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Harriet Beecher Stowe

(1811-1896), American

Biography

The most unlikely of catalysts for civil war, a slight New England mother of six named Harriet Beecher Stowe became, in Abraham Lincoln's words, "the little lady who started this big war." Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in what seemed to be a hopelessly divided America. On one side of the Mason-Dixon line, a somber, industrial North grew crowded with immigrants and rich with invention and manufacturing. On the other, the languid South likewise prospered, but its wealth came not from factories, but from plantations where cruelty and human suffering were the only currency known.

Harriet Beecher Stowe spent much of her life in Cincinnati, Ohio, a microcosm of America split by the question of slavery. On the Ohio side of the Ohio River, slavery was illegal. Just across the river in Kentucky, however, slavery was legal. The battles between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions were fierce, and Stowe, along with the rest of her accomplished siblings, faced head-on what they all had learned to deplore.

The publication of Stowe's most famous book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, is considered a major factor in the escalation of the slavery debate during the mid-1800's. The book was based on slave accounts she had read, ex-slaves she had interviewed, and a Kentucky plantation she visited while living in Cincinnati. It was a scathing work of social and moral commentary, and steeled many formerly moderate anti-slavery proponents against the South, turning them into radicals almost overnight. Each work of writing she produced—from her many contributions to abolitionist magazines to her socially conscious short stories to her polemic novels—was an attack against slavery and those who supported it as an economic system. The woman who called the abolition of slavery the greatest event in her life was often just writing to pay the bills, considering her life's calling a business rather than art.

When Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe became the most famous woman in America, and one of the most famous Americans in the world. She became a living symbol of all that the anti-slavery movement stood for. Ironically, Stowe remained a moderate, believing the emancipation of slaves should be gradual, and accomplished through religion and education.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, with the North victorious and the South in shambles, Stowe and her siblings remained committed to causes like education for freed slaves, women's suffrage and other then-controversial social movements. Despite her forward-thinking tendencies, Stowe remained quite traditional in the realms of religion and domestic life. She was a fervent supporter of women's rights, but she always deferred to her husband, Professor Calvin Ellis Stowe, and considered herself of lesser rank in the household. As a result of her strict Presbyterian upbringing, she remained intolerant of Catholicism. Only after a number of trips abroad, during which she was exposed to different religions and different systems of morality, did she become more accepting of other religions before leaving the Presbyterian church to become an Episcopalian.

For over thirty years, Harriet Beecher Stowe was the most famous literary figure in America and was the mouthpiece for the anti-slavery movement. Her passionate polemics, religious inquiries, travelogues, many short stories and children's books, and novels were all instant bestsellers in their time. Now, despite the heavy sentimentalism and the clichéd plots, Harriet Beecher Stowe's books stand up as social documents and evidence that literature can change the course of a nation.

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SparkNotes

Harriet Beecher Stowe Quotes

What makes saintliness in my view, as distinguished from ordinary goodness, is a certain quality of magnanimity and greatness of soul that brings life within the circle of the heroic.

The greater the interest involved in a truth the more careful, self-distrustful, and patient should be the inquiry.

I would not attack the faith of a heathen without being sure I had a better one to put in its place, because, such as it is, it is better than nothing.

That ignorant confidence in one's self and one's future, which comes in life's first dawn, has a sort of mournful charm in experienced eyes, who know how much it all amounts to.The truth is the kindest thing we can give folks in the end.I did not write it. God wrote it. I merely did his dictation.

Perhaps it is impossible for a person who does no good not to do harm.The longest day must have its close — the gloomiest night will wear on to a morning. An eternal, inexorable lapse of moments is ever hurrying the day of the evil to an eternal night, and the night of the just to an eternal day.

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Fiction

  • Uncle Tom's Cabin

    (1852)

  • A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin

    (1853)

  • Dred, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp

    (1856)

  • The Minister's Wooing

    (1859)

  • The Pearl of Orr's Island

    (1862)

  • Old Town Folks

    (1869)

  • Little Pussy Willow

    (1870)

  • Lady Byron Vindicated

    (1870)

  • My Wife and I

    (1871)

  • Pink and White Tyranny

    (1871)

  • Six of One by Half a Dozen of the Other

    (one of several contributors, 1872)

  • Woman in Sacred History

    (1873)

  • Palmetto Leaves

    (1873)

  • Betty's Bright Idea

    (1875)

  • Deacon Pitkin's Farm

    (1875)

  • The First Christmas of New England

    (1875)

  • Poganuc People

    (1878)

  • Queer Little Folks

    (1897)