recovering.
But on July 16, he became much worse and died five days later.
"It was at his dying bed, and at his grave," she later wrote of Charley, "that I learnt what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her."
"I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed and heartbroken, with the sorrows and injustice I saw." - Harriet's explanation of why she wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in the spring of 1850, Harriet, who had been on the fence about abolition, became outraged.
The federal act compelled all citizens to help capture and return runaway slaves. In essence, all citizens had to actively support slavery or defy the law and risk fines and imprisonment.
Harriet cried tears into her pillow over the "wrongs and sorrows of those oppressed ones," she wrote to her brother, Henry.
She knew she wanted to write something that would open the eyes of the nation to slavery, but what? Having moved to Maine from Cincinnati because Calvin had a new job teaching at Bowdoin College, Harriet was sitting in church in Brunswick on a cold Sunday in February when she saw a vision. She saw a scene in which a slave was being beaten to death by his master with the help of his two lackeys.
Harriet was so disturbed that she went home and wrote it all out. When she ran out of writing paper, she reached for brown wrapping paper and continued.
Exhausted and uncertain what to do with the story, Harriet read it aloud to her children and then abandoned it on her desk.
Calvin came across it weeks later and told Harriet: "You must go on with it. You must make up a story with this for the climax. The Lord intends you."
So began "Uncle Tom's Cabin," in the casual intimate parlor voice that Harriet had perfected long ago in Cincinnati: lawyerly and shrewd in its logic, yet infused with warmth, friendliness, comic irony, intimacy and passion.
To her, slavery was not a political matter. It was a grievous sin that entailed the treating of fellow human beings as "things" and the tearing apart of families.
Harriet's ideas were not radical, but the application of those ideas to slavery provided fresh illumination. As Joan Hedrick wrote in an introduction to "The Oxford Harriet Beecher Stowe Reader," "She spoke for motherhood and the flag and apple pie, but made her readers uncomfortable eating that pie unless others were eating it too."
From the first installment published on June 5, 1851, in the National Era, an anti-slavery weekly just before Harriet's 40th birthday, the nation was fixed on the story.
Neither she nor her publisher ever envisioned how successful the book, which was published on March 20, 1852, would be. By mid-June, 10,000 copies of the book were being sold each week, and within six months, 150,000 copies would be sold.
Sales of the book during the 19th century were second only to the Bible, and it was as popular abroad as at home.
Harriet soon left for a European tour, although owing to Victorian etiquette, the little woman who had spoken so loudly in print was not allowed to address her adoring fans herself.
So she sat by listening while Calvin spoke for her.
"Now it is very easy for me to write, writing is my element as much as sailing is to a duck." - From a letter to her twin daughters, Hatty and Eliza, in 1863.
If Harriet's life had been a fairy tale, it might have ended not long after such huge success.
But she continued to produce prodigiously, though her works never again attracted quite so much attention as "Uncle Tom's Cabin." And, indeed, she lived to see the popularity of her masterwork fade.
In a sense, once slavery ended, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" became a historical artifact, and a misconstrued one at that, as the negative stereotypes associated with "Uncle Tom" - derived from minstrel shows that misrepresented "Uncle Tom" - eventually overwhelmed the book itself.
The literary climate shifted, too. By the late 1800s, "Uncle Tom" was considered too cause-driven to be considered high art. Just the fact that it made people cry and laugh disqualified it as a work to be taken seriously.
Even though the novel had brought her a healthy return, the money didn't last long. With a husband who never had a steady income, Harriet continued to be the main breadwinner with six children to feed, clothe and educate.
The financial situation forced her, as Calvin once feared, to become a "slave" to her pen. During the quarter century following "Uncle Tom's Cabin," for most of which she lived in Hartford, she would turn out nine more novels, more than 100 tales and sketches and many magazine and newspaper articles.
She produced even while enduring personal tragedies.
In 1857, her favorite son, the talented, handsome Henry, drowned in the Connecticut River while on break from Dartmouth. Her third son, Freddy, was an alcoholic whom she tried endlessly to help. He sailed around Cape Horn to San Francisco and went ashore, but disappeared and was never heard of again. Her daughter, Georgiana, used morphine while giving birth to her children and apparently became addicted; she died young.
Of necessity, Harriet became shrewd in her business dealings, often providing publishers with exacting instruction as to how much she should be paid and how her work should be publicized.
Six days after President Lincoln was assassinated, Harriet wrote to her publisher, noting that she had "more to say of our lost President" and suggesting it be packaged with "mourning decorations."
"I think we might sell thousands and I want to say something to thousands."
"I am passing the last days of my life in the city where I passed my school-girl life." - From a letter, 1893.
In 1862, Stowe returned to Hartford, where she and Calvin contracted to build an extravagant eight-gabled home, which some people say was deliberately planned to outdo Nathaniel Hawthorne's seven gables.
But the house soon proved far beyond her means, and she moved into a smaller home at Nook Farm in 1873, where she was Samuel Clemens' neighbor.
She and Clemens shared a sense of humor. Once when Clemens' wife chided him for visiting Stowe without a hat and tie, Clemens sent his butler over with those items on a tray. Stowe quipped that Twain had "discovered a principle ... that a man may call by installments."
In 1878, she published her elegy to her New England childhood, "Poganuc People." The novel had its origins in the oral tradition of the parlor. In a letter, she proposed the book as "my own remembrances of life & times I have thought of calling it Early Days of an odd little girl."
Stowe continued to write well into her 70s, but in 1889, at the age of 78, she suffered a major decline. Her daughter, Hatty, said of Harriet in a letter, "Her mind is in a strange state of childishness and forgetfulness, with momentary flashes of her old self that come and go like falling stars."
A few years later, however, Harriet showed that neither her acuity nor her poetic sense were entirely gone: "My mental condition might be called nomadic. I have no fixed thoughts or objects. ... In pleasant summer weather, I am out of doors most of the time, rambling about the neighborhood & calling upon my friends ...
"And now I rest me, like a moored boat, rising & falling on the water, with loosened cordage and flapping sail."
Harriet died on July 1, 1896, two weeks after her 85th birthday.