Harriet Beecher Stowe is of course the world famous author of Uncle Tom's Cabin which by the last official count in 1995 had been translated into sixty-eight languages,
from Arabic to Vietnamese, with more appearing each year. The most famous credit given
this author was made by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 when he allegedly greeted her with
the question, "Is this the little woman who made this great war?" And she was little,
barely five feet tall, which must have made quite a contrast with his six foot four
frame. She was also thought to have influenced not just the beginning of the Civil
War, but many others, such as the Russian Revolution when Russians saw the correspondence
between their serfs and our slaves.
This novel went from being praised by almost everyone but slaveholders, to being dismissed
by male critics after the Civil War. Up to then writing and telling stories was a
parlor game, but by the 1870's men realized fiction writing could be a very lucrative
career. This realization was due in large part to Mrs. Stowe's success. (I'll call
her Harriet after this if you don't mind. Mrs. Stowe sounds a bit stuffy, Harriet
Beecher Stowe is too long, and HBS doesn't do well in the possessive.) Most female
authors were excluded from being published after the New Critics dismissed their work
as unformed and sentimental. Harriet continued to be able to make a living, and
agreed to be the sole support of their family when her husband wanted to retire early,
but only by being very prolific and writing on a variety of subjects.
By the twentieth century, New Criticism had become dogma. By mid-century Black civil
rights activists, finding her character Tom too passive and eager to please, turned
'Uncle Tom' into a pejorative term. But since the growth of women's influence in the
literary world starting in the 1970's, and the renewed interest in and appreciation
of Uncle Tom's Cabin by African American academics like Henry Louis Gates and David S. Reynolds, there
has been an upsurge in sales of Harriet's book as well as an upsurge in her reputation.
It is really a very exciting story and the characters much more nuanced than those
in the theatrical melodramas based on it. In the novel, Tom is a strong, middle-aged
man and extremely courageous, 'uncle' being an honorific rather than a suggestion
of age. As Reynolds writes in Mightier Than the Sword, "While regaining stature globally, Uncle Tom's Cabin and its author are breeding ever-intensifying interest and discussion. If the New
Critics found the novel lacking in the qualities they valued – paradox, ambiguity,
organic unity – more recent readers, tapping interdisciplinary approaches that have
burgeoned over the past several decades, have shown that the novel is uniquely rich
in its treatment of socially charged themes like gender, sex, race, religion, and
While much more can be said about the novel and the theatre performances it inspired,
(one of which I saw recently at the Metropolitan Theatre in New York), I plan to concentrate
in this discussion on the influence that the inhabitants of Guilford, Connecticut,
had on this remarkable woman, in particular both her parents and her aunts and uncles,
and perhaps one Candace, all of whom grew up there.
It all began when Lot and Catherine Lyman Benton, who had inherited a farm in North
Guilford and who had no children, adopted Catherine's sister's infant son. The sister
had died of consumption shortly after his birth. Her child was named Lyman Beecher.
He was frail, but he survived, locals believed, because of the invigorating air of
the hill country of North Guilford.
Uncle Lot Benton tried to turn Lyman into a farmer, but, according to Yester- Years in Guilford, "giving up the task in despair, had sent him to college as a last resort." Since
Mr. Benton would have no farmer son to whom he could bequeath his farm, he bought
the house his grandfather Caleb Benton had built, owned at the time by Caleb Benton,
Jr. It stood facing the Guilford Green in the spot now occupied by the First Congregational
Church. Lyman came back to this house during vacations from Yale, often bringing along
his friend Ben Baldwin who was calling on Betsy Chittenden at the home of her grandfather,
General Andrew Ward. He asked Lyman Beecher to come along.
General Ward had a large household since he had kindly taken in his daughter Roxana
and her ten children after her husband, Eli Foote, died of yellow fever suddenly on
a trip to the south. Another daughter, Diana, who had married Deacon Abraham Chittenen,
died when her daughter Betsy was seven, so this child also came to live with her grandfather.
