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Uncle Tom's Cabin: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contents, Criticism (Norton Critical EditionsSummary and Reviews of Uncle Tom's Cabin: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contents, Criticism (Norton Critical Editions)
A Key to Uncle Tom’s CabinSummary and Reviews of A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin
The Minister's WooingSummary and Reviews of The Minister's Wooing
Pink and White TyrannySummary and Reviews of Pink and White Tyranny
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Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) had seven brothers who were ministers, one of whom, Henry Ward Beecher, was the most famous preacher of his day.  Her father was also a minister who was one of the most important clergy of his day.  Her older sister was a leader in the movement for women's education, and her half-sister was a prominent suffragist.  Her husband was a prominent theologian whom colleges and universities singled out for his wisdom.  Stowe, however, lived the life of a wife and mother, the expected path for a woman of her day, until she was about thirty years old.  By the time of her death, though, she had exceeded all of all her celebrated relatives in fame and prestige.

Stowe had spent her childhood learning.  In her earliest years, theology and intellect surrounded her.  When she was thirteen, Harriet went to Hartford where she spent eight years studying at the women's seminary under her sister, the founder of the school.  At the seminary, she learned Latin, French, and Italian, studied history and theology, and ended up teaching at the seminary before she left with her sister and the whole family for Cincinnati, where her father became president of Lane Theological Seminary.  She and Catherine, the seminary founder, taught school in Cincinnati and joined the Semi-Colon Club, where the city's literati-Cincinnati was called the "Athens of the West"-met.  Soon, though, Stowe met Calvin Stowe, married him, and settled into the life of a housewife for many years afterward.

The Stowes lived a lower middle class existence, struggling to pay basic bills, never mind pay for maids or nannies.  So, Stowe toiled at feeding and clothing babies and keeping the house clean and furnished.  She accomplished this last task partly by finally trying her hand at writing, publishing in small publications like the Evangelist and Godey's Lady's Book.  According to letters she wrote around this time, the sketches she wrote for these magazines helped her to hold herself together in the midst of a disorderly life.

About this time, Stowe learned of the abolitionist movement, particularly the Underground Railroad and other efforts to help runaway slaves.  Lane Theological Seminary had forbidden its students from assisting Cincinnati's black people.  Many of the students left the school because of this, and Stowe's father, as president, suffered because of the resulting decline of the school.  Though the Board of Trustees had made the fateful decision, Lyman Beecher bore the financial brunt of the consequences.  Stowe realized from this and other experiences that she needed to be involved in the abolitionist movement.  She wrote "Immediate Emancipation," a sketch advocating a somewhat shocking and definitely radical idea for the time.  Even her father disagreed with her position, favoring gradual emancipation of slaves.

Her views on the subject solidified, however, and soon they inspired her masterwork.  She changed her surroundings before the inspiration flowed, though.  The family moved to Brunswick, Maine around 1845 because Stowe's husband had gotten a position at Bowdoin College.  It was the Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850, that turned the talent that had produced a small volume of publishable sketches into the fountain of passion that produced what was the best selling, and possibly most powerful book. besides the Bible, ever written.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is viewed today through less-than-rose-colored glasses.  Many of the notions about the black race that Stowe included in her book were born out of ignorance-generalizations about their unusual emotion, their spiritual giftedness, and especially their loyalty and childlikeness.  Stowe was very forceful and explicit, though, in her argument in Uncle Tom's Cabin that the African slaves were people in need of salvation just as everyone else and thus not to be treated as objects without souls.  She plainly treated slave families as equally worthy of preservation as white families, appealing to another Christian virtue, the maintenance of the family, besides the humane treatment and conversion of lost souls.  Stowe went on to write several more novels, journalistic pieces, children's books, essays, and even a book about Florida.  Uncle Tom's Cabin overshadows them all, though, and though literary critics have undervalued it over the decades for its lack of complexity, it is precisely this simplicity that makes it powerful and worthy of being called great literature.


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