HARRIET BEECHER STOWE
MRS. STOWE secured in her lifetime a greater popularity, a more universal fame, than any other woman obtained. Her works have been translated into many languages, and she has been read in every part of the world. Her influence may be well compared with that of Madame de Staël, George Sand and George Eliot, each of whom was her superior in intellectual strength and in the depth of her influence on individual minds. It was Mrs. Stowe, however, who reached the popular heart, who appealed to the mass of mankind.
Three or four of Mrs. Stowe's books seem destined to hold a permanent place in literature. With all the imperfections of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," it has in it elements of such vital interest, both in the subject itself and in its manner of treatment, that it is not likely to lose its place as one of the great books of the world. Of greater artistic excellence are the "Minister's Wooing" and "The Pearl of Orr's Island," though they describe a life which was less dramatic and of not so universal an interest.
Mrs. Stowe was fortunate in having within her reach two subjects of primary importance in their time, with both of which she was personally familiar, and both of which have now ceased to exist. These were slavery in the South and the later Puritanism in New England. It was these fresh and unique subjects which she interpreted with great skill, and which ma de her fame. When she went outside of them her work reached nothing like equal merit with the books
devoted to these two phases of American life. She saw something of slavery with her own eyes, and knew what it was with a woman's quick intuition. Its picturesqueness and its inhumanity were alike impressed upon her, and found their place in that wonderful book in which she described the life of Uncle Tom. She knew slavery in its reality, in its good and in its bad, and with such clear insight that her books yet remain, and are likely to remain, its best record and its truest interpretation. That life has now so wholly passed away that it seems a thing of the remote past; but in its last days of full and complete life she described it for all time.
Of only less interest are her novels of New England life; for they have the flavor of the soil, and are thoroughly indigenous in their spirit. Born into and reared amidst the social conditions of later Puritanism in New England, she knew this Puritanism to the very heart, loved its outward form and its inward heart-throb, and knew how to interpret what was truest and most loving in it. No one has described this life so faithfully as she, on so large a canvas or with such minuteness of detail. Her attitude toward it, of course, was wholly different from that toward slavery, which she hated and held up to detestation. Yet her heart was too sympathetic for her to be intentionally unjust even to slavery, and she not only saw but portrayed its good side with loving kindness. For New England life, however, she had only feelings of love and admiration. She saw its quaintness, its narrowness, and its provincialism; but even for these latter she had a most tender affection. This life she described as one might a sweetheart or a devoted mother.
In estimating the permanent literary value of Mrs. Stowe's work, we must count her as in the highest degree fortunate in having
two such subjects within her reach, unique in their literary value, and about to pass away from the world's great social influences.
Had slavery continued, something of the interest we now find in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" would not
be there; a measure of its literary and historic force would be absent. In almost as large a degree the novels of New England life describe social conditions no longer to be found, and picture for us a life of intensest interest, which was not only unique, but which has ceased to have any real existence.
For Americans, at least, these books must continue to have a value of the most important kind, in helping to make real to them potent social forces in the life of their own country.
It would be assigning to the works of Mrs. Stowe but a minor value if they are supposed to have only a historic interest. It may be assumed, on the other hand, that there is a limitation of a serious nature to be found in the fact of the temporary character of the life she described. No reader can feel today, however, that it is a detriment to these books that they interpret social conditions no longer to be found. It shows the art and literary skill with which Mrs. Stowe wrought, that her books are not dependent for their charm and interest on any exterior conditions of this kind. Her books were read in far-away countries, where there was no immediate interest in the political and social problems which slavery created, as enthusiastically as by the members of the anti-slavery party here at home.
It is their humanity, their faithfulness to life, their warmth and depth of sympathy, their intense affection for persons, which made the real charm of these books; and there was something here which time will not take away or any changing of social conditions make less important. We do not read Mrs. Stowe's books with a curious interest in the characters, as if they were strangers and to be dismissed as soon as the book is laid aside; they become to us companions and friends, take up their abode with us, and domesticate themselves. We acquire affection for them, a warm sympathy with them in their perplexities and sorrows, and a tenderness for their infirmities and vices. For the moment, at least, we forget their fictitious character; and even later on we think of them persistently as living persons, as those we once knew who have gone away into another neigh-
borhood for a time. We should not be surprised to meet them any day upon the street or to have them walk into our houses as if they had only been away for an hour.