It was she, now a young woman, whom Ben Baldwin was courting. Two other girls in the
household were of marriageable age, Harriet and Roxana, the latter named after her
mother. (And guess who our Harriet was named after.) Lyman fell in love at once with
the gentle and accomplished Roxana. Her sister Harriet, described as an acute and
skillful controversialist, loved to match her knowledge of Episcopal church history
and doctrine against the theological talents of young Congregationalist ministers.
She was a little too challenging to suitors it seems, since she never married, though
it is possible this strong minded woman did not wish to. According to Joan Hedrick
in her biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lyman "may have judged that Roxana's gentle
and compliant spirit would be more companionable than the satiric wit of her sister
Harriet whom Lyman described as 'a little too keen.'" Roxana was an artist, widely
read, who could sew, and spin and weave flax, and was fluent in French, thanks to
the tutoring of a French West Indies emigrant named Nicholas Loyselle, who painted
his Guilford house black when he learned of the death of Louis the Sixteenth.
In those days Roxana and Lyman were considered a 'mixed marriage': Congregationalist
vs. Episcopalian, democratic vs. aristocratic, a patriot vs. an anglophile. Nevertheless
she eventually agreed to marry him and the wedding was held at General Andrew Ward's
house in 1799, the same year he graduated from Yale as a Congregationalist minister.
His first assignment was to a church in East Hampton, Long Island, a town way off
in the boondocks. Uncle Lot Benton hired a sloop for their crossing of Long Island
Lyman was entering the ministry at the beginning of the religious revival called the
Second Great Awakening, convinced that the conversion of the world to Christ was near.
He had enormous energy, confidence, and intellect, and was determined to play an important
part in defining the emerging national culture. Though believing in original sin,
he thought the way to heaven could be won by good works. The harsher earlier Calvinists,
like Jonathan Edwards, thought those to be saved were predetermined and few. Lyman
was often in theological battles with church fathers and in fact was twice tried for
heresy, clearing himself by acting as his own lawyer. He thought that conversion was
all-important and pressured his congregation and his children to experience what today
would be called being "born again."
These children were coming every couple of years. They were named Catherine, William,
Edward, and Mary. Roxana had her fifth in 1808 and named her Harriet after her favorite
sister. When the baby was a month old she died of whooping cough. Lyman Beecher reported
in his Autobiography on Roxana's absence of 'agitation' when learning of her baby's death, "I never saw
such resignation to God. It was her habitual and only frame of mind and even when
she suffered most deeply, she showed......an entire acquiescence in the Divine Will."
The next year George was born.
In 1810, after the parishioners refused to raise his salary, Lyman accepted a position
in Litchfield, CT. After a year Roxana gave birth to a girl baby who she again named
Harriet, then a little over one year later came Henry Ward, and two years after that
Charles was born. A year after that, this 'angel in the house' died of consumption.
Harriet had few actual memories of her. In such a busy household, parents had little
time to listen to children's small tragedies. As Harriet described a mother in her
last novel, Poganuc People, set in New England, "the mother [is] at her very wits end with a confusion of jackets
and trousers, soap, candles, and groceries, and the endless harassments of making
both ends meet which pertain to the lot of a poor country minister's wife." It was
all a parent could do to keep the children clothed, fed, and healthy. Harriet's favorite
rooms in the Litchfield parsonage were the kitchen and her father's study. She found
sociability in the kitchen and books in the study.
While much of the information included here comes from Joan Hedrick's distinguished
biography (which I encourage everyone to read), here is one piece of original research
I believe I have discovered: In the kitchen Harriet found black servants, indentured
and free, and hired white girls, who encouraged her repressed urge to share her thoughts.
Harriet recalled a black woman named Candace, hired to help out with the mounds of
family laundry in the Litchfield household. Any who have read of the slaves in Guilford
knows about a Candace. She was the daughter of Montross and Phillis, and was supposed
to be freed at the death of Mr. Naughty who owned the family, but the eponymous Mrs.
