Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896).
Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly.
Boston: John P. Jewett & Company;
Cleveland: Jewett, Proctor & Worthington, 1851-52. (BRA0822)
Few monuments of literature can match the social influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe. In the decade preceding the American Civil War, during which the book sold an unprecedented three million copies, its story of a family torn apart by slavery galvanized the abolitionist movement and turned America’s “original sin” into a life-and-death issue not only for slaves, but for millions who either benefited from slavery or otherwise might not have considered it to be their concern.
Harriett Beecher Stowe was born to a prominent Connecticut family whose patriarch, Lyman Beecher, was a Presbyterian minister and leader in the temperance movement. Educated at a school run by her older sister, she moved with the family to Cincinnati in 1821. There she entered literary circles and met her husband, Calvin Ellis Stowe, a seminary professor with whom she had seven children. The couple worked in opposition to slavery and temporarily harbored several fugitive slaves in their home.
In early 1851, soon after the Stowes had moved to Brunswick, Connecticut, the future author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin experienced a vision of a dying slave while she was taking communion. A story about a slave family developed quickly in her mind, and in June of that year weekly installments began to appear in The National Era, an abolitionist newspaper based in Washington, DC. The resulting novel was an immediate success, eventually ranking second only to the Bible among English best-sellers of the nineteenth century. Although some critics now believe Stowe’s characterizations extended the survival of demeaning stereotypes, by the standards of its time Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a major step forward for race relations and human rights.
Listen as curator Dr. Eric White talks about Harriet Beecher Stowe during a tour.