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|Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) - original name Harriet Elisabeth Beecher|
American writer and philanthropist, best-known for the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851-52). Stowe wrote the work in reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it illegal to assist an escaped slave. In the story 'Uncle Tom' of the title is bought and sold three times and finally beaten to death by his last owner. The book was quickly translated into 37 languages and it sold in five years over half a million copies in the United States. Play adaptations, "Tom shows" of the novel had a phenomenal success, too.
"Eliza made her desperate retrest across the river just in the dusk of twilight. The gray mist of evening, rising slowly from the river, enveloped her as she disappeared up the bank, and the swollen current and floundering masses of ice presented a hopeless barrier between her and her pursuer." (in Uncle Tom's Cabin)
Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, into a large family. She had two sisters (Catharine and Mary), one half-sister (Isabella), five brothers (William, Edward, George, Henry Ward, and Charles), and two half-brothers (Thomas and James). Harriet herself was the seventh child of her parents, Lyman and Roxana Beecher. "Wisht it had been a boy!" said her father after her birth. Lyman was a controversial Calvinist preacher, who saw himself as a soldier of Christ. Roxana, a granddaughter of General Andrew Ward, died of tuberculosis at 41 – Harriet was four at that time. Two years later a stepmother took over the household.
Stowe was named after her aunt, Harriet Foote, who influenced deeply her thinking, especially with her strong belief in culture. Samuel Foote, her uncle, encouraged her to read works of Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. When Stowe was eleven, she entered the seminary at Hartford, Connecticut, kept by her elder sister Catharine. The school had advanced curriculum and she learned languages, natural and mechanical science, composition, ethics, logic, mathematics, subjects that were generally taught to male students. Four years later she was employed as an assistant teacher. Her father married again – he became the president of lane Theological Seminary.
Catharine and Harriet founded a new seminary, the Western Female Institute. With her sister Stowe wrote a children's geography book. In 1834 Stowe began her literary career when she won a prize contest of the Western Monthly Magazine, and soon Stowe was a regular contributor of stories and essays. Her first book, The Mayflower, appeared in 1843.
In 1836 Stowe married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor at her father's theological seminary. He was a widower; his late wife had been Stowe's friend. The early years of their marriage were marked by poverty. Over the next 14 years Stowe had 7 children. In 1850 Calvin Stowe was offered a professorship at Bowdoin, and they moved to Brunswick, Maine. In Cincinnati Stowe had come in contact with fugitive slaves. She learned about life in the South from her own visits there and saw how cruel slavery was. In addition the Fugitive Slave Law, passed by Congress in 1850, arose much protest – giving shelter or assistance to an escaped slave became a crime. And finally a personal tragedy, the death of her infant Samuel from cholera, led Stowe to compose her famous novel. Stowe's series of fictional sketches of slaves were first published in the anti-slavery newspaper The National Era, from June 1851 to April 1852, and later collected in a book form; the first print run was 5,000 copies. In the preface to the European edition of the novel in 1852 Stowe maintained thgat compromise on slavery was no longer possible.
To some extent Stowe's stories were based on true events and in addition to the life of Josiah Henson, who had been born into slavery, and after escaping to Canada told his story in his autobiography, published in 1849. "I could not control the story, the Lord himself wrote it," Stowe once said. "I was but an instrument in His hands and to Him should be given all the praise." According to a popular anecdote, when the author met Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1862 the president joked, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war" – Stowe was less than five feet high.
Stowe's fame opened her doors to the national literary magazines. She started to publish her writings in The Atlantic Monthly and later in Independent and in Christian Union. For some time she was the most celebrated woman writer in The Atlantic Monthly and in the New England literary clubs. In 1853, 1856, and 1859 Stowe made journeys to Europe, where she became friends with George Eliot, Elisabeth Barrett Browning, and Lady Byron. Noteworthy, Uncle Tom's Cabin sold more copies in Great Britain than in America in the first year of its publication. However, the British public opinion turned against her when she charged Lord Byron with incestuous relations with his half-sister. In Lady Byrin Vindicated (1870) she accused him in the writing. Both the magazine Atlantic, where the text first appeared, and Stowe, suffered.
Into Russia Uncle Tom's Cabin was smuggled in Yiddish to evade the czarist censor. Leo Tolstoy praised the work and it remained there enormously popular also after the Revolution. Attacks on the veracity of her portrayal of the South led Stowe to publish A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), in which she presented her source material. Stowe's second novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), which dealt with the question of liberty, told the story of a dramatic attempt at slave rebellion. Stone's vision of the South remained a sore point among many Southerners. Eventually it was buried by Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel Gone with the Wind.
In Uncle Tom's Cabin the pious old Uncle Tom is sold by his well-intentioned Kentucy owner, Mr. Shelby, who has fallen into debts. The trader also singles out little Harry, Eliza's child, but Eliza takes Harry and heads for the river. Uncle Tom submits to his fate. He is bought first by the idealistic Augustine St Clare after saving her daughter, Little Eva, who falls from the deck of a riverboat. In his New Orleans house, Uncle Tom makes friends with Eva's black friend, the impish Topsy. "Never was born!' persisted Topsy... 'never had no father, nor mother, nor nothin'. I was raised by a speculator, with lots of others." Eva dies from a weakened constitution, and St. Clare is killed in an accident – he is stabbed while trying to separate two brawling men. Tom is sold to the villainous Simon Legree, a Yankee and a brutal cotton plantation owner. "I don't go for savin' niggers. Use up, and buy more, 's my way," he says. Two of Uncle Tom's female slaves, Cassy and Emmeline, pretend to escape and go into hiding. Tom will not reveal their whereabouts and Legree has his lackeys Quimbo and Sambo beat the unprotesting Tom to the point of death. Tom forgives them and dies, just as Mr. Shelby's son arrives to buy him back. Shelby decides to fight for the Abolitionist cause. A parallel plot centers on Eliza, her little child, and her husband George who escape to freedom in Canada using the 'underground railroad.' Other important characters are Miss Ophelia St. Clare, a New England spinster, and Marks, the slave catcher. Cassy meets on the boat north Madame de Throux, sister of George Harris, Eliza's husband. The Harris family leaves for Africa and George Shelby frees his slaves.
After the Civil War the sales of the novel declined. Stone was criticized for her sentimentality and religiosity of her story. The term "Uncle Tom" was used pejoratively, meaning white paternalism and black passivity, undue subservience to white people on the part of black people. On the other hand, Tom's passivity was compared to Gandhi's strategy of peaceful resistance. James Baldwin dismissed the work in his essay 'Everybody's Protest Novel' (1949), saying that her "book was not intended to do anything more than prove that slavery was wrong; was, in fact, perfectly horrible. This makes material for a pamphlet but it is hardly enough for a novel". In the 1970s Uncle Tom's Cabin, with its strong female characters, started to attract the attention of feminist critics, but otherwise Stowe's vision found now defenders.
Stowe's later works did not gain the same popularity as Uncle Tom's Cabin. She published novels, studies of social life, essays, and a small volume of religious poems. The Stowes lived in Hartford in summer and spent their winters in Florida, where they had a luxurious home. The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862), Old-Town Folks (1869), and Poganuc People (1878) were partly based on her husband's childhood reminiscences and are among the first examples of local color writing in New England. Poganuc People was Stowe's last novel. Her mental faculties failed in 1888, two years after the death of her husband. She died on July 1, 1896 in Hartford, Connecticut. The earliest film adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin were made in 1903. Edwin S. Porter's short film from that year was produced by the Thomas Alva Edison Company.