Naughty made her and her three brothers into indentured servants instead. She was
sent to work for the Parmelees at Hyland House and when they died to the Bartletts.
But the latter died young, and she became free at the age of thirty-eight. She married
Clarence Bow and lived in a house on a plot of land given to her father Montross by
Mr. Naughty, a part of the Naughty farm, which exactly borders on the Ward-Foote property.
It is unimaginable that Candace, living right next door, wasn't known by the Footes
and probably worked for them. The last mention of her found locally is in a history
of the Welds, a Guilford family, where she's described as a domestic worker in 1810,
"going here and there for the accommodation of the public, sometimes washing, sometimes
making wedding cakes." Though she is also called "poor old worn out Candace," she
was earlier described as strong and capable. She would have been sixty when Harriet
was born in 1811. The Footes may well have suggested that she be hired by Roxana and
Lyman to help out in Litchfield.
Harriet's memory of Candace suggests that for her the kitchen at Litchfield was a
place of emotional as well as verbal expression. Right after her mother had died,
while the family prayer session was going on in the next room, Candace took Harriet
aside into the kitchen and, as she remembered in her father's Autobiography, "held me quite still till the exercises were over, and then she kissed my hand and
I felt her tears drop on it. There was something about her feeling that struck me
with awe. She scarcely spoke a word, but gave me to understand that she was paying
homage to my mother's memory." So here we have another probable influence of a Guilford
native, one who would have known Harriet's mother since she was a girl and could have
helped with her wedding since she lived nearby in Nutplains. Candace would have been
free and 48 at the time. This woman, be she our Guilford Candace or another, helped
Harriet know, and feel, at her deepest level, that Africans were fully human, thus
making slavery abominable to her.
Aunt Harriet, who had been nursing her sister for six weeks, took her niece Harriet
back with her to Guilford where the child stayed for a year. Before that, when she
was three, when Henry Ward was two and Roxana was busy with her ninth child, Harriet
had also spent nearly a year there. This was the way that Victorian women, with large
families, got help in handling their households. They shared child care with relatives
and friends. Roxana had been helping to raise an orphaned niece as well as raising
her eight living children. And she was among the fortunate since she had the help
of two black indentured servants, Rachel and Zillah, Candace, and white help from
recent immigrants, mainly Irish, and a Beecher relative who lived either with them
or nearby throughout Harriet's childraising years as well, Aunt Esther.
Although in years to come Roxana was worshipped by her widowed husband as a saint,
and thrown up to his children as perfect to the detriment of their mental health,
in a rushed letter to her sister-in-law, quoted in Lyman's Autobiography, she was able to express her true feelings:
Would now write you a long letter, if it were not for several vexing circumstances,
such as the weather extremely cold, storm violent, and no wood cut; Mr. Beecher gone;
and Sabbath day, with company –a clergyman, a stranger; Catherine sick; George almost
so; Rachel's finger cut off, and she crying and groaning with pain. Mr. Beecher is
gone to preach at New Hartford, and did not provide us with wood enough to last, seeing
the weather has grown so exceedingly cold.....As for reading, I average perhaps one
page a week, besides what I do on Sundays. I expect to be obliged to be contented
(if I can) with the stock of knowledge I already possess, except what I can glean
from the conversation of others.....Mary has, I suppose, told you of the discovery
that the fixed alkalies are metallic oxyds. I first saw the notice in the "Christian
Observer." I have since seen it in an "Edinburgh Review." The former mentioned that
the metals have been obtained by means of the galvanic battery, the latter mentions
another, and, they say, better mode. I think this is all the knowledge I have obtained
in the whole circle of arts and sciences of late; if you have been more fortunate,
pray let me reap the benefit.
Harriet tried, with frustration, to reach her mother's supposed self-denial, later,
as a wife and mother, but was also determined to arrange her life so that she could
write each day. This determination to use her talents was due in large part to the
influence of her Guilford relatives. In that household her mother was remembered as
an intellectual, a broadly talented woman, and she was able to see the portraits Roxana
had drawn on ivory and her artistic embroidery.
