Not many novels get more attention in History class than they do in English class, but Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the exception. This episode tells the story of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Yankee white woman who fired up the North in the cause of emancipation.
This episode is part of Series 6: Ground-Breaking Novelists.
Harriet was born in 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut. She had 5 older siblings and 5 younger. The pater familias of this brood was Lyman Beecher, a well-known Calvinist preacher, the type that believed in the utter depravity of the human soul and a dismal afterlife for the majority of humanity.
The portrait she paints of her childhood sounds bleak to us: no children’s books, no toys, no presents or parties. Not even a children’s Sunday School. At church, children sat through her father’s sermons just like everyone else, and those sermons she later said were as intelligible to her as Choctaw (McCullough, 37).
But for all that sternness, Lyman Beecher loved his family. He taught them the value of hard work and of education. Harriet’s older sister opened a school for girls in Hartford, where Harriet was first a student, and then a teacher. But in 1832, Lyman Beecher answered a call to move to the wild West, which meant Cincinnati. He was to preach there, particularly against Catholics. Also he would work at Lane Theological Seminary. The girls, including Harriet, age 21, would set up a new school for girls, and it was to be a grand adventure
Cincinnati was, perhaps, not the most refined place, what with the hog industry letting their charges roam the streets. One visitor said you met both their outsides and their insides at every moment (McFarland 14).
But economically it was booming and that meant culture. Or at least pretensions to culture. The Beechers enthusiastically joined the Semi-Colon Club. And I have to say, reading about that made me want to start a club just so I can name it after a punctuation mark.
The members of the Semi-Colon Club met frequently to discuss music, literature, ideas, and recent articles. It was under their encouragement that Harriet submitted a story called “New England Sketch” to Western Monthly‘s competition, where it took first place and won her $50.
Meanwhile it had become clear to all the Beechers that the great moral issue in the west wasn’t Catholics after all. It was slavery. Kentucky (a slave-owning state) was just across the river. Disagreements over slavery all but destroyed the Lane Theological Seminary Mr. Beecher.
One of the professors who remained was Calvin Stowe. His wife died in a cholera epidemic, which by the way, will be a common occurrence if you let both the insides and the outsides of pigs anywhere near your drinking water. But they didn’t know that. Eliza died. And Harriet became the second Mrs. Stowe in 1836.
Calvin was a great scholar and knew many languages, but as a husband he was decidedly mediocre. Not cruel, not unfaithful. But also more interested in books than in practicalities, which is a characteristic I can relate to. Harriet admitted to a friend shortly before the wedding that she had wondered how she would feel at this point, and she felt nothing at all. Very shortly after the wedding, Calvin went off to Europe to buy books for the seminary and to study European educational technics.
Harriet gave birth to twins without him. She took to motherhood right away, somewhat to the surprise of her family who thought she was such a genius she couldn’t be good at ordinary things like motherhood.
But she was good at it, in more than one way. Calvin came home and Harriet soon had three children under 18 months. She still made time to write every day. Both because she wanted to and because money was tight. She could earn up to $300 a year writing essays on temperance, the virtues of obedient children, and the evils of the theater and dancing.
She used the money to hire help, and some of the women she hired were former slaves from across the river. Harriet listened to their tales in growing horror. She would later claim that the Underground Railroad ran through her house, which was an exaggeration, but it was true that she had helped one woman escape, and she had listened to more than one fellow mother tell her that her children had been sold away, and also that the person doing the selling was often the child’s own father, because slave women could not say no.
Motherhood was particularly on Harriet’s mind as she had child number 4 and child number 5 in quick succession. Calvin was often away, money was tight, her health, both mental and physical, was struggling. In 1845 she wrote to Calvin that “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 ever does, and everything smells moldy; and altogether I feel as if I never wanted to eat again . . . and . . . my unfortunate household has no main spring, for nobody feels any kind of responsibility to do a thing in time, place, or manner, except as I oversee it” (McFarland, 46).
In a calmer moment, she did say that God would provide, and God came through for her. In 1846, friends of the family helped financially, and Harriet went on a water cure, which was very fashionable and promised great results for almost any ailment. When we look at it now, it’s not surprising that they worked so well because most of it is a prescription for general good health. When you were at the water cure, you drank 10 glasses of water a day, ate plain nourishing food, took long daily walks, abstained from tea, coffee, alcohol, and other stimulants, went to bed early in a well-ventilated room. Also your stress levels were low because you had no household or work duties. And at least in Harriet’s case, she was there without her spouse, so she finally got a break from being pregnant. It would be very surprising if she didn’t feel better after all this.
