Early Years and Education
Harriet Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on June 13, 1811. She was the seventh of nine children born to Roxana Foote Beecher, the granddaughter of a Revolutionary general, and Lyman Beecher, a blacksmith's son and Congregational minister. Her mother died when Harriet was five years old, and her father remarried a year later; her stepmother would give birth to four more children. Harriet often visited at the home of her widowed maternal grandmother and unmarried aunt, who instructed her in religion and taught her needlework. Her mother and aunts, although necessarily practiced in domestic skills like spinning and weaving, had also been unusually well educated for young women of their time, and Harriet's early association with the Foote family probably contributed not only to the intellectual curiosity she would have all her life, but also to her confidence that she could combine a career as writer with that of housewife and mother.
At the age of six, Harriet entered primary school and two years later was enrolled in the Litchfield Female Academy. She seems in some ways to have been a rather odd little girl, bright and talented in her schoolwork but also full of mischief, shy but at the same time hungry for attention. Fortunately, her father was proud of her intelligence and imagination. He encouraged her progress in school; indeed, he was to be supportive of her all his life, and the entire Beecher family was to remain close. At thirteen, after listening to one of her father's sermons, Harriet experienced a personal "conversion" and committed herself to Christianity, a commitment she would renew throughout her life.
At about the same age, Harriet moved to the larger city of Hartford, Connecticut, and entered the Hartford Female Seminary, a private secondary school founded a few years earlier by her older sister Catharine Beecher. Harriet was to remain until she was 21, first as a student and, from 1827 to 1832, as a teacher. One of the first American schools for women, the seminary featured classes in many traditional male school subjects such as grammar, composition, English literature, logic, rhetoric and oratory, Latin, and ethics, as well as French, Italian, drawing, and music. Catharine also emphasized the sciences, which she believed were slighted in women's education; her pupils' studies included chemistry, "natural philosophy" (what we would probably call "earth science"), geometry, and astronomy. They also studied geography, and in her last year at the Hartford school, Harriet wrote and published a geography textbook that would remain in print for some years and be adopted by numerous schools.
Early Writing and Marriage
Harriet's first non-academic writing was in letters through which she attempted to express her feelings and beliefs clearly and movingly. Another vehicle for writing, slightly more public, was the unofficial school newspaper, which Harriet edited briefly when she was 14 and for which she wrote frequently. The paper's subjects were mostly playful and humorous or satirical, giving her practice at the irony that would mark the best of her adult writing.
In 1832, Harriet's father moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to head Lane Seminary. Harriet, Catharine, and four more of their siblings traveled with him and his wife by stagecoach. Harriet, just turned 21, would spend her next 18 years in Cincinnati. Within a short while of her arrival in Cincinnati, Harriet was invited to join a social and literary club (the "Semicolons"), an informal group whose members gathered to read aloud from each other's contributions, mostly short, lighthearted, often satirical prose sketches and essays or verse. In this production of what her biographer Joan D. Hedrick calls "parlor literature," Harriet continued to shape herself as a writer.
Among the other members of the "Semicolons" were a young biblical scholar and professor, Calvin Stowe, and his wife Eliza. Eliza and Harriet became close friends. But in August of 1834, while Harriet was visiting relatives in the East, Eliza Stowe died of cholera. Within eight months of his wife's death, Calvin proposed to Harriet, and they were married in January of 1836. In September of that year, Harriet gave birth to twin girls, and sixteen months later to a baby boy. In all, she was to have seven children (and numerous miscarriages) between 1836 and 1850. Her second-to-last child, baby Charley, would die in 1849 at 18 months of cholera. Although hardly an unusual event for the time when infant mortality was still very high, Harriet and her husband suffered intense grief, and this loss would be reflected two years later in the writing of Uncle Tom's Cabin, both in the famous death scene of the saintly child Eva and in the author's identification throughout the novel with parents whose children were taken forcibly from them by the terrible system of slavery.
By 1837, Harriet's geography textbook had sold widely to schools, and she saw that writing could supplement her husband's income. Beginning even before her marriage, Harriet published short fiction in popular magazines and church periodicals, and in 1843, Harper Brothers publishers brought out The Mayflower, a collection of her stories and sketches. She also wrote religious pamphlets and essays in literary criticism.
Less than a year after the death of her sixth child, pregnant with her seventh, Harriet left Cincinnati for Brunswick, Maine, where her husband had accepted a teaching post. She had written very little for five years and had never attempted a long work of fiction, but now she was about to begin the book that would make her famous and would influence antislavery sentiment not only in the United States but around the world as well.