Harriet's Grandmother Foote, within two years of being widowed, had lost her three
oldest children. Her father, General Andrew Ward, was so upset at the deaths of his
two grandsons that he insisted in his will a family cemetery be established on his
property. The boys had become overheated while carrying a relative's casket to the
Guilford Green, two miles to the south. (It still exists today, maintained by the
General Andrew Foote Cemetery Association, and can be followed on line at the website,
"One Foote in the Grave.") In 1813, three years before Roxana's death, Grandmother
Foote had lost a fourth child, twenty-eight year old Mary Foote Hubbard, from consumption.
Married at eighteen, she had sailed, along with her sixteen year old brother Samuel
who signed on as a clerk, to the West Indies with her new husband, a Jamaican planter.
There she learned that he had sired mulatto children with his slaves. She beat a hasty
retreat from the marriage back to Guilford and Nutplains. When she died ten years
later some said it was from a broken heart, albeit a very slowly breaking heart.
When Grandmother Foote lost her namesake Roxana, a fifth child, she felt a special
bond to this daughter's children. For Harriet, her time in Guilford was remembered
as her most golden hours of childhood, feeling enfolded in her grandmother's care
and Aunt Harriet's teachings. Aunt Harriet had become the stock of family tradition
and neighborhood lore, collapsing her nieces and nephews into laughter at her wry
way of story telling. Harriet later said, "A more energetic human being never undertook
the education of a child." At one point she decided her charge should learn both the
Episcopal and the Congregationalist catechisms, but to the relief of the younger Harriet
she decided that would be too much. She decided Harriet could learn the Congregationalist
version when she got home. Later in life however, after her fire and brimstone preacher
father was dead, Harriet and her daughters joined the Episcopal church, thinking it
was better for children since it didn't demand a dramatic conversion but rather a
gradual acceptance of Christ's teachings.
Aunt Harriet and her sister Roxana were the last generation of New England women who
did their own spinning and weaving. The older Harriet told her brother George during
a visit to him in New York that she needed to return to Guilford since "I must see
to the weaving of the vast quantities of yarn that I have spun during the past winter."
These traditional domestic arts were an important part of these sisters' identification,
but the transition to factory production was beginning. One example of this transition
was the spinning mill built by General Andrew Ward at the back of his house in Nutplains.
"Castle Ward" as it was called by the family was situated on the East River which
was navigable by rowboat right up to the Ward property. The small spinning mill could
turn three or four spinning wheels by water power. Harriet's mother and her friends
loved to spin, chat, and read there.
Harriet Beecher came of age in the 1830's, the golden age of the Lowell Mills, but
for her, Nutplains stayed connected to the pre-industrial past. Except for a few shoemakers
and blacksmiths, Guilford people were farmers, fishermen, or seamen. As Bernard C.
Steiner in The History of Guilford notes, "Sea captains built their vessels in Guilford and often engaged in the lucrative
and dangerous West Indies trade." This is how Mary Foote Hubbard had her unfortunate
association with a Jamaican planter and Roxana Foote, her fortunate association with
a tutor in French. Samuel Foote was directly involved in this trade as well as traveling
to other faraway ports. The curtains around Harriet Beecher's bed were Indian linen
full of what she described as "strange mammoth plants and giant birds which Uncle
Samuel had brought home along with frankincense from Spain and mats and baskets from
Magadore which Aunt Harriet loved to display during Beecher children's visits."
Harriet probably didn't return to Litchfield until her father had married Harriet
Porter in the fall of 1817. This wife was much like her predecessor: intellectual,
well-connected through uncles who were governors, bishops, and congressmen of Maine,
and proud of her husband's evangelical work. Edward and William soon left for college,
and the younger children were cared for by Catherine and Mary since Harriet Porter
Stowe was soon occupied, in 1818, by the first of her four children, Frederick, followed
by Isabella, Thomas, and James.