But none of that was the actual water cure. It was called that because in between healthy meals and long walks, you took loads of showers, sat around in wet wraps, slept on wet sheets, and all the water was cold.
Harriet had a great time. She stayed for a year. Then she came home, healthy, happy, and gave birth to her sixth child, named Charley, nine months later. But this time she and baby recovered quickly, and she was able to love and enjoy him more for being healthy herself.
Calvin, who spent his whole life complaining about how his various ailments were about to finish him off, was packed off to the water cure for his own treatment. And while he was gone, cholera returned to Cincinnati and little Charley caught it. For days on end, Harriet tried and failed to help him, and then he died. He was 18 months old.
Here Harriet’s deep faith came in to help her. Grief-stricken as she was, she utterly believed that her beloved son had gone to a better place and that is a point that will be very relevant soon.
In the meantime, life moved on. Harriet had responsibilities. Calvin was offered a job at Bowdoin in Maine. Harriet was the practical one in the family, so she went with all the children to arrange housing. She was also pregnant again. While she was managing budgets, house remodeling, pregnancy, five small children, Calvin wrote from Cincinnati that he was sick in bed, and all but dead. He didn’t expect to ever see his family again and wondered how she would get on as a widow. Harriet knew her husband well. She told a friend that she read the letter, poked it into the stove, and got on with her day (McFarland 60).
Throughout all this, Harriet still found time to write, and also claims to have read to the children two hours a day, which I’m pretty sure means she never slept. But she was healthy and happy.
The nation as a whole was neither healthy nor happy. It was 1850 and Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law saying that not only could slave catchers pursue fugitives into the North, but that Northerners were legally bound to assist them. Northerners like the Beechers were furious. That fall Ellen Craft, who I covered in episode 4.8, was one of several celebrated cases where slave catchers tried to do exactly that and found Northern citizens who did not care what the law said, they weren’t going to help. And amidst all the turmoil Harriet’s sister-in-law wrote her a letter that said, “Hattie, if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is” (McFarland, 62).
Harriet thought that was a good idea and was turning it over in her mind. On a Sunday morning in February, 1851, she sat in church, letting her mind drift and she saw an image of four men: one a black slave on the ground, two other black men beating him mercilessly, and a white man driving them to it. The picture was so vivid Harriet had to restrain her tears. She hurried home and wrote it down. Calvin read it and said: That is your climax. Now write the rest of the book.
The National Era was a weekly magazine that had published Harriet’s stories before. Harriet proposed a serial which she thought would be done in three or four sketches.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The idea was accepted and the first was published on June 5, 1851. But by then the subject had grown. The characters had multiplied. Week after week, Harriet mailed off a chapter and immediately sat down to write the next. Her father had preached against slavery, using logic and the word of God. But Harriet chose to use fiction, not argument. She wrote what she called pictures, or sketches because you cannot argue with a picture and you also cannot get it out of your mind once it is there. She drew on all her resources: seventeen years of experience in Cincinnati, knowing fleeing slaves, talking to her brother who had lived in New Orleans, watching riots break out over abolitionist speaking.
Harriet came to believe that God wrote the book. And she was only an instrument in His hands. She also wrote out of grief, as a mother who had lost her child. Because she believed to the core of her soul that her beloved child was now in a better place. But she had spoken to grieving mothers who knew just the opposite. Their children had been ripped away and sold south, where they would be whipped, overworked, and raped. “Mothers of America,” Harriet wrote in her final chapter, “pity those mothers that are constantly made childless by the American slave-trade! . . . Is this a thing to be defended, sympathized with, passed over in silence?” (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, final chapter).
Northerners lapped this stuff up. They loved the mischievous Topsy and the bravery of Tom. Previous slave narratives had emphasized first cruelty and then the dangers of escape. Harriet included cruelty and escape, but she also included so much more. She was one of the first authors to portray blacks who felt like real people, with a variety of circumstances, personalities, and choices. She had just enough humor to make the subject matter bearable, and not so much as to distract from the point. She made people feel what it meant to be a slave.
Or at least what this Yankee white woman thought it meant to be a slave.
