HARRIET BEECHER STOWE
The following extracts from a letter addressed by Mrs. Stowe to a friend in this country, in answer to an enquiry for some particulars of her early life, give an account of the origin of the world renowned "Uncle Tom's Cabin." After a playful description of her personal appearance—an account of her marriage with Professor Stowe, at the age of twenty-five—her settlement at Lane Seminary, near Cincinnati, Ohio, and the increase of her family, she says:
"The most beautiful of these (her children) and the most beloved, lies buried near my Cincinnati residence. It was at his dying bed, and at his grave, that I learnt what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn from her. In the depths of my sorrow, which seemed to me immeasurable, it was my only prayer to God that such anguish might not be suffered in vain.
"There were circumstances connected with this child's death of such peculiar bitterness—of what might seem almost cruel suffering—that I felt I could never be consoled for it, unless it should appear that the crushing of my own heart might enable me to work some great good to others.
"His death took place during the cholera summer, when in a circle of five miles around me nine thousand were buried—a mortality which I have never heard exceeded anywhere.
"My husband, in feeble health, was obliged to be absent the whole time, and I had sole charge of a family of fifteen persons. He could not return to me because I would not permit it; for in many instances where parents had returned from a distance to their families and the infected atmosphere, the result had been sudden death, and the physicians warned me that if he returned it would only be to die. My poor Charlie died for want of timely medical aid; for, in the universal confusion and despair that prevailed, it was often impossible to obtain assistance till it was too late.
"I allude to this bereavement because I believe that much that is in 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' had its root in the awful scenes and bitter sorrows of that summer. It has left now, I trust, no trace in my mind, except a deep compassion for the sorrowful, especially for mothers who are separated from their children.
"During long years of struggling with poverty, sickness, and a hot, debilitating climate, my children grew up around me. The nursery and the kitchen were my principal fields of labor. Some of my friends, pitying my toils, sent some of my sketches to certain liberally-paying annuals, with my name. With the first money that I earned this way I bought a feather bed! For, as I had married into poverty, and without a dowry, and as my husband had only a large library of books, and a great deal of learning, this bed and pillows were thought on the whole the most profitable investment.
"I now thought I had discovered the philosopher's stone, and when a new carpet or mattress was needed, or when at the close of the year it began to be evident that my family accounts, like Dora's, 'wouldn't add up,' then I used to say to my faithful friend and factotum, Anna, who shared all my joys and sorrows, Now if you'll keep the babies quiet, and attend to all the things in the house for one day, I'll write a piece, and then we shall be out of the scrape.' And so I became an authoress! Very modest at first, I do assure you, and remonstrating very seriously with the friends who had thought it best to put my name to my productions, by way of getting up a reputation." * * *
"During my life at the West I lived two miles from the city of Cincinnati, in the country; and domestic service, not always to be found in the city, is next to impossible to be found in the country, even by those who are willing to give the highest wages. So what was to be expected for poor me, who had very little of this world's goods to offer? Had it not been for my inseparable friend, Anna, a noble-hearted English girl, who landed on our American shores in destitution and sorrow, and clave unto me as Ruth unto Naomi, I had never lived through all the toil which this uncertainty and absolute want of domestic service imposed upon me. You may imagine, therefore, how glad I was, when about a dozen families of liberated negroes came and settled in our vicinity. They became my favorite resorts in cases of emergency.
"If anybody wants to have a black face look handsome, let him be left as I have been—in bad health, in oppressive hot weather, with a sick baby in arms, and two or three other little ones in the nursery, and not a single servant in the whole house to do a single turn. And then, if they should see any good Aunt Frankie coming in, with her honest, bluff, black face, her long strong arms, her chest as big and stout as a barrel, and her hilarious, hearty laugh—perfectly delighted to take one's washing, and do it at a fair price, they would appreciate the beauty of black people.
"My cook, poor Eliza, was a regular epitome of slave life in herself; fat, easy, gentle, loving and loveable; always calling my modest house 'The Place,' as if it had been a plantation with seven hundred hands on it. Her way of arranging her kitchen was at first like Dinali's, though she imbibed our ideas more rapidly and seemed more ready to listen to my suggestions than did that dignitary. She had lived through the whole story of a Virginia raised slave's life. She must have been in her youth a very handsome mulatto girl. Her voice was sweet, her manners refined and agreeable. She was raised in a good family as nurse and sempstress.
"When the family became embarrassed, she was suddenly sold to be sent to a plantation in Louisiana. She has often told me how, without any warning, she was forced into a carriage, and saw her little mistress screaming and stretching her arms from the window towards her as she was driven away. She has told me of scenes on the Louisiana plantations, and how she has often been out in the night by stealth, ministering to poor slaves who have been mangled or lacerated by the whip. From Louisiana she was sold into Kentucky, and her last master was the father of all her children. On this point she always maintained a delicacy and reserve which, though it is not at all uncommon among slave women, appears to me remarkable.
"She always called her master her husband, and spoke of him with the same apparent feeling with which any woman regards her husband; and it was not till after she had lived with me some years that I discovered accidentally the nature of her relation. I shall never forget how sorry I felt for her, nor my feelings at her humble apology—'You know, Mrs. Stowe, slave women can't help themselves.' She had two very pretty quadroon daughters, with beautiful hair and eyes—interesting children, whom I had instructed in the family school with my children.
"Time would fail to tell you all I have learned incidently of the slave system, in the history of various slaves who came into my family, and of the workings of the underground railroad, which I may say ran through my barn."