Uncle Samuel became one of Harriet's most important intellectual influences. After
each voyage he would come among them in Litchfield as, Harriet stated, "a sort of
brilliant genius of another sphere, bringing gifts and wonders that seemed to wake
new faculties in all." He brought, as well as oriental caps and Moorish slippers,
appreciation of other cultural customs and beliefs, and enjoyed challenging Lyman
Beecher's evangelical single-mindedness with his broader knowledge. He also introduced
new voices to the literary circles of Litchfield, and was viewed as a romantic hero
by the young women there. He was fluent in French and Castilian Spanish and introduced
the reading, into the evangelical household of Lyman Beecher, of novels by Scott and
poetry by Byron. In the face of this domestic mutiny, Lyman declared, "George, you
may read Scott's novels. I have always disapproved of novels as trash, but in these
is real genius and real culture, and you may read them." He may have been making a
tactical concession to the irresistible cultural force, Hedrick suggests, but novels
later became an acquired taste of his own. Lyman admired Napoleon for his genius and
heroism which could move him to tears, as did Milton's description of Satan's fall
from heaven. Harriet also loved these stories for their drama, and their inspiring
heroes with whom she identified, as in her first overwrought poetic attempt, "Cleon",
set in Rome during Nero's persecution of the Christians. Lyman also trained his children
to develop polemical skills, encouraging theological debate. This was a skill that
Harriet came to use to great effect in her career as a writer.
Harriet went away to school at the early age of thirteen to attend her older sister
Catherine's Hartford Female Seminary. Their sister Mary also taught there, though
she decided to marry and start a family soon after. Harriet learned much in this progressive
institution, but I'm going to skip over this period to get to another Guilford event.
Lyman moved to Boston in 1826 to rout the Unitarians on their own turf. When Lyman
was nearer Guilford in East Hampton and Litchfield, he could come back occasionally
to the Guilford house inherited by him when his Uncle Lot died in 1818. But the distance
from Boston was no doubt too far for him to make use of it, so when negotiations were
opened with him to sell the Guilford homestead to make room for a new meeting house
for the Congregationalists, he agreed to consider a sale. He evidently dragged his
feet however because a February 1828 church notation says, "Nothing heard yet from
Dr. Beecher." It wasn't until nearly a year later in January 1829 that the committee
was authorized "to go on and make a contract for building a new meeting house, and
that they procure the Lot Benton place, so-called, to set it on, provided they can
purchase it on such terms as they think are reasonable." They evidently found them
reasonable because the committee and Lyman Beecher came to an agreement and the corner
stone of the present First Congregational Church was laid June 5th, 1829.
Rossiter Parmelee had bought the month before land lying in the Great Plain near Sluice
Creek, a place we would now call Whitfield Street near the town dock. On the same
day he mortgaged the land to Mercy Parmelee for two hundred dollars. The financial
negotiations with the building committee aren't clear, but the house became the church's
and was then sold to Mr. Parmelee. With the help of 70 oxen on a late day in May,
he moved the large house with its chimney of solid stone to his new acreage in the
Mrs. Fowler, who was living with her family in the house temporarily, had begun dipping
candles. While the others moved themselves and the household furnishings out, she
remained at her difficult task until the house reached the south end of the Green.
The house got caught in mud opposite the Old Stone House but eventually the oxen were
able to pull it into place onto the foundation that had been prepared for it. Rossiter
Parmelee eventually ran it as a tavern.
Harriet had finished her studies by 1827 and returned to Boston feeling at loose ends.
Like many educated women of her generation there were few outlets for their intellect
except teaching and doing good works. Most were conflicted about being ambitious because
of the cultural expectation that they be self-sacrificing and modest. Harriet became
so depressed in Boston that her older sister worried about her and urged her to come
back to school as a teacher, but first she spent the spring in Nutplains with Grandmother
Foote and her other relatives, accompanied by Georgiana May, her best friend, for
whom she named her youngest daughter.