The story was an instant success and obviously in need of publication in book format. The publisher ran it at 5000 copies, which was huge. But it turned out to be far, far too few. Three thousand copies sold on day one. Harriet was getting 10% of the profits, which was money on a scale she had never seen. To give you some perspective, here are some figures: Jane Austen earned a lifetime total of £668 on all her books. Nathaniel Hawthorne earned a lifetime total of $1500 on the Scarlet Letter. Herman Melville earned a lifetime total of $556 on Moby Dick. Harriet Beecher Stowe earned $10,300 on Uncle Tom’s Cabin in just the first three months. It was an absolute publishing sensation, and every other mid-century writer you’ve heard of sat around and oozed envy.
Southerners were appalled. Harriet was somewhat surprised by their reaction. She had tried hard not to demonize white Southerners. She was attacking the institution of slavery, not white Southerners as a whole. The greatest villain, Simon Legree, is a New Englander, like Harriet herself. There are numerous examples of sympathetic whites in the book, caught in an evil system, but not evil in and of themselves.
Southerners didn’t care what she was trying to do. They felt demonized. They felt guilty. They attacked Harriet in every way possible. She was uninformed, she had never been to the South, she was a liar, she was ugly, and worst of all she had unsexed herself by stepping out of a woman’s proper sphere and writing on matters that only men were qualified to discuss.
While most of those complaints are ridiculous and paltry, the novel is also not as wonderful as some of its supporters claimed. By modern standards it is still racist, despite being extremely progressive for its time. It’s also preachy and sentimental. There’s no subtlety to it at all. English teachers can’t force their students to sit around discussing the deeper meaning because there is no deeper meaning. When I read it years ago, I felt like Harriet had a point to make, and she hit you over the head with it on every page. It’s great as propaganda: vivid, clever, and memorable. It’s less great as an aesthetic work of art.
But most of its faults were the same as those of the wider Victorian era. Her fellow Victorians didn’t see them. It was immediately adapted for the stage and even more people saw it than read it. It sold in England even better than it had in the US. The British antislavery society brought Harriet over as a guest, and she went on a grand triumphal tour. Her brother Charles managed thank yous, invites, teas, receptions, etc., and said he was never so tired in his life. Returning home, Harriet plunged herself into more writing, both fiction and nonfiction. Her characters grew angrier as the temperature in the country grew uglier.
In 1853, Harriet published a defense against the claims that Southerners had thrown at her. It listed all sorts of sources documenting the fact that the cruelties she wrote about were neither fictional nor rare. And that book was a phenomenal success too.
She went on a second tour of Europe to secure her copyright there and met Queen Victoria of England. But they met sort of accidentally on-purpose, since officially the Queen could have no opinion at all on a matter internal to another country.
In the midst of all this professional success there was worry at home. Calvin had always encouraged her writing, but he was now a little jealous of her success. Also he had always accused her of being careless with money, and in a sense he was right. Even with so much coming in, she found that she always needed more. Her oldest son Henry drowned while swimming with friends at college. Her son Fred was only a teenager but was already showing signs of being an alcoholic.
None of this stopped Harriet from writing. Her next set of novels ignored slavery and explored her Yankee ancestors instead. But the country had not moved on. A presidential candidate named Abraham Lincoln did not say he would interfere with slavery, so Harriet did not support him. But he got elected anyway, and war broke out, and Fred Stowe was one of the earliest Union volunteers.
Harriet, of course, could not fight. She spent the war years writing an enormous volume of short pieces meant to lift the spirits of people in a grim time: essays on homemaking and the accomplishments of great men of the past. She also wrote a highly publicized address to the women of Great Britain. After the UKs fanatic devotion to her and the antislavery cause, Harriet had expected the UK to support the north, and she was furious when they didn’t.
In 1862, Harriet sought and was granted an audience with President Lincoln himself, where he purportedly said, “So this is the little woman who wrote the book that made this big war?” It wasn’t recorded at the time. Whether he did or didn’t say it, there were many others who felt the same. On January 1, 1863, Harriet was at a performance at the Boston Music Hall when a telegraph came through announcing the Emancipation Proclamation. The crowd clapped and cheered and danced. And somebody started chanting her name “Mrs. Stowe! Mrs. Stowe!” and the crowd picked it up and she was ushered to the front, where she stood crying tears of joy as the crowd gave her thunderous applause, for all the world as if the end of slavery was her accomplishment alone.
