Skip over navigation

Harriet Beecher Stowe

The Most Famous American Writer

Hastening War

The Brink of War

Harriet Beecher Stowe had been perplexed and troubled by the South's violent reaction to her book. She had hoped that those on the fence about the slavery issue would warm to her point of view, and that she'd light a fire under moderates, but she was blind sighted by the hatred coming out of the South. She received a great deal of hate mail. In reaction, she decided to write A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was a mixture of journalism and abolitionist tract, peppered with case histories of slave lives. In the book she argued that people living in the South were so numbed to the routine human brutalities involved in maintaining a slave plantation that they no longer regarded acts of cruelty as anything out of the ordinary. In addition, she censured clergymen who refused to take a position on the slavery question, saying that in keeping quiet, they were actively supporting the institution. The book, published in May 1853, sold 150,000 copies in the U.S. in its first year.

The wake of Uncle Tom's Cabin was wide, and in it everyone wanted to see and hear from the woman who wrote the tome. In March of 1853, Harriet Beecher Stowe traveled to England and Europe on what purported to be a speaking tour. However, because her fear of public speaking was almost crippling, her eloquent husband Calvin Ellis Stowe took over most of her speaking engagements while abroad. No one seemed to mind, as seeing the pale, slender woman sitting next to the podium seemed to be enough for the people in the audience.

The storm surrounding Uncle Tom's Cabin found a twin in Europe, and Harriet was thrilled by the international solidarity that she saw wherever she went. The whole of Europe, it seemed, stood firmly behind the American anti- slavery cause. In England, crowds followed her in the street. She was relieved when she crossed over to the continent and found a somewhat more relaxed atmosphere in Paris. She was, again, the toast of the town, and her French hosts made sure to introduce her to all the appropriate literary luminaries. French novelist Amatine Lucile Aurore Dupin, known by her pseudonym George Sand, was a great fan of Harriet's, and had written her fan letters. When Harriet arrived in Paris, she asked to be introduced to Sand, but her French hosts balked at the idea. People of respectable society, they told her, do not speak with Sand, who openly kept lovers. Harriet, still a devout Presbyterian at that time, agreed with this reasoning, and so never met one of her greatest French fans.

After three months in Europe and England, Harriet and her husband steamed home across the Atlantic. Upon her return she found that her popularity in the North, and her notoriety in the South, had not diminished. She received so much mail that her mailman had taken to delivering her mail in a large sack each day. Her social circle widened and her regular royalty checks kept the family in comfortable, albeit still modest, surroundings.

In May 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in Congress. The new law enraged abolitionists because it left the decision whether or not to allow slavery to exist in the newly admitted states up to the territorial settlers. Soon after, the Dred Scott Case (or, Sanford v. Scott), caused an even bigger uproar. Dred Scott, a slave from Missouri, had accompanied his master to Illinois and then to the Wisconsin territories, where slavery was illegal. When his master died, Scott sued his master's widow for his and his family's freedom, stating that because he was in a free state, he was no longer a slave. The case was argued before the United States Supreme Court in 1856–1857.The Supreme Court ruled against Scott, deciding, in the process, that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in new states and territories.

Inspired and enraged by the outcome of the Dred Scott case, Harriet Beecher Stowe began writing a new novel she based on the 1831 slave insurrection popularly called the Nat Turner Rebellion. Turner, a Virginia slave who believed himself meant by God to lead the rebellion, planned a revolt along with about sixty other slaves. The group killed Turner's owner's family and then went on to kill fifty-five other whites. It led to a tightening of the existing slave laws in the South and ended any hope of success for the burgeoning abolitionist movement there. Harriet's book, titled Dred: the tale of the great dismal swamp, was published in 1856 and was a resounding success. Stowe was now the most popular American author in the world.

In June 1856, Harriet left for Europe again, this time bringing along her family. While in England she dined with Queen Victoria and members of the British aristocracy. She seemed oblivious to where the great wealth of the aristocracy came from, and some newspaper editorialists in England took care to make sure she saw the parallels between the Southern slave owners she so abhorred and the rich aristocratic Brits with whom she was dining, who relied upon factory laborers who were paid pennies and who were forced to work in abominable conditions.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us