Harriet Beecher Stowe: ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin’
Harriet Beecher Stowe is best known as the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life among the Lowly. This novel helped spur the abolitionist cause and contributed to the outbreak of the American Civil War. Uncle Tom's Cabin sold over 300,000 copies in the U.S. in its first year and continued to have strong sales. After publication of the book, Stowe quickly became an international celebrity and an extremely popular author. Her book was read not only in the United States but also in England and other parts of Europe, and was translated into more than 60 languages. In addition to her novels, poetry and essays, Stowe wrote non-fiction books on various subjects including homemaking, the raising of children, and religion.
Article continues after this newspaper image from the April 15, 1852, issue of The National Era (Washington DC)
Stowe was born on June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her father, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, was a prominent and influential Congregational minister. During a time when few took the education of girls seriously, Stowe pursued an education at Hartford Female Seminary. The school was established by her older sister Catharine, who stressed the importance of written expression, and as a result her students spent many hours composing essays on various topics. Under her sister’s guidance and strict teaching methods, Stowe received an outstanding education and began to develop her growing talent as a writer.
In 1832 Harriet Beecher moved with her family to Cincinnati, Ohio. There she met and married Calvin E. Stowe. It was here in Cincinnati that Stowe first encountered the horrors of slavery. Cincinnati was just across the river from Kentucky, which at the time was still a slaveholding state. Fugitive slaves frequently fled Kentucky and other slave states in hopes of obtaining their freedom. Individuals with anti-slavery views often helped runaway slaves by taking them to safe houses located along the secret Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was comprised of abolitionists who made it a goal to help as many slaves as possible make it to freedom.
Stowe decided to write a book to help put an end to slavery. Uncle Tom's Cabin was first printed as individual chapters in the abolitionist newspaper, The National Era, in 1851-52. It was published in book form in 1852 and soon became a best seller. Some criticized the novel because Stowe had never traveled to the South and thus could not possibly know the truth about slavery. Southerners in particular criticized her work, claiming it did not depict slavery accurately or fairly. Abolitionists praised the work for showing how cruel slavery actually was. Stowe's inspiration for the novel came from her and her family's own experiences with fugitive slaves, interviews conducted with freedmen, as well as her reactions to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which made it a crime to aid runaway slaves.
While there are many factors that led to the outbreak of the American Civil War, the issue of slavery was the biggest cause—wrapped up in an equally divisive issue, states' rights. Legend has it that when Stowe met President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, he proclaimed, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War!" Because Uncle Tom's Cabin had such strong emotional appeal, it was able to inspire people in a way that no newspaper editorial or political speech could. The characters of Uncle Tom, Eliza, Eva, Topsy, and Simon Legree were able to bring the evils of slavery to the attention of the American people as had never been done before.
During her writing career Stowe wrote 30 books and numerous short stories and poems, but none of her work became as popular as Uncle Tom's Cabin. Following the Civil War she worked to establish several schools and boarding homes for the education of former slaves. Her husband Calvin continued to show his support for her as an author throughout their marriage. In a letter written in 1840, he told her "My dear, you must be a literary woman. It is so written in the book of fate...Make all your calculations accordingly." When she died on July 1, 1896, Harriet Beecher Stowe was given a dignitary's funeral.
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