The greater novels of Mrs. Stowe all have a deep tragic interest, with passion enough and sorrow. Friendly and sympathetic
as she was, life was nothing tame to her, was not a mere holiday bit of sunshine. With her, however, the tragedy was relieved
by the finest sympathy and by a humor that was as real as it was bright. If she saw the tragedy of life, she saw its comedy
not less distinctly. Smiles and tears mingle in her books as in those of few other authors, and neither are ever far away.
It may be said of her that she appealed to feeling
too often and too intensely, that she kept the emotions stirred up too constantly, that her pathos was too harrowing and her wit too frequently in demand. In this she was but following a characteristic of all women novelists, and showed forth a trait of the "eternally feminine." To the mind that is eternally masculine this may be an objection; but to the large majority of those who find in the novel their mental recreation, this appeal to the feelings is not an objection. Indeed, it cannot be seriously urged against any literary production that it has this element, an element so essential to the fully developed man, and which lies closest to what is permanently true and noble in human nature. It is not high thought, but pure feeling, which makes men heroic and women devoted. Great thought may illuminate, but great emotion saves.
The career of Mrs. Stowe is one of which every American and every woman may well be proud. Born in 1811, in the old town of Litchfield, Connecticut, of a true New England ancestry, she grew up to a life of free activity and earnest mental effort. Educated under the Puritanic influence of her
sister Catherine, in Hartford, in early womanhood she went with her family to Cincinnati, engaged in the career of a teacher, saw slavery near at hand, took part in helping free such slaves as she could reach, and married Professor Calvin E. Stowe. After years of struggle, trial and poverty, having seen much of life and learned some of its greatest lessons, she went with her husband to Brunswick, Maine. Here she wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin," in the midst of her household duties, under conditions of urgent demand from within to utter what she knew about slavery and to bear her testimony against it. This book at once made her famous, as it was the truest word which had yet been spoken or was ever to be spoken from the heart of the freedom-loving North.
After a visit to Europe, she returned to live at Andover, Massachu-
setts, where her husband had removed. Here she wrote "Dred," and collected her book of facts about the career of Uncle Tom. There rapidly followed her New England stories, "The Minister's Wooing," and "The Pearl of Orr's Island." Somewhat later came her "Poganuc People," and her "Oldtown Folks," and "Old-town Fireside Stories." In 1863 she removed to Hartford, and a year or two later she established a winter home in Florida. To the end of her life these were the places of her residence; and of Hartford she came to be an important part. Of her several visits to Europe no word need here be said; nor is it necessary to enter upon the incidents of the remarkable expression of affection shown her by American authors on the occasion of her seventieth birthday.
Important features of her career were her interest in the supernatural, and her correspondence with George Eliot. By far more dramatic was her defense of Lady Byron and her attempt to right the wrongs of that long suffering woman. Her minor books have a value of their own, as does everything she wrote or did; but her fame will rest upon the works which have been named. *
It may be frankly said of Mrs. Stowe, that she never wrote with a purely literary object in view. She did not regard the novel merely as an artistic production, but she went to the deeper sources of life for her motives and her inspiration. It may be
true that she did not give sufficient attention to the æsthetic construction of her books, to their creation in the image of artistic ideals; but she did what was far better, she put a woman's heart into them, and the results of a rich life experience. Her plots are not always well constructed, are lacking in firm outline and steady adherence to one main purpose, and have too many subsidiary interests. Yet she was a great story-teller, which is the main thing; and she knew how to appeal to the average reader through what is universal in human life. The simplest person could not only understand what she meant to say, but the most obdurate heart was moved by the tenderness of her appeal.
It is not by any means certain that Mrs. Stowe lost anything because she was not more of an artist. No mere workmanship, however
finely wrought, ever yet made any perma-
nent appeal to men and women. The finest artistic performance is that which works the finest effects; and by that standard Mrs. Stowe does not fall behind any. She had a story to tell and she told it straight on, without fear and without favor, in a truly womanly way, as it came to her out of the fullness of her own life. Whatever artistic limitations may have thus resulted, there was a great gain on the side of effectiveness and on the side of the strong appeal which she made to the humanitarian spirit of her time. She was wise in her generation, in this regard; the love of humanity was worth more to her than any æsthetic gift of literary expression.