Stowe's Masterpiece and Other Works
Harriet's family and friends had been involved in antislavery activities in Cincinnati, where there was fierce debate (and some violence) not only between pro- and antislavery activists but also among antislavery factions. At least one of Harriet's brothers was a radical abolitionist, while other Beechers, her father among them, were "colonizationists," favoring a "gradual" approach to freeing slaves, who would then be returned to African colonies. Harriet seems to have agreed, at least partly, with the latter view, but she became more radical at the beginning of the 1850s. In part, this may have been because of her child's death and her anxious attachment to the baby born a year later. The inhumanity of a system that separated parents from their children without recourse must have struck her as never before through this event in her personal life. At about the same time, Congress passed a Fugitive Slave Law, requiring that people who had escaped from slavery into the free states of the North be returned to captivity. This latest federal compromise with the slaveholding states of the South, along with Harriet's personal loss, seems to have energized her creatively, and when the editor of the antislavery periodical The National Era invited her to write something for his journal, she began to send him installments of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The story, which turned out to be much longer than Harriet had expected, was published in book form in 1852 and immediately became a bestseller. As its popularity soared, it inspired songs, dramatizations, prints, and paintings. Harriet was soon threatened with a lawsuit by a Philadelphia clergyman whose defense of slavery she had quoted, accurately enough, in the book. The suit was never brought, but the uproar it caused in the press prompted Harriet, helped by family and friends, to collect damning evidence from court records, newspaper accounts, and other sources to support her published allegations about slavery. What she discovered was more horrifying than she had anticipated, refuting the claims of Southern critics that the fictional incidents in Uncle Tom's Cabin were based on invention or exaggeration. Harriet selected and published the results of her research in 1853, in the 259-page book A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Harriet continued to write for publication until 1878. Her non-fiction (or semi-fictional) works, including sketches and essays with fictional narrators, mostly written for various periodicals, were eventually collected in book form as Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands (1854); Household Papers and Stories (1865–67, 1896); Little Foxes (1866); Palmetto Leaves (1873); Women in Sacred History (1874); and Footsteps of the Master (1877).
Her long fiction after Uncle Tom's Cabin is uneven in quality. Both Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856, written during the violent period following passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act) and The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862) start strongly but weaken toward the end, while Agnes of Sorrento (1862), set in a romanticized Italy, is relatively shapeless and shallow. Oldtown Folks (1869), which Harriet hoped would be her masterpiece, suffered from domestic distractions she endured while attempting to finish it, including the necessity to find adequate care for her son Fred, a struggling alcoholic. My Wife and I and Pink and White Tyranny, both published as magazine serials in 1871, are fictional criticisms of contemporary figures and ideas in the women's rights movement. Her last work, Poganuk People (1878), written when Harriet was in her late sixties, is more successful, probably because in writing it she felt not only less pressure to make a specific political or moral statement but also less pressure to complete the work in a specific length of time.
Harriet's most controversial publication came in 1869, with "The True Story of Lady Byron's Life," published in Atlantic Monthly, in which she revealed the scandalous "secret" (actually fairly well known in private circles) of the famous English poet's brief marriage and notorious separation from his wife. The uproar caused by this article prompted her to write Lady Byron Vindicated (1870), which she hoped would support the Atlantic article (as A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin had done for her famous and controversial novel) but which was itself vilified and ridiculed.
After 1878, Harriet virtually retired from writing except for letters. Her husband died in 1886, her daughter Georgiana the next year. Of her six children who had lived to adulthood, only her twin daughters, Hattie and Eliza, and her youngest child, called Charley like the dead infant, survived her. They were with her when she died in 1896 at 85.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was a writer from youth to old age, encouraged by her family and sustained by the conviction that she could accomplish social and moral good in this way, just as her father, husband, and brothers could by preaching and teaching. More than a century after her death, she is remembered almost solely for Uncle Tom's Cabin, the novel that forced white readers to identify and sympathize with the Africans and African Americans enslaved in the Southern United States. Today, it is difficult to realize the electrifying power of this book when it first appeared. It is easy to find fault with the overwhelming sentimentality of Little Eva's death scene, which affected nineteenth-century readers much differently than it does us; with the condescending characterization of some of the slaves; and especially with the sweet Christian passivity of Uncle Tom himself, whose behavior is the antithesis of what our own age finds admirable. Still, Uncle Tom's Cabin remains arguably the most important work of fiction ever published in the United States: a bold moral statement by a woman in a day when women were expected to be silent, and an unabashed portrait of American life in a day when American literature was still in the process of defining itself. Above all, it was a book that swayed its millions of readers into opposition to the monstrous institution of slavery, whose roots were buried in the earliest days of the nation and whose consequences extend into our own time.