The next move the Beecher family made was to Cincinnati, Ohio, the West, as it was
then known, where Lyman had been offered a position at Lane Seminary. Catherine
left her Hartford School in what she hoped were good hands and planned to start teaching
teachers how to propagate her ideas of broadening the horizons of women. Hedrick notes,
"Just as Lyman Beecher had viewed Catherine's Hartford Female Seminary as a fortress
against Epicopalianism in CT, so her female college and his male seminary would be
a bastion against infidelism and Roman Catholicism in Ohio." The Beechers hadn't lived
together since Litchfield, but now Lyman marshaled his wife, Aunt Esther, Harriet,
George, Catherine, Henry Ward, Isabella, and James to move West. Edward Beecher was
already there, having become President of Illinois College.
On the trip Harriet used the mock heroic tone she had used in her editorials in the
Hartford Female Seminary's School Gazette to describe their progress: "Here we all are – Noah and his wife and his sons and
his daughters, with the cattle and creeping things, all dropped down in....this tavern."
She seemed not to be burdened by the weight of a divine mission.
Though their motives may have differed, the Beecher family tended to band together
to help each other's causes, such as Catherine's schools, Harriet's many writings,
and The Autobiography of Lyman Beecher, which I have often quoted. Harriet's radicalism was at times reined in by her desire
to help her father in his evangelism.
The eighteen years Harriet Beecher spent in Cincinnati encompassed her literary apprenticeship,
her marriage, and the birth of all but one of her seven children. Unlike her father
who wished to wipe out the cultural diverlity in the Mississippi Valley by spreading
Calvinism, she tried to comprehend it and translate the accents of each to each.
In the summer of 1832 she began writing the Geography that would be her first and
quite successful publication. She wrote in the intimate narrative voice characteristic
of her best work when inviting her young readers to imagine the commercial riverfront
in New Orleans:
Now just suppose you could go to that city, and stand on the banks of the Mississippi,
and see all that goes on. There is a broad sort of wharf, built
all along by the river, called the levee. This is the place where all the boats land,
and a great part of the business is done. You can see on the shore, the merchants
full of business, taking out of the steamboats, or putting on board ships, their sugar,
or molasses, or tobacco, or other goods. You may hear the sound of all sorts of languages,
French, Spanish, English, and German, spoken by negroes, mulattoes, or white people,
- for here are people from almost every country.
Her description of the wharf in New Orleans which she had never seen, used in this
and in Uncle Tom's Cabin, owed much to the Cincinnati port with its brisk commerce, as well as to help from
her brother Charles who had lived in New Orleans, an example of Beecher shared effort.
Uncle Samuel was now retired from sea, married to Elizabeth Elliott, a Guilford descendant
of their common ancestor Andrew Ward, and was established in a mansion in Cincinnati
since 1828. His brother John Foote had come eight years earlier, and together they
had become a center of cultural and social life in the city. The fun at Uncle Samuel's
entertainments was not calculated to be a Calvinistic effort at self-improvement.
Harriet's second Christmas was celebrated at his home where champagne toasts were
made, a parade was held, while all created noise with improvised instruments and singing.
As Samuel wrote to his family in Guilford, the participants "hooted and halloed and
laughed and talked and danced till we were entirely fagged out." Harriet loved this
way of celebrating Christmas, so different from her Congregationalist upbringing,
as described in Poganuc People. But just as Lyman had bowed to novel reading, he also bent to manners he thought
either too pagan or too popish, allowing Harriet to play Santa to her younger siblings,
giving little presents such as she had longed for at their age. But she brought them
on New Years Day rather than Christmas to appease her father's Calvinism.
Nineteenth Century novels grew out of letter writing and parlor literature. Families
and friends wrote for each other. The step from writing for home consumption to writing
for a literary club was small but significant. Harriet's literary career formally
began in the Semi-Colon Club to which she was invited after the publication of Geography. They frequently met at Samuel Foote's mansion. All professions were represented.