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" was a great moral and humanitarian protest. Its power over the reader is much greater than that of "Dred," which is far superior
from an artistic point of view. This was the result of the intense moral conviction with which it was written, as an indignant protest against the evils of slavery. She said of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," that "God wrote it, not I." Here is the secret of its power, that it was wrought out of the fires of feeling and imagination, that every page of it glowed with moral indignation or an affectionate love of the lowly and suffering. The condition of mind in which she wrote may be seen from the letter which she sent to Mrs. Follen soon after the publication of "Uncle Tom," and while she was preparing
the "Key" to the novel. "I suffer exquisitely in writing these things. It may be truly said that I write with my heart's blood. Many times in writing 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' I thought my health would fail utterly; but I prayed earnestly that God would help me till I got through, and still I am pressed beyond measure and above strength. This horror, this nightmare abomination ! can it be in my country! It lies like lead on my heart; it shadows my life with sorrow ; the more so that I feel, as for my own brothers, for the South, and am pained by every horror I am obliged to write, as one who is forced by some awful oath to disclose in court some family disgrace."
This sensibility, this vigor of sympathetic imagination revealed in all her books, is a striking feature of Mrs. Stowe's writing. Her characters are her own children, a part of her own life, and are of her kith and kin. In this respect her imagination shows a greatness which is rare in literature and which has seldom been exceeded. She had not the power to stand off from her characters and
view them with keen intelligence alone. She could not dissect their lives or study the evolution of their careers. They were as her own children, their deeds and sayings affording her subjects for narrative; but she talked of them as a mother of her loved ones. Her imagination, however, was really creative, but through
sympathy and not through mere intelligence.
It would have been for Mrs. Stowe an impossibility to give a critical analysis of her characters, as is the wont of some novelists. She wrote before the analytic style came into vogue and ere it was discovered that it is the business of the novelist to describe life as it is. Yet it will puzzle one to find in any of the more recent novelists a greater truthfulness to nature or a larger fidelity to human realities. It was by the aid of her vivid imagination, however, that she was enabled to tell her story with such marvelous directness and force. It was not the exterior conditions of her characters of which she wrote, but of themselves, their feelings, their experiences of love and hate, and the insights of their spiritual natures. Her method did not so much require that she describe her personages, as that they should live their own lives in her books, and speak to us in a way which to our imaginations makes them real.
In Turgeneff's "Annals of a Sportsman" we have a book of like intent with "Uncle Tom's Cabin"; but the manner of it is far different. This book of the great Russian described serfdom as it existed in his country; and it had the effect of abolishing the holding of human beings in bondage. It was read by Alexander II., who
was moved by it to his act of emancipation. Turgeneff's method was that of the cool, dispassionate observer of social conditions, who described these with a keen intellect. He appealed to reason, as Mrs. Stowe appealed to feeling. He convinced the intellect, as she convinced the moral nature. Her appeal had the more immediate answer, because she made it to the great heart of the common people. Turgeneff's argument convinced the Czar with its reasonableness, its moral integrity and its political sagacity. If his method was suited to a despotism, where only one person had to be converted, hers was suitable to a republic, where the mass of the people had to be reached. Intellect is aristocratic and convinces the select few; feeling is democratic and persuades the many.
In a general way such a comparison is helpful, showing the difference in method of two great writers, and proving that the life of man is many-sided. It is not just to Mrs. Stowe, however, to admit that her appeal was only to emotion. The fact is that the imagination is as intellectual as pure reason, and is of far higher force as a literary power. The supremest of all man's intellectual powers is that of imagination, for it is the most elemental, the most creative, and affords the surest way to the wholeness of the truth. Without this faculty the author is a mere scribbler, and without it the thinker is a mere logician. It creates forms of beauty, and it brings one to see life as it is, to know the ways and thoughts of others. Hence it is that nothing is to be detracted from Mrs. Stowe's power because of her vigorous imagination, which enabled her to enter into the heart experiences of others, and to tell their story better than they could do it for themselves.
