Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe (June 14, 1811 – July 1, 1896) was an American abolitionist and author. Her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) was a depiction of life for African-Americans under slavery; it reached millions as a novel and play, and became influential in the United States and United Kingdom. It energized anti-slavery forces in the American North, while provoking widespread anger in the South. She wrote more than 20 books, including novels, three travel memoirs, and collections of articles and letters. She was influential both for her writings and her public stands on social issues of the day.

Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut on June 14, 1811. She was the seventh of 13 children, born to outspoken religious leader Lyman Beecher and Roxana Foote, a deeply religious woman who died when Stowe was only five years old. Her notable siblings included a sister, Catharine Beecher,who was an educator and author as well as seven brothers who became ministers: including Henry Ward Beecher, Charles Beecher, and Edward Beecher .

Harriet enrolled in the seminary (girls' school) run by her sister Catharine, where she received a traditionally "male" education in the classics, including study of languages and mathematics. Among her classmates there was Sarah P. Willis, who later wrote under the pseudonym Fanny Fern. At the age of 21, she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to join her father, who had become the president of Lane Theological Seminary. There, she also joined the Semi-Colon Club, a literary salon and social club whose members included the Beecher sisters, Caroline Lee Hentz, Salmon P. Chase, Emily Blackwell, and others.

It was in that group that she met Calvin Ellis Stowe, a widower and professor at the seminary. The two married on January 6, 1836. He was an ardent critic of slavery, and the Stowes supported the Underground Railroad, temporarily housing several fugitive slaves in their home. They had seven children together, including twin daughters.

In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, prohibiting assistance to fugitives. At the time, she had moved with her family into a home on the campus of Bowdoin College, where her husband was now teaching. On March 9, 1850, Stowe wrote to Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the weekly antislavery journal National Era, that she planned to write a story about the problem of slavery: "I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak... I hope every woman who can write will not be silent." Shortly after, In June 1851, when she was 40, the first installment of her Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in the National Era. She originally used the subtitle "The Man That Was A Thing", but it was soon changed to "Life Among the Lowly". Installments were published weekly from June 5, 1851, to April 1, 1852. Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in book form on March 20, 1852, by John P. Jewett with an initial print run of 5,000 copies. Each of its two volumes included three illustrations and a title-page designed by Hammatt Billings. In less than a year, the book sold an unprecedented three hundred thousand copies. By December, as sales began to wane, Jewett issued an inexpensive edition at 37 1/2 cents each to further inspire sales.

The book's emotional portrayal of the impact of slavery captured the nation's attention. It added to the debate about abolition and slavery, and aroused opposition in the South. Within a year, 300 babies were named "Eva" in Boston alone and a play based on the book opened in New York in November of that year.

After the outbreak of the Civil War, Stowe traveled to Washington, D.C. and there met President Abraham Lincoln on November 25, 1862. Legend has it that, upon meeting her, he greeted her by saying, "so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." In reality, little is known about the meeting. Stowe's daughter Hattie reported, "It was a very droll time that we had at the White house [sic] I assure you... I will only say now that it was all very funny—and we were ready to explode with laughter all the while." Stowe's own letter to her husband is equally ambiguous: "I had a real funny interview with the President."

In the 1870s, Stowe's brother Henry Ward Beecher was accused of adultery and became the subject of a national scandal. Stowe, unable to bear the public attacks on her brother, fled to Florida but asked family members to send her newspaper reports. Through the affair, however, she remained loyal to her brother and believed he was innocent.

Mrs. Stowe was among the founders of the Hartford Art School which later became part of the University of Hartford.

Stowe died on July 1, 1896, at age eighty-five, in Hartford, Connecticut. She is buried in the historic cemetery at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.

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