Uncle Tom's Cabin | Study Guide

Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Harriet Beecher Stowe | Biography


Born Harriet Elisabeth to Reverend Lyman and Roxanna Beecher on June 14, 1811, Harriet Beecher Stowe grew up with 10 brothers and sisters in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her father was a well-known Presbyterian minister of his day, famous for his impassioned sermons against alcohol consumption and slavery. Stowe's mother was highly educated, well read, and artistic. She died when Stowe was only five years old, and Stowe's father remarried a year later. As a child Harriet lived in a "cultured society with lawyers, ministers, and professors," as her obituary in the New York Times describes it. She heard and participated in many discussions about key issues of the day.

The Beechers expected their children to seek knowledge and energetically protest social wrongs, especially if they observed actions that went against their Christian beliefs. Many of the Beecher children grew up to be important members of society. All seven boys became ministers. One of them, Henry Ward Beecher, was one of the most popular preachers of the late 1800s. He spoke out against slavery from the pulpit of the renowned Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York. The oldest girl, Catharine, had a large impact on women's education. With her younger sister Mary, Catharine founded the Hartford Female Seminary, and she later established other girls' schools in Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. The youngest Beecher girl, Isabella, was one of the founding members of the National Women's Suffrage Association, which fought to get women the right to vote.

Harriet Beecher seemed destined for a writing career from an early age. She honed her writing skills as a student and then as a teacher at Hartford Female Seminary, and in 1833 she published her first book: a textbook titled Primary Geography for Children. She wrote poems and hymns, historical sketches, short stories, essays, and articles, and her nonfiction topics often included antislavery and temperance themes.

When she moved to Cincinnati as a young woman, Harriet became immersed in the abolitionist cause. By 1836, when Harriet Beecher married Calvin Stowe, she was regularly earning money as a writer. Her husband, a respected theology professor at a Cincinnati, Ohio, seminary, encouraged her career.

In 1851 Harriet Beecher Stowe got a writing assignment that would catapult her to fame. Gamaliel Bailey, publisher of The National Era, a Washington, D.C., abolitionist newspaper, asked Stowe to "paint a word picture of slavery." The original plan was to run the story in several parts, but Stowe ended up writing more than 40 installments. Stowe gained real-life knowledge and eyewitness experiences of slavery and its results, and her sharp mind, keen observational skills, and writing talent combined to produce a realistic exposition of slavery that changed the world. Uncle Tom's Cabin or Life Among the Lowly was a wildly popular series from 1851 to 1852 and was published as a two-book novel in 1852. It was an immediate bestseller, not just in the United States but also in Europe. The original 5,000 copies of the book that were printed sold out in just two days. Stowe had an international platform to expose the evils of slavery and help to change the world as she had been raised to do.

The Stowes had seven children but lost one to cholera. After Calvin's retirement, the couple lived happily in Hartford, Connecticut, among a literary community focused on social reform, and they spent winters in Mandarin, Florida. The Stowes chose to live in Florida to help with the education efforts of emancipated people after the Civil War. One of Harriet's brothers founded a school in Mandarin for this purpose. Harriet Beecher Stowe continued to write and to travel as a speaker until her mental and physical health deteriorated in the years leading up to her death on July 1, 1896.

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