Not less is to be said for her power as a humorist, which kept her work well-balanced, sane, and in touch with reality. It
kept her from being morbid in her crusade against slavery, and as often as she laughed brought her to what is honest and just.
Without her keen sense of humor her work would have been less healthy and less effective. Her humanity was all the more real,
struck deeper roots and bore fruit sounder and in greater quantity, because, she could laugh heartily when life showed its
fun and its broad farce. Not only in the South, but in New England, there was on every hand the substance of humor, and need
enough for wit in showing the genuine good and evil of men. Keenest wit Mrs. Stowe sometimes possessed, wit incisive and subtile;
but humor lay very near the surface of her mind, and was ever ready to bubble over in sweetest expression of sympathy or in
richest insight into character. Great as was her hatred of slavery and the slave-master, she could laugh at their follies
and the simplicities of the negro, with readiest appreciation of what was
grotesque and absurd in their doings and sayings. In her books humor is always the vehicle of sympathy and of the growth of a more loving appreciation.
Mrs. Stowe was thoroughly a woman in her intellectual gifts, as in her sympathy and her humanitarian spirit. Though no author of her time obtained greater celebrity or had a wider influence, yet she was domestic and feminine in her tastes. In her there was nothing of that assertive spirit which distinguished Madame de Staël and George Sand, nothing of that wish for notoriety and that individuality of temper which mark e d those great women and which secured for them the epithet of "masculine." The literary traits which have been already mentioned are distinctly of the womanly type, and are such as distinguish the majority of women from the majority of men. This is not said in any spirit of detraction, for these traits are as distinctly human, and as noble in character, as any which are peculiar to men.
It is very difficult to distinguish that which is masculine from that which is feminine in literature. Yet there is without doubt an appreciable difference and one worthy of being noted. It is one felt rather than reasoned
out, one of flavor or emphasis rather than one of marked features. So far the work of women is distinguished by more of emotion,
by a keener personal sympathy, and by a finer ethical insight. In all her books Mrs. Stowe shows these characteristics, and
in a marked degree. She was wise in keeping thus to what is everywhere accepted as womanly, for it is the woman we need in
literature. Say what we will, sex stamps itself upon the mind, qualifies and emphasizes its powers, and marks with its own
peculiarity every mental product. So long as women think they must write as men write, they will suppress their own individuality
and do injustice to their own special gifts. We need in literature the womanly feeling which such women as Mrs. Stowe only
can express. We need the interpretation of life which the home duties and the mother love can give; and literature will always
be weak on the moral side until such interpretation is given us. It has not so far been easy for women to speak plainly and
simply from the vantage ground of their own experiences, for all literary ideals call them to see fife from another point
of view. The merit of Mrs. Stowe was that she wrote as a mother, sitting by her own fireside
and caring daily for her children and training them to manhood and womanhood, of some of the greatest problems of life. Mrs. Ward has written of this side of Mrs. Stowe's life what should always be taken into consideration, in judging of the final value of her work as literature: "Mrs. Stowe was the most unselfish and
loving of mothers. . . . It was an open, hospitable house, human and hearty and happy." That is what we need in literature, and what we have so far had too little of. At no time was this spirit more needed than now; and never was there so great an opportunity before women as at this present moment. To show, without preaching, that life may be simple, loving, just and humane, filled with human strength and moral earnestness, is what women can do, and what there is a great demand to have done. The promise of humanity for the future is to be found in the willingness of women thus to put the home mark on life and all its great and precious interests.
Mrs. Stowe's books are especially worthy of notice at this time because they are so truly feminine, in the largest and best
sense. They are not weak and gushing, languid or silly. There is not a bit of sentimentalism in them, no expression of feeling
merely for the sake of exciting emotion. They are thoroughly natural, healthy, sound and pure. Their purity, however, is not
the result of ignorance or hot-house culture. Living in the
world, familiar with its depravity and its crime, Mrs. Stowe selects what is most truly human for the subject of her pen, and so interprets it that virtue shall appear as health. It were well if all other women could be as true to their own natures, as loyal to the womanly within them.