The lawyer Samuel Chase was called the attorney general for runaway slaves because
of his frequent defense of slaves. Daniel Drake was a well know medical educator and
family physician for the Beechers. And most important for Harriet's future, was Professor
Calvin Stowe, the most learned biblical scholar in America and professor of biblical
literature at Lane Seminary. He came with his young wife Eliza Taylor, a popular member
whom Harriet grew to love. A reader, always male it seems, was appointed for each
meeting. Many wrote anonymously. After the reading there was discussion, refreshments
which included Samuel's fine madeira, and the finish was a gay Virginia reel.
Harriet's most memorable character sketch, "Uncle Lot," was written for the Semi-Colon
club, based of course on the crusty New England Guilford native who had raised her
father. Forrest Wilson, in Crusader in Crinoline, acknowledging that "Uncle Lots" are now a literary staple, states that this character
"was not commonplace on a Monday evening in November 1833. Harriet was then introducing
her New England to the American audience for the first time – the shrewd, pious, capable,
humorous New England that has gone into our tradition rather than the tragic New England
portrayed by her contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne." Harriet's ability to write his
dialect owed much to the oral tradition in the Beecher and Foote households where
she had heard stories of Uncle Lot over and over again. James Hall was so taken with
her story that he suggested she submit it to the prize competition sponsored by his
Western Monthly Magazine. She won the fifty dollar prize, then a substantial amount, and the story was published
in April, 1834, under the title, "A New England Sketch."
The next summer Harriet returned East to attend her brother Henry Ward Beecher's graduation
from Amherst, the man who grew from a shy, stammering little boy to become "the most
famous man in America" through his charismatic lectures. The trip to Massachusetts
involved stage coaches, canal boats, and steam boats with uncoordinated schedules.
It took about nine days. Harriet took advantage of the trip East to return to Guilford
and visit her eighty-four year old Grandmother Foote. While Harriet was in the East
Eliza Tyler Stowe unexpectedly died.
In 1829 Calvin Stowe had courted Eliza after graduating valedictorian of his class
at Bowdoin College and studying French, Spanish, Hebrew, Greek, German, and Arabic
at Andover Theological Seminary. He wrote to her in these words:
I have always been entirely without property, & have no prospect of ever possessing
any.....I am, from choice very industrious, & simple in all my wishes as to living
– but I have no faculty for saving things – I lose nearly as many clothes in a year
as I wear out, and every body that deals with me, cheats me, (unless he is very particularly
honest, which is very rarely the case.) I have nothing to depend upon but my salary
and my pen, which latter will probably amount to but very little in the course of
a year. (He actually wrote a very popular history of the New Testament, though he was never
able to complete his Old Testament history.) You may now know what you have to calculate upon – and feeling my own incapacity
to manage money, I shall put all my temporal concerns under your direction. I hope
you will not decline the trust, for from my earliest youth my mind has been so entirely
occupied with books that I have never learned the art of getting a living, and I fear
it is too late to begin now. I have always needed a guardian angel to watch over me.
Evidently a winning plea, because Eliza married him in 1832.
On Harriet's return she became Calvin's sympathetic friend. When he missed Eliza he
needed to be with Harriet. They began attending Semi-Colon meetings together. Eight
months after Eliza's death he declared his love for her. On January 6th, 1836, after
many feelings of ambivalence on Harriet's part, they married. Worry about hazards
of childbirth, enhanced in her case by her mother's early death, made Harriet and
other women of her time acutely conscious of their mortality.
She did live through seven pregnancies, but was always torn between her household
duties and her need to write, often as much for financial reasons as for creative
satisfaction. She managed, in spite of being as disorganized as her husband, to do
both, depending on relatives and household help which she afforded through her writing.
Her evangelical upbringing showed itself in her promotion of many of the causes of
her day: temperance, women's suffrage, and the cause that would bring her great fame
and wealth, abolition of slavery. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was the final straw
for her and many others, particularly in New England. Even in free states, citizens
were now being fined and jailed for helping an ex-slave hide or flee to Canada.