It is an overstatement to claim that Harriet was solely responsible for the war or emancipation, but it was she who had made millions feel the emotions of slavery, even if they had never seen or experienced it in real life. And those emotions were a big part of their willingness to go to war.
The post-war years brought more writing. Calvin retired. Harriet supported both her own nuclear family and a lot of extended family as well. They bought a big house in Hartford, which was a financial mistake, and a big property in Florida, which was also a financial mistake.
She was still America’s favorite novelist. But she enraged the country (and indeed the entire English- speaking world) with something she published in 1869. Harriet had met and befriended Lady Byron during her trips to Europe. Lord Byron was the poet, friend of Mary Shelley‘s, who we met last week. He was long since dead. But one of his mistresses had now published a book on him including an explanation of why his cold, unfeeling, terrible wife had left this poor, innocent man, who was not in the least to blame. Harriet was appalled. Lady Byron was dead and could not defend herself. So Harriet did it for her, revealing what her friend had told her: Lord Byron had ended it, sending her away because he was having an affair with his own half-sister.
To accuse the most celebrated romantic poet of incest was an outrage, and the Victorian world was suitably outraged. Harriet’s popularity was not enough to offset it. Very few people defended her, though Mark Twain did. Most people thought it was a blatant lie, written as a publicity stunt. The irony here is that more recent historical research has proved Harriet absolutely correct. Byron was no saint, and incest was only one of the issues that would have scandalized the Victorians if they had known about them all. The double irony is that Byron’s popularity had been fading, but there is no such thing as bad publicity. Harriet’s article was so well distributed that interest in Byron soared.
In later life, Harriet started writing New York society novels. She could even be claimed as the inventor of that genre. But she was not its finest practitioner. It wasn’t really her world. Reviewers hated it, but the public still liked it and it still sold well.
Eventually, Harriet’s mind began to grow confused. She died on July 1, 1896.
Over her long life, Harriet wrote an extraordinary number of words. Her ten novels are only the beginning. If you take a look at stowecollectedworks.org, you’ll see that a project is underway to publish the definitive edition of everything she ever wrote. As of this writing, it is projected to take 32 volumes of 500-600 pages each.
She also had seven children, six of whom she raised to adulthood. I am pointing this out explicitly because some of my sources on Jane Austen openly cheered the fact that she never married because if she had she would have left ten children and no novels. I do see their point, but I still resent the idea that motherhood and other pursuits are mutually exclusive, even for past generations. Harriet managed both.
Her novels don’t make it on the list of greatest novels of all time. But what other novelist can make such a claim to have started a war, even as an overstatement? Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a phenomenon without a parallel.
And there are other claims for it as well. BeforeHarriet, the theater was a degraded place that glorified sin and debauchery. Good, respectable, churchgoing people didn’t go there, as Harriet herself had preached in her early essays. But Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed all that. It was a highly moral play, edifying for the whole family, and therefore perfectly respectable to attend. It does make me wonder: Without Harriet Beecher Stowe, would Lincoln even have been at a theater on April 14, 1865? Maybe not.
In the modern world, to call someone an Uncle Tom is not a compliment. It means a black person who is excessively obedient, even to the extent of betraying black identity. That view is entirely from the stage adaptations, which Harriet did not write. Those playwrights made Tom old, feeble, and slavishly servile because they assumed white audiences would feel threatened by a young, strong black man capable of independent thought. And the saddest part about that is that they might have been correct in that assumption.
But Harriet did not make that concession. Her Tom is young, strong, and self-sacrificing. He obeys when it is in the best interests of those he loves. He disobeys when it is not, even at great personal risk. He accepts death to protect others. He is very consciously and deliberately a Christ-figure, which was the very best compliment that Harriet, a woman of faith, knew how to give.
Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. “Harriet Beecher Stowe.” Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, harrietbeecherstowecenter.org/. Accessed 24 Feb. 2022.
Mccullough, David. BRAVE COMPANIONS : Portraits in History. S.L., Simon & Schuster, 1991.
Mcfarland, Philip. Loves of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Grove Pr, 2008.
Stowe Collected Works. “Collected Works of Harriet Beecher Stowe.” Collected Works of Harriet Beecher Stowe, 27 Dec. 2021, stowecollectedworks.org/. Accessed 24 Feb. 2022.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 1852. Project Gutenberg, Gutenberg, 13 Jan. 2006, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/203. Accessed 24 Feb. 2022.