Some word should be said of Mrs. Stowe's religious position. In her books the religious trend of her mind is always apparent, for she could not disguise the fact of the depth and earnestness of her religious convictions. She assumes that religion is natural to man, that by all the deeper and larger instincts of his nature he feels himself called to believe in God and to hope for immortality. This faith she does not argue about, in no way discusses it, simply assumes its reality. Yet it is not difficult to see what is her own attitude or to discover what is her own position with reference to the great faiths of mankind. She was a Christian of the undogmatic type, sincere, earnest and devoted. Hers was the Christianity of the heart and of faithful living. She was contented to accept the great and simple faith of all Christian men and women as something known through moral and spiritual experience, and so proven.
She early outgrew the sterner features of her father's Calvinism, but not without much of struggle and heartache. Once having put it aside and found a faith which gave her love and hope, she was contented to accept the Christian symbols without question and in a spirit of entire confidence. The fine mystic quality of her faith found expression in a few of her poems, which may be counted among the best religious hymns of our century. Her habitual religious attitude was one of earnest humanitarian consecration and loyalty, which found noble statement in several of the essays contained in her "House and Home Papers" and in "The Chimney Corner." Hers was a religion of life and love, of Christian fidelity and spiritual insight. She accepted the Christian traditions and symbolism in no narrow and sectarian spirit, but with a largeness of hope, a humility of intellectual opinion, a sincerity of moral motive, and a loyalty of human service, which gave her closest sympathy with the best religious teachers of her time.
In all her greater novels we find this religion, which was so much to her in every phase of her life. It is not a religion of the sects, it is not based on any statement of doctrine, its foundation is never intellectual. In whomsoever it appears, life is made richer because of it. Quietly it expresses itself, inspires the life and gives beauty to every word and act. It seems one with the sunshine, and yet it invigorates the moral nature; and it brings the soul into harmony with God. The simple religious trust thus presented is a beautiful feature of Mrs. Stowe's life.
This word about Mrs. Stowe's religion may remind us how wholesome and helpful her books are. There are times when we wish to know what life is, in its struggle, its crime and its tragedy. In such mood we are, perhaps, too little concerned with its destiny and its moral issues, for we wish to know its facts, and are ready to take them without flinching. It is well that its realities, stern and forbidding as they are, should be presented to us, in all their lurid colors and with their horrors all upon them. Yet we know it is not this presentation of life which keeps the heart pure and makes us brave to labor for those we love. If we are willing to accept the facts as they are, and if we have the courage to face them and so to deal with them as still to live on bravely and hopefully, it is even more true that we crave something assuring and trustful.
There is all that about Mrs. Stowe's books which makes us glad to have read them and, having read them, makes us feel that
we are braver and stronger for having done so. They
help to convince us that it is worth while to take part in the struggle for right against wrong, and that if we do so we cannot fail to find life richer and finer because we have done it. They are bracing to the moral nature, making it easier to resist temptation; and if we have done wrong, they give us courage to fight our way out of it, with God's help. Therefore her books leave a good effect behind them, so that we count it a fortunate day when we read them, a day which put new sunshine into life, and a day which gave light upon some of the dark places which we feared or stumbled through before.
It may be said of Mrs. Stowe, as of all authors who move the world by their moral personality, that she was greater than any of her books. Her womanhood was the most conspicuous thing about her, and is that which most strongly commends her to us. Her books are but fragmentary expressions of her large and rich nature. No one can read her biography by her son, which is largely of the nature of an autobiography, without feeling that here was a true woman, who was able to overcome untoward circumstances, to whom poverty was an enrichment of nature and sorrow a gaining of larger hope and faith. Her religion was so generous, liberal, broad-minded and genuine, that we can but feel it grew out of greater depths than those of tradition, that somehow it had touched reality in God. So it is that her life was in itself the most perfect of her works, most worthy of perusal, and giving to the imagination the largest satisfaction.
It is not one of the highest places in literature which Mrs. Stowe will occupy in the future, but one of permanent hold upon those who love what is simple and heartfelt. When we are weary of brilliant intellectual novels, in which art and tragedy have a large place, we shall come back to these stories of human affection, to find them having a power to charm and inspire as the others cannot. Having read them, we shall go away to live out something of their pure human worthiness into the toil and sorrow of each day. Whatever the art limitations of Mrs. Stowe's books, they are such as the mass of men and women will love, because finding in them comfort and hope. It is this human quality, this quality of hope and courage, which will long keep them alive.