An escaped slave Harriet hired in Cincinnati had had experiences similar to those
of her character Eliza. Her feelings around the death of her precious baby Charley
at eighteen months went into the writing about Eva. And Josiah Benson, a slave who
had promised his master to take a group of slaves to Kentucky, refused to escape while
passing through Ohio, preferring to earn his freedom legitimately through his savings.
When the master renegged on his promise of allowing him to buy his freedom, however,
he did escape to Canada. He was not killed as the character partly modeled on him,
Uncle Tom, was in the novel, but lived to learn to read and write, publishing a book
about his life that Harriet drew upon. Incidentally, a three bedroom colonial with
the attached cabin in which Josiah Benson lived in Maryland, known as Uncle Tom's
cabin, was being offered in 2005 for $990,000 dollars.
Harriet was not unchanged by her wealth, though she managed to appear modest in public.
Her brothers were always urging her not to let her success go to her head. She took
three long trips to Europe, leaving her husband and the younger children for many
months, and became interested in fancy clothes and big houses. She continued to write
for progressive causes however, and her thinking about ex-slaves moved from believing
re-settlement back to Africa was a good solution to thinking that if they were educated
as well as whites they could be truly equal. She started a school for black and white
girls in Florida, and even though she put a partition down the middle to separate
the two symbolically to try to satisfy the locals, the school was burned to the ground,
a parallel to Prudence Crandall's experience in Connecticut. Her younger half-sister
Isabella was more radical than Harriet, often leading her toward activism.
In her seventies, aroused by Isabella's recent visit to Guilford, Harriet wrote to
her sister in a letter quoted by Hedrick:
I do wish I could have been with you in your pleasant visit at Nutplains, where some
of the most joyous days of my childhood were spent. All the things that you mentioned
I have done over & over again when I was a wild free young girl & never got tired
of doing them. The room I slept in for the most part, was the first right hand room
as you get to the top of the front stairs..........then there was the coloured woman
Dine was a great friend of mine & we had many frolics and capers together – she told
me lots of stories & made herself very entertaining – there was the grave yard on
Sandy Hill, the other side of the river where I often walked – I wonder if it is there
now. It had a nice picket fence all around it then with a gate so I could easily get
in & read the inscriptions on the grave-stones.
Once she and Calvin stopped moving back and forth from Florida, she retired to the
house we now know of as hers in Hartford, next door to a delightful neighbor, Samuel
Clemens. She died there two weeks after her eighty-fifth birthday in 1896, surrounded
by a large group of family including the three of her children who outlived her, the
unmarried twins Eliza and Harriet, who helped in her household, and her youngest son
Charles. But they were not all who outlived her. We have her ideas so vibrantly expressed
through characters, some of whom helped change this country's history.
Beecher, Lyman and family. The Autobiography of Lyman Beecher, two volumes, edited by Barbara M. Cross. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
1961 (first assembled in 1859)
Fisher, Marc. "Used as an office, Uncle Tom's Cabin offered for sale." The Washington
Post, December 16, 2005
Griswold, Mary Hoodley. Yester-Years of Guilford. Guilford, CT: Shore Line Times Publishing Company, 1938
Hedrick, Joan D. Harriet Beecher Stowe, a life. New York: Oxford
University Press, Inc., 1994
Reynolds, David S. Mightier than the Sword, 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' and the Battle for America. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2011
Steiner, Bernard Christian. History of the Plantation of Menunkatuck and of the Original Town of Guilford, Connecticut. Baltimore: Author, 1897
Wilson, Forrest. Crusader in Crinoline: The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1941
Special thanks for assistance with research are due Patty Baldwin, Head Reference
Desk Librarian and Historical Room Specialist at the Guilford Free Library; Sharon
Olson, poet and retired Palo Alto City Library reference librarian; and Patricia Spears
Jones, femme du monde poet and blogger.