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Harriet Beecher Stowe

The Brink of War

The Most Famous American Writer

A Nation at War

While in England, Harriet made the acquaintance of Lady Byron, Lord Byron's widow. The two became extremely close friends, and Harriet was thrilled to hear stories of the great poet from the mouth of his elderly widow. The stories, she found, were often filled with bitter memories of the great poet: he was a womanizer and Lady Byron hinted that he engaged in incest with his half-sister Augusta Lee.

Harriet and her twin daughters Eliza and Hattie stayed in Paris over the winter of 1856 to improve their French, and when Harriet finally steamed home after a year abroad, she left her twins in Paris to study for two years. Upon her arrival, she found that her son Henry had enrolled in Dartmouth. On July 10th, Harriet and Calvin Ellis Stowe received word that Henry had drowned in the Connecticut River during one of his morning swims. The couple was crushed, and Calvin fell ill almost at once.

In November 1857, Harriet found a new venue for her writing–the magazine The Atlantic Monthly. Her first contribution to the monthly was a short story called "The Mourning Veil." She kept up her exhausting pace, churning out story after story, and continually working on novels. For the first time in a long while, Harriet turned to subjects other than slavery. Her serialized novel The Minister's Wooing, published in 1858, was about New England Protestant clergy. It was well received, both critically and popularly. Her next novel, which would not appear in book form until 1861, was The Pearl of Orr's Island, a pastoral and character study set in Maine. Around this time, Harriet received a fan letter from a British novelist named Marian Evans. People who read Evans' work knew her by her pseudonym, George Eliot. Like George Sand, George Eliot was socially marginalized because of her lifestyle choices–she lived openly with a man who was not her husband. However, Harriet's trips to Europe had broadened her perspectives. Her strict religiosity was giving way to a more tolerant attitude and to great curiosity about other lifestyles and other religions. Morality, she discovered, was complex. So, on her next trip to England, she asked to be introduced to George Eliot, and the two found much in common and became lifelong friends.

In the late 1850's, America was a nation about to divide. John Brown's Rebellion, which took place on October 16, 1859, went unnoted in Harriet Beecher Stowe's many letters, but it was an event which rocked the nation. In the legendary raid at Harper's Ferry in Virginia, John Brown, along with twenty-one followers, captured the U.S. arsenal. A company of U.S. Marines, led by Robert E. Lee, regained control of the arsenal and Brown was wounded in the scuffle. The event startled the South, and Brown's placid demeanor during his trial won him fans in the North. When he was hanged at Charlestown on December 2nd, 1859, he was, to many in the North, a martyr.

At almost the same moment that John Brown was forcing the nation to come to grips with the enormity of the split between North and South, Harriet was embarking on yet another European tour with her family. While in England, Harriet met for the last time with her great friend Lady Byron. During her winter in Florence, Italy, Harriet entertained some of the brightest lights on the literary scene, including Robert Barrett Browning and his wife Elizabeth and Anthony Trollope. She became interested, for the first time, in spiritualism and the occult. This kind of interest in non-religious spirituality was out of character, and likely spurred by her continuing grief over her son Henry's death.

While in Florence, Harriet conceived the idea for her new novel Agnes of Sorrento. At heart a religious inquiry, Agnes of Sorrento would demonstrate Harriet's newfound tolerance for and curiosity about Catholicism. It would be only five more years before Harriet would give up the faith of her father–Presbyterian–for the Episcopal Church.

When Harriet returned home in 1860, the American political landscape was rocky. An extremely important presidential election was looming, and a little-known Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln was about to make a very important speech at Cooper's Union in New York City. In his first appearance on the east coast, Lincoln made his opposition to slavery clear–in contrast to many of his political contemporaries, who sought to appease all sides of the slavery debate. His clear-cut position won him Harriet Beecher Stowe's support. Lincoln won the presidential election on November 6th, 1860. A month and a half later, on December 20th, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. Within a month, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana had also seceded and in February, the Confederacy was born. The American Civil War began with the attack of Fort Sumter off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina on April 12, 1861.

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