Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe
IN the early part of this century there was no more distinguished preacher in this country than Lyman Beecher, a Congregational minister of New England; and certainly none has left the world more distinguished descendants. Of these it will suffice to name here the famous Henry Ward Beecher, and his no less famous sister, Harriet Elizabeth Beecher, the subject of this sketch, who was born in Litchfield, Conn., June 14, 1811. Even as a mere child, Harriet showed marked precocity in an intellectual direction, committing to memory enough poems and prose selections to serve her during life for quotation, while when but twelve years old she wrote an essay on the abstruse subject, "Can the Immortality of the Soul be Proved by the Light of Nature?"
This precocity continued. In her school years she wrote a drama, whose scene was laid in Rome in the time of Nero, made a metrical translation from Ovid, and occupied her mind with the study of Butler's "Analogy" and Baxter's "Saint's Rest." These last serious studies indicated the nature of the influences surrounding her. Religion filled the thoughts of the circle in which she lived, and could not but strongly affect her imaginative and ardent nature, and she was still in girlhood when she entered her father's study one day and fell into his arms with the words: "Father, I have given myself to Jesus, and he has taken me." "Is it so?" said the father, his eyes full of the light of joy. "Then has a new flower blossomed in the Kingdom this day."
In 1832 Dr. Lyman Beecher moved to Cincinnati, having accepted the Presidency of Lane Theological Seminary in that city. There his oldest daughter, Catharine, founded a seminary for women, with Harriet as her assistant. Though suffering much from ill-health, the younger sister not only aided in the school, but found time to write a school geography, and obtained her first literary triumph by winning a prize of fifty dollars with a story named "Uncle Lot." Four years after reaching Cincinnati she became the wife of Calvin E. Stowe, a professor in the Lane Seminary, whose first wife had some time before died. This important step in her woman's life took place January 6, 1836.
At Cincinnati Mrs. Stowe found herself in the midst of the growing excitement attending the anti-slavery agitation. This city, which looked upon a slave State across the Ohio, early felt the stir of the rapidly increasing sentiment. The Philanthropist, an anti-slavery paper, had its office attacked by a mob, and Henry Ward Beecher, editor at that time of a small daily paper on which his sister assisted him, vigorously supported the editor of the suppressed journal. Lane Seminary was in peril from the mob, and the alert-minded authoress daily came in contact with experiences of which she was to make vital use in her after life. Her father and friends were advocates of abolition, her brothers were all anti-slavery men, and she had received and educated in her own family the children of liberated slaves. One of these waifs was seized to be sold as part of the assets of a Kentucky estate. The child was ransomed, but the incident deeply affected Mrs. Stowe's mind. Somewhat later a negro girl from Kentucky became a servant in her house. Her mistress had left her in Ohio, and by the laws of that State she was free; but it was learned that her former master had laid a plot, to kidnap her, and Mr. Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher carried the girl at midnight, in a covered wagon, to a secure refuge twelve miles away.
These were but a few of the experiences that came to the ardent-souled woman, and filled her mind with facts which were to blossom into the living fiction of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and through its pages to make a nation of abolitionists. She left Cincinnati in 1849 for Brunswick, Maine, where her husband had accepted a professorship in Bowdoin College. But she took with her a memory full of painful scenes which she had seen or had been in near contact with, and the letters which followed her to her new home served to keep up the indignation against the slave system which burned in her soul.
The spark that kindled the train of her thoughts came to her at length in a letter from her sister-in-law. "If I could use a pen as you can," said the letter, "I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is."
This letter came to her like an inspiration. Reading it aloud to her family, when she came to the passage just quoted, she exclaimed, with the face and gesture of a prophetess: "I will write something. I will if I live."
The story of how the book was written does not need to be given here. It is told in the sketch which follows this biography. It will suffice here to say that it was written as all world-moving books are written; it wrote itself, the author's mind being but the channel of the inspiration that made the book. It was published March 20, 1852, while Mrs. Stowe, exhausted with her labor, was taking some weeks of needed rest with her brother Henry at Brooklyn.
Meanwhile Professor Stowe accepted the Chair of Sacred Literature in the Theological Seminary at Andover, Mass., and here an old stone building, which had been a workshop and a gymnasium, was transformed into a comfortable home, which the people of the place named "The Cabin." Here the authoress proposed to write a story of New England life, but the excitement caused by "Uncle Tom's Cabin" forced her into another field of labor. From every quarter came demands that she should sustain the statements made by her in the book which was agitating the world, and she felt herself forced into the composition of a voluminous "Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin," as long as the original work and much more laborious.
Exhausted with this labor, in the ensuing summer she and her husband, accompanied by her brother Charles, crossed to Europe, the story of the journey being afterwards given in a highly interesting work, "Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands." Sunny her memories must have been, if adulation brings sunshine, for the journey was made through admiring nations, the noblest and the best of the people abroad eagerly greeting and praising the most famous author of the day. Numerous friends were made among the host of her admirers, and her already large correspondence was in consequence much increased.
During the years preceding the war Mrs. Stowe wrote much in favor of anti-slavery, and from the new facts which had come to her knowledge, produced a second novel on this subject named "Dred." This added to the effect of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," though it failed to gain the signal popularity of that noble work. The profits of her works had placed the family in easy circumstances, and in 1856 they made another journey abroad; but Mrs. Stowe had hardly returned when the shadow of deep sorrow fell upon her in the death by drowning of her son Henry, then pursuing a college course at Dartmouth.
Her feeling was indicated in "The Mourning Veil," her first contribution to The Atlantic Monthly, then just founded. Soon after she began "The Minister's Wooing," as a serial story for this magazine. It attracted much favorable notice, and was followed in 1863 by "Agnes of Sorrento," written from her experiences of a winter spent in Italy, and by "The Pearl of Orr's Island."
During several succeeding years Mrs. Stowe ceased novel writing, her pen being employed in producing a series of didactic stories on subjects of social ethics. Then came a series of Atlantic sketches, beginning with "House and Home Papers," and ending with "The Chimney Corner." But in 1869 appeared what to many is the choicest of her works of fiction, "Old Town Folks," a story of former life in rural New England, full of the spirit of that locality, and racy with the inimitable "Sam Lawson," the perfect embodiment of the "Village Do-Nothing." This character reappears in "Old-Town Fireside Stories," though less effectively.
Mrs. Stowe had purchased a plantation in Florida, which became the winter home of the family for many years. It was bought for the benefit of her son Frederick, who had been a captain in the war and had left the army suffering from the effects of wounds. Her experiences here were put upon record in "Palmetto Leaves," a series of letters from Florida. Her later stories included "My Wife and I" and "We and Our Neighbors," published as serials in The Christian Union, in which paper her brother Henry was largely interested; and in 1878 she produced another story of old-fashioned New England life in "Poganuc People." But her thoughts were now largely turned to religious subjects, finding expression in short stories, poems and religious meditations, in which appeared a growing sense of the mystery of the Divine.
Literature had now become a means of livelihood, but it bad grown into a wearying exertion, and she sought to eke out her income by readings from her works, then a common method with famous authors. Her second reading was given in Tremont Temple, Boston, and proved a pronounced success, the whole audience sharing the inspiration with which she delivered passages from "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
In 1886 her husband died, and after that Mrs. Stowe began to lose her strong hold on life, dwelling in seclusion in the quiet of her home. Ten years afterward, on July 1, 1896, she died in her home at Hartford, and was buried by her husband's side in Andover Cemetery in that city.