Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born into an era in which women were assigned an inferior role. But through her writing, and her most famous work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe was influential in the abolitionist cause.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born on 14 June 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut, USA. She was the sixth of the eight children of Reverend Lyman Beecher and his first wife, Roxanna. After the death of her mother in 1816, Harriet’s father took a second wife, also Harriet, and three more children followed.

In the early nineteenth century few schools gave instruction to girls in academic subjects, preferring to concentrate mainly on domestic and artistic skills, but Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Female Academy offered a rounded education. The young Harriet began her studies at the academy, where her father taught religion, before transferring, in 1824, to Hartford Female Seminary, an establishment founded by her eldest sister, Catherine. After completing her education, Harriet stayed on at Hartford as a teacher.

In 1821 the Beecher family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where her father was appointed President of Lane Theological Seminary. Catherine Beecher founded another school in Cincinnati and Harriet taught there until its closure in 1836.

Harriet had always been a keen writer, winning a school essay contest at the age of seven, but in the 1830s she started to publish her work. Primary Geography for Children was published in 1833 and a collection of short stories in 1835.

In 1836 she married Calvin Stowe, a theology professor. Six of their seven children were born in Cincinnati before they moved to Brunswick, Maine, in 1850. Encouraged by her husband, Harriet continued to write. The Mayflower: Sketches of Scenes and Characters Among the Descendants of the Pilgrims was published in 1843 and articles, essays and short stories by Harriet Beecher Stowe regularly appeared in newspapers and journals.

Stowe also started to write about slavery. Ohio was a free state, but just to the south of the Ohio river lay the slave state of Kentucky. Her observations from visits to the south, contacts with fugitive slaves and her reading of abolitionist publications led to the compilation of notes that would form the foundations of Stowe’s most famous work.

On 5 June 1851 The National Era published the first instalment of a tale of slavery. Originally intended as a series of three or four instalments, Stowe wrote over forty. The collection was published in two volumes as Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 and was an instant success, selling over 300,000 copies in its first year.

Not surprisingly, Uncle Tom’s Cabin divided opinion in the USA. The book was celebrated by abolitionists in the north but was denounced in the south, along with Stowe herself. Details of slavery in the book were disputed so, in 1853, Stowe published a compilation of testimonies and source documents in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in book form and on the stage, enabled Stowe to write full time and led to a visit to England in 1853 and speaking tours of the USA after her family moved back to Hartford when her husband retired in 1864. She continued to write novels, text books and essays on religious reform, family life and slavery, including Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp in 1856.

Stowe’s last novel, Pogunuc People, was published in 1878 and included scenes inspired by her childhood in Connecticut. In 1889 a biography of Stowe by her son Charles was published, written with assistance from Stowe herself.

Harriet Beecher Stowe died on 1 July 1896 at the age of 85. During her career she published over 30 books and many essays and articles. In an era when it was difficult for women to stand up and be heard, Stowe managed to gain a voice through the written word. Whether or not Uncle Tom’s Cabin influenced the American Civil War, as is sometimes claimed, it is clear that Stowe was effective in spreading her message.

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