Happy Birthday, Harriet Beecher Stowe


Harriet Beecher Stowe was born on June 14, 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut, to Roxane Foote and Lyman Beecher.   As her mother passed away when she was only four, she was raised primarily by her father-  a Presbyterian minister who preached temperance, prison reform, and abolitionism.

After receiving a “male education” at a seminary run by her sister, Catharine, she moved to Ohio and married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a staunch abolitionist who taught at the same seminary as her father.   During their time in Ohio, the Stowes became part of the Underground Railroad and hid several fugitive slaves in their house.

A few years later, they settled in Brunswick, Maine.   In 1850, while Calvin taught at Bowdoin College, Harriet was inspired to pick up a pen after Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law which prohibited aid to runaway slaves.    Incensed, Harriet used her own personal recollections she’d heard from the fugitives she’d helped, as well as a memoir written by an escaped slave: Josiah Henson to inspire her work:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Published in 1852, the book which depicted the harsh realities of slavery, was (not surprisingly) condemned by slave owners.  In Mobile, Alabama, a bookseller was run out of town for daring to sell the novel.  Harriet, herself, received a package containing the ear of a slave.   While pro-slavery people condemned the work as slanderous, it fueled the abolitionist movement across the United States.   300,000 copies were sold in the US in its first year of publication.  It went on to become the bestselling novel of the 19th century.

So powerful was its affect on readers, that Abraham Lincoln is quoted as having said upon meeting Harriet,  “So, this is the little lady who has made the big war.”

Nowadays, the book has received much criticism for its stereotypical depictions:  the “happy darky”,  the pickaninny children,  and the “Uncle Tom”- too kind, too quick to please his masters.   From literary critics, it has been accused of being too sentimental and even a child’s fable.

What  hardly can be denied is the power the book had in changing the minds and hearts of many of its contemporary readers.     And  thus, is a fierce reminder of the power of a pen.

On a similar note, on this same day in 1942, a young girl in Holland named Anne Frank,  made her first entry in what would become the most famous diary ever written.

Published in: on June 14, 2010 at 11:52 am  Comments (19)  
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19 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Happy Birthday to Ms. Stowe! And thank the gods we don’t have to dress like that! 😉 Considering the reaction the book produced back when it was first published, I can only IMAGINE what a really hard-hitting version of it, minus the “Uncle Tom” attitude of the titular character, and showing a more raw view of slave life, would have produced. I doubt it would have been published at all.

  2. DD,

    It’s a good thing I had just finished my coffee, otherwise I would have spewed it all over my keyboard in regards to your comment about her dress. 🙂

    And I agree with what you said: she no doubt, did the best she could in accordance with her times. Just writing about such things at all back then took a lot of guts.

  3. I was just hoping that wasn’t her summer wardrobe, but ya never know. They used to go to the beach dressed like that (horror!). 😮

  4. I wouldn’t dress like that, maybe like more like Byron 😛

  5. I’d rather dress like Byron, too, at least I wouldn’t have to hassle with 10 pounds of petticoats and underwear.

  6. DD and Chazz,

    You’re both killing me here. 🙂

  7. Last summer I visited a friend who was working in Hartford CT, and we took a day trip to H.B. Stowe’s house, which in one of those kooky literary coincidences, is right next door to Mark Twain/Samuel Celemens’ house. Both are well-maintained, sweet little museums, the kind of places run by true believers – imagine me giving tours of a James Joyce museum (happy Bloomsday, everybody, just a little late!) or Chazz, dressed as Byron, showing people around the grounds and giving poetry readings. Didge will work out some kind of modern dress Jane Austen presentation, to show young fans just how timeless that work is.

  8. Hey Mary,

    Oh, I love it!

    I have dibs on Emily Bronte: green dress with gigot sleeves, and my hair braided and coiled around the ears.

    Oh, and I’ll get a mastiff, and if any of the visitors speaks to me, I’ll just give them a tiny smile and run off with my dog. Must stay in character, after all 😉

  9. I rather be Keats, i know his poetry better 😛

    At this tour of James Joyce can you explain the meaning of Finnegans Wake 😉

  10. It would have to be an awfully long tour, but we could make a dent in it by starting and ending in the middle! After a few beers and some Irish drinking songs, you’d go home thinking it made sense, anyway…

  11. After a few pints you probably wouldn’t care if it made sense or not 😉

  12. After a few drinks reading it would make more sense 😛

  13. It’s always interesting to see how the same work is viewed in different eras, and I’ve always found the contrast between present-day perceptions of Stowe’s novel and how the work affected people when it first came out pretty fascinating.

    I always love those little museums, the ones often in a house and staffed by volunteers. The Prudence Crandall Home in in Canterbury, CT, is one that I remember being particularly interesting (I blogged about that one, Nathan Hale’s home, and William Beaumont’s home when we went to CT a couple of years ago). Crandall was an educator who ended up being hounded into leaving CT as a result of enrolling a young African-American student in the 1830s.
    Today, Crandall is recognized as the official Connecticut State Heroine.

  14. Dominique, have you ever been to the Eugene O’Neill museum in CT? I’ve friven past that exit dozens of times, but so far have never gone in

  15. Dominique, have you ever been to the Eugene O’Neill museum in CT? I’ve driven past that exit dozens of times, but so far have never gone in

  16. No, we didn’t make it to the O’Neill museum when we were out there…and I suspect it will be a few years before we get back out that way.

  17. Dominique,

    Glad to hear that Prudence is now receiving the honor she deserves!

  18. Oh nice blog post about Stowe! In America, “Uncle Tom” is used as an insult by blacks against other blacks. Well maybe not so much anymore but it’s still considered an insult.

    If you are interested there is a book called “Who wore What?: Women’s wear 1861-1865” written by Juanita Leisch. It’s a pictorial guide to women’s fashion of time using photographs, everything from underclothing to hairstyles. If it helps corsets were not required underclothes.

  19. Hi Lyra,

    Yes, I’m aware of the term being used as an insult. So interesting how the book went from being so praised to being vilified. Although I think now a sense of balance is being settled around it.

    Thank you so much for the book recommendation. I’m aways on the lookout for such things. 🙂

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