Today is the birthday (1811) of Harriet Elisabeth Beecher Stowe, a U.S. abolitionist and author, famous for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) which was an honest 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, not to mention a household management book which she co-authored with her sister Catharine. She was influential both through her writings and her public stands on social issues of the day
Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, the seventh of thirteen children. Her parents were the 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 brothers who became ministers: including Henry Ward Beecher, who became a famous abolitionist, Charles Beecher, and Edward Beecher.
Harriet was 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, Stowe had moved with her family into a home near the campus of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where her husband was teaching. Stowe had a vision of a dying slave during a communion service at the college chapel, inspiring her to tell his story. 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. For the newspaper serialization of her novel, Stowe was paid only $400. 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 ½ 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” after a main character in Boston alone, and a play based on the book opened in New York in November of that year.
After the start of the Civil War, Stowe traveled to Washington, D.C. and there met President Abraham Lincoln on November 25, 1862. Stowe’s daughter Hattie reported, “It was a very droll time that we had at the White house 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.” What exactly Lincoln said is a minor mystery. Her son later reported that Lincoln greeted her by saying, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Her own accounts are vague, including the letter reporting the meeting to her husband: “I had a real funny interview with the President.”
In the years following the Civil War, Stowe campaigned for the expansion of married women’s rights, arguing in 1869 that:
The position of a married woman is, in many respects, precisely similar to that of the negro slave. She can make no contract and hold no property; whatever she inherits or earns becomes at that moment the property of her husband. Though he acquired a fortune through her, or though she earn a fortune through her talents, he is the sole master of it, and she cannot draw a penny. In the English common law a married woman is nothing at all. She passes out of legal existence.
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.
Following Calvin Stowe’s death in 1886, Harriet’s own health started to decline rapidly. By 1888 the Washington Post reported that as a result of dementia she started,
. . . writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin over again. She imagined that she was engaged in the original composition, and for several hours every day she industriously used pen and paper, inscribing long passages of the book almost exactly word for word. This was done unconsciously from memory, the authoress imagining that she composed the matter as she went along. To her diseased mind the story was brand new and she frequently exhausted herself with labor which she regarded as freshly created.
Mark Twain, a neighbor of Stowe’s in Hartford, recalled her last years in the following passage of his autobiography:
Her mind had decayed, and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irish woman. Among the colonists of our neighborhood the doors always stood open in pleasant weather. Mrs. Stowe entered them at her own free will, and as she was always softly slippered and generally full of animal spirits, she was able to deal in surprises, and she liked to do it. She would slip up behind a person who was deep in dreams and musings and fetch a war whoop that would jump that person out of his clothes. And she had other moods. Sometimes we would hear gentle music in the drawing-room and would find her there at the piano singing ancient and melancholy songs with infinitely touching effect.
Some modern researchers now speculate that at the end of her life Harriet was suffering from some form Alzheimer’s disease.
Harriet Beecher 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.
Rather than have me go into a long analysis of Uncle Tom’s Cabin I would rather that you read the book. It is not widely read any more, which I think is a shame because it is complex and full of surprises. The one point I will make is that the term “Uncle Tom” meaning a black man who is passively accepting of white culture is unwarranted. It came about in the 1940’s when author and social critic James Baldwin used it in that manner. Tom is, in fact, far from being an Uncle Tom. Stowe’s Uncle Tom displays an extraordinary nobility of character in the face of hideous events including being whipped by a cruel owner. Read the book and you will see a man anyone would be proud to call a friend.
Harriet’s sister Catharine was active in education reform, abolitionism, women’s rights, religion, and domestic science (a term still used in my secondary schools in Australia and England in the 1960’s as a way of elevating “women’s work.”). She wrote several books on domestic science including The American Woman’s Home in 1869 with Harriet, Principles of Domestic Science as applied to the Duties and Pleasures of Home (1870), and Housekeeper and Healthkeeper (1873). She also wrote a standard cookbook Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book (1846). A searchable facsimile of the first edition of Housekeeper and Healthkeeper can be found here:
Most of the recipes are basic – daily recipes for the household cook. Yet they provide a window into middle class living in the U.S. in the nineteenth century. Many of the recipes are of English or French origin, but the Beecher sisters seem adamant to represent the book as “American” cooking. Well worth dipping into.
One recipe that caught my eye was gold and silver cake, which is, in fact, two cakes made similarly but one using egg yolks and brown sugar (gold) and the other using egg whites and white sugar (silver). They suggest cutting them in pieces and serving them mixed on a plate. You can also make a layered cake from the two, alternating gold and silver with a filling between the layers. Here is the original recipe:
Gold and Silver Cake. – This makes a pretty variety when cut and placed together in a cake-dish. For each, take one cup of sugar (for the silver, white; for the gold, brown), half a cup of butter, half a cup of milk, two cups of flour, one tea-spoonful of cream tartar, and half as much soda. For the one, use the yelk (sic) of three eggs; and the white, as still froth, for the other. Mix the cream tartar very thoroughly in the flour, and put in the soda last. Bake immediately. This makes one loaf of each kind, in flat pans, and is to be frosted. If more is wanted, double the quantity of each ingredient.