When President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1863, he reportedly said, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!"
Uncle Tom's Cabin may not have caused the Civil War, but it shook both North and South. It declared the profound value of a human soul and made emancipation inevitable. Susan Bradford wrote, after her state of Florida seceded, "If Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe had died before she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, this would never have happened."
Harriet was born in 1811, the seventh of 12 children of Congregationalist minister, noted revivalist, and reformer, Lyman Beecher. In 1832 the family moved to the frontier city of Cincinnati, where Harriet's father became president of Lane Seminary, soon a center for abolitionists. At 25, Harriet married Calvin Ellis Stowe, professor of biblical literature at Lane.
During her child-rearing years, Harriet read to her seven children two hours each evening and for a time, ran a small school in her home. She described herself as "a little bit of a woman, just as thin and dry as a pinch of snuff; never very much to look at in my best days and very much used-up by now, a mere drudge with few ideas beyond babies and housekeeping."
But a mere drudge she was not. She found time to write, partially to bolster the meager family income. Her early literary success at age 32 (for a collection of short stories) encouraged her, but she still worried about the conflict between writing and mothering. Despite anxiety due largely to her husband's precarious health, she wrote continually and in 1843 published The Mayflower; or, Sketches of Scenes and Characters Among the Descendants of the Pilgrims.
Her husband urged her on, predicting she could mold "the mind of the West for the coming generation." That she did with the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin or Life Among the Lowly at age 40.
Underground Railroad view
She had lived for 18 years in Cincinnati, separated only by the Ohio River from a slave-holding community in Kentucky. She gained firsthand knowledge of fugitive slaves from friends and through her contact with the Underground Railroad. The secret network was started in defiance of the "Fugitive Slave Acts" (severe measures that mandated the return of runaway slaves without trial) to help escaped slaves reach safety in the North or in Canada. Stowe herself helped some slaves escape.
But Stowe still brooded over what else she could do. Then, during a church Communion service, the scene of the triumphant death of Tom flashed before her. She soon formed the story that preceded Tom's death.
Million copy bestseller
In 1850 her husband became professor at Bowdoin College and moved his family to Brunswick, Maine. In Brunswick, Stowe wrote the story of Uncle Tom's Cabin for serial publication in the National Era, an antislavery paper of Washington, D.C., in 1851 and 1852 in 40 installments, each with a cliffhanger ending. Her name became anathema in the South.
But elsewhere the book had an unparalleled popularity; it was translated into at least 23 languages. When it appeared in book form, it sold one million copies before the Civil War. The dramatic adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin played to capacity audiences. Stowe reinforced her story with The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), in which she accumulated documents and testimonies against slavery.
Its publication also inspired a reaction from the South: critical reviews and the publication of some 30 anti-abolitionist Uncle Tom novels within three years.
By literary standards, the novel's situations are contrived, the dialogue unreal, and the slaves romanticized. Still, Stowe communicated the absurdity of slavery through Tom's triumph over the brutal evil of Simon Legree.
Until her death in July 1896, Stowe averaged nearly a book a year, but Uncle Tom's Cabin was her finest legacy.
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