Page images



1812-1896. HE NAME of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the illustri

ous patriotic author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, is known in nearly every home in America and in many on the Continent. Few names are more closely intertwined with our country's history. "It was the great happiness of Mrs. Stowe," says George William Curtis, "not only to have written many delightful books, but to have written one book which will always be famous not only as the most vivid picture of an extinct evil system, but as one of the most powerful influences in overthrowing it.... If all whom she has charmed and quickened should unite to sing her praises, the birds of summer would be outdone.”

Harriet Elizabeth Beecher was born nearly a century ago in Litchfield, Connecticut, June 14, 1812. She was the sixth child of Reverend Lyman Beecher, the great head of that great family which has left so deep an impress upon the heart and mind of the American people, who at the time of her birth was a poor, struggling Congregational preacher. The mother died when Harriet was but a small child, but she ever retained a loving memory of her. Mrs. Beecher was very fond of flowers, and a friend once sent her from New York some fine tulip bulbs, which were then very rare. The mother carefully wrapped them up and put them away until time for planting. Some time after, little Harriet came across them, and, mistaking them for onions, carried them to her little brothers and sisters, who helped to eat them

all up

At the age of five years Harriet entered the Litchfield village school. She was very fond of books and early showed signs of unusual mental ability. When she was eleven years old she entered the seminary at Hartford, Connecticut, kept by her elder sister, Catherine, and four years later was employed as assistant teacher. About this time her father married again, and brought home a young wife to care for his motherless little ones. Soon after this he accepted a call to the presidency of the Lane Theological Seminary at Cincinnati and moved his family to that place. His daughters, Catherine and Harriet, accompanied them and founded a new seminary, the Western Female Institute. In 1833 Miss Harriet and one of the associate teachers from the seminary, Miss Dutton, crossed the river and visited in Kentucky. For the first time Miss Beecher was brought into contact with slavery, and the estate where they visited afterwards figured as Mr. Shelby's in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Miss Beecher began her literary career in 1834 when her first offering, A New England Story, won fifty dollars in a prize competition. Two years later, in her twenty-fourth year, she became the second wife of Calvin E. Stowe, one of the professors in the Lane Seminary, whose first wife had been her intimate friend. They were well suited to each other. “Professor Stowe was a typical man of letters,-a learned, amiable, unpractical philosopher, whose philosophy was like that described by Shakspere as an excellent horse in the stable, but an arrant jade on a journey.' Her practical ability and

cheerful, inspiring courage were the unfailing support of her husband.” For a long time after her marriage, money was a very scarce thing in the Stowe home, and Mrs. Stowe wrote stories for the magazines to obtain money for household expenses. In 1850, Professor Stowe accepted a seat in Bowdoin College and moved his family to Brunswick, Maine.

In 1851, Mrs. Stowe began the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, as a serial in the Washington National Era. She had contemplated a tale of about a dozen chapters, but once begun the story could no more be controlled than a rudderless ship before the wind, and the serial ran for nearly a year. The story excited intense interest; from all sides came words of praise and encouragement, and eager requests that she keep on with the taļe. (It had been announced at first to run only about three months.) This and the growing conviction that she was only the instrument of a Higher Power impelled Mrs. Stowe to finish the work. She repeatedly said: “I could not control the story, the Lord himself wrote it. I was but an instrument in his hands and to Him should be given all the praise.” While engaged with the story, she indeed wrote as one inspired and could scarcely be induced to leave her work, often rising from her bed at night to pen the words which thronged her brain, dispelling all thought of sleep. She received $300 for the serial right of the story. In the meantime, it had, however, attracted the attention of Mr. John Jewett, a Boston publisher, who wished to purchase it for publication in book form. He offered Mrs. Stowe a half share in the profits if she would share with him the expense of publication, but the Professor objected, saying that they were altogether too poor to undertake such a risk, and it was finally settled that Mr. Jewett should issue the book, paying Mrs. Stowe a ten per cent royalty on all sales. The author waited in trepidation; but her fears lest her book should not be a success were soon dispelled. Three thousand copies sold the first day; the publisher issued the second edition the next week, and a third edition a few days later; in one year over three hundred thousand copies had been issued and sold in this country. Almost in a day the poor professor's wife became the most talked of woman in the world, her influence for good spread to the remotest corners; her long struggle with poverty was over, in seeking to aid the oppressed she had aided herself also, and in four months was in receipt of over $10,000 in royalties. Thousands of copies sold in England, and it was translated into forty foreign tongues, including Arabic and Armenian. It was dramatized and acted in all the leading theaters.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is the most popular novel ever written in America. In its dramatized form it still keeps the stage, and statistics from circulating libraries show that even yet it is more in demand than any other book. “It did more than any other literary agency,” says Beers, "to rouse the public conscience to a sense of the shame and horror of slavery; more even than Garrison's Liberator; more than the indignant poems of Whittier and Lowell or the orations of Sumner and Phillips. It presented the thing concretely and dramatically, and in particular it made the odious Fugitive Slave Law forever impossible to enforce. It was useless for the defenders of slavery to protest that the picture was exaggerated, and that planters like Legree were the exception. The system under which such brutalities could happen, and did sometimes happen, was doomed."

In 1852, Professor Stowe was appointed professor of Sacred Literature in the Andover Theological Seminary, and the family moved to Massachusetts. Mrs. Stowe's health was delicate, and in 1853 in company with her husband and brother, Henry Ward Beecher, she visited England and the continent, where she was everywhere received with universal welcome and made many friends among distinguished people. On returning home, she

. again took up her pen and for thirty years it was seldom idle. In quick succession came The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin; Dred, a Tale of the Dismal Swamp; Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands; The Minister's Wooing; The Pearl of Orr's Island; Agnes of Sorrento; House and Home Papers; Little Foxes, Old Town Folks, and magazine stories, articles, and sketches almost without number. An accomplished critic says: "She has entertained and inspired a generation born long after the last slave was made free, and to whom the great question which once convulsed our country is only a name. But her first great work has never been surpassed, and it will never be forgotten.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe was a true home woman, most hospitable and delightfully entertaining. She used to say, “Let me once get my feet on the fender and I can talk until all the air around me is blue." She was quite absent minded in her later years. The story is told that she was once invited to visit the daughters of an old friend, and, having been delayed, arrived only a few minutes before dinner was to be served. She was shown at once to her room; the dinner gong sounded, and the

« PreviousContinue »