Harriet Beecher Stowe
A Living Institution
In the summer of 1832, when Harriet was twenty-two, Lyman Beecher was offered a job as president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, which had not yet opened. While her father pondered whether or not to take the job, Harriet considered her current lot. Her older sister Mary had just married a handsome young lawyer named Thomas Perkins, and Harriet envied her–she had not had any suitors. Her living quarters were cramped, and her roommates–fellow teachers–were becoming less and less tolerant of Harriet's mood swings. She was overworked and exhausted from her daily duties at the school. When her father decided to take the job in Cincinnati and move his family there, Harriet decided to join them.
In 1832, Ohio was still semi-frontier, yet Cincinnati was already a cosmopolitan city. It was also a charged city, because here the slavery question–which was theorized about in New England where slavery was only a concept–was one that was living. One needed only to look across the Ohio River to Kentucky to see exactly what slavery was and how very much the South depended on it for its prosperity. As a result, people in Cincinnati generally had strong feelings about slavery.
When the Beechers arrived in Cincinnati, Lyman Beecher was impressed by the large, fervent Christian population he found there. Catharine had, at the last minute, decided to join the family in Cincinnati with plans to found another school of higher education for women, and Harriet's brother George had decided to enroll in Lane for a divinity degree. As luck would have it, Harriet's uncles lived in Cincinnati, and called on the family at their home often. Harriet and her younger brother Henry Ward found John and Samuel Foote fascinating, and Lyman Beecher found them maddening. Samuel, in particular, was worldly, and boasted of friendships with the kinds of people Lyman Beecher disdained: Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Jews. Samuel often confronted Lyman about his prejudices at the dinner table, and the two got into spirited arguments. One day, Samuel invited Harriet to join his favorite club, The Semi-Colon Club. It was a literary club, made up of some of the best minds in Cincinnati, including future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Salman P. Chase; Judge James Hall, who was editor of Western Monthly Magazine; and the couple Calvin Ellis Stowe and Eliza Tyler Stowe. Harriet and Eliza, in particular, became great friends almost at once. Harriet very much enjoyed her evenings with the Semi-Colon club, finding fellow members kindred spirits.
Meanwhile, Catharine had already founded Western Female Institute where both she and Harriet taught. Harriet's first work of writing, a geography textbook, was written specifically for her pupils, and constitutes her first published work. But she had her eye set on a different kind of literature, and in July 1833, Judge James Hall paid her fifty dollars for a short, satirical article titled "To Catharine." Its subject is the appalling grammar found in contemporary American literature. Harriet did not attach her name to this article, and though she longed to write short stories for Hall's magazine, she hesitated. Her father, Lyman, made his low opinion of fiction known in no uncertain terms: he thought it immoral. However, after scraping together enough courage, Harriet penned her first short story and submitted it to Hall for publication in the November 1833 edition of Western Monthly Review, and this time she agreed to a byline. "A New England Tale" was her first published short story. This gratifying first success made Harriet hungry for fame, and drove her to write at a furious pace. It would be some time, however, before she would try her hand at a novel.
1833 was a year of both good and bad news for the Beecher family. Harriet's published short story was thrilling and, at the same time, troubling to those members of her family who found fiction shameful–notably, Lyman Beecher and Harriet's sister Catharine. That same year, William joined the family in Cincinnati and Charles, in the middle of his divinity studies at Lane, threatened to give up his studies and become a composer, and Mrs. Beecher fell ill.
1833 was also a year of great changes for Harriet. In addition to finding her first successes with writing, she also found herself confronted for the first time by the realities of slavery. In Connecticut, safely tucked into the Northern alliance of anti-slavery states, Harriet could postulate and theorize about slavery without having to confront the day-to-day horrors of the institution. In fact, it was even possible in Connecticut to be undecided on the issue. Not so in Cincinnati where one needed only look across the Ohio River into Kentucky to see slave auctions with families torn apart. Harriet found she was growing more and more curious about slavery, so she decided to cross the Ohio and visit a Kentucky plantation.
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