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Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Important Terms, People and Events

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born on June 14, 1811, into a family of extraordinarily gifted and promising siblings. The Beechers, later in their lives, would become a kind of intellectual Camelot, with Harriet Beecher Stowe and her famous brother, Henry Ward Beecher, at the head of the table.

Harriet, a precocious and fiercely intelligent child, grew up in Connecticut, a decidedly anti-slavery state. The America in which Harriet was born was an America already beginning to show the strains of economic and social division. The North, built on industry and invention-steel mills and banking, for example- could not differ more from the laid-back, pastoral South, where slave labor brought prosperity to those who exploited it. But while antislavery sentiments grew more and more impassioned in border states like Ohio, the Northern states of New England were far enough away from the reality of slavery to provide a kind of buffer. Slavery was something to theorize about, not to confront.

When Harriet and her family moved to Ohio when she was in her early twenties, however, she saw the horrors of slavery firsthand, and was exposed to people who held strong opinions on the institution. She joined a literary club in Cincinnati called the Semi-Colon club where she met her future husband, the brilliant Biblical scholar Calvin Ellis Stowe. Harriet's interest in the anti-slavery cause increased, and in 1833, when she was twenty-two, Harriet visited a slave plantation across the Ohio River in Kentucky. She was horrified by what she witnessed, and the events and scenes were burned into her brain, simmering there for nearly twenty years. Harriet, by this time, was turning out short stories and essays for a Cincinnati magazine called Western Monthly Review. She found, increasingly, her topic was slavery. In 1836, Harriet married Calvin Stowe, and they began their long life together, scraping by and struggling to make ends meet.

Using the visit to that Kentucky plantation as a template for Colonel Shelby's plantation in Uncle Tom's Cabin, along with numerous slave accounts and interviews she conducted with ex-slaves, in 1851 and 1852 Harriet finally penned one of the most famous American books of the nineteenth century, published serially in an abolitionist magazine called New Era, and certainly one of the most popular. While basically a morality play, Uncle Tom's Cabin was an attack against an institution that most Southerners had, for over a hundred years, accepted as necessary without question. However, Harriet believed that the Southerners who enslaved blacks were also victims of the institution, as it made them completely dependent upon slave labor, and as a result they felt it impossible to extricate themselves.

The publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852 was an event that changed an already changing nation. The novel was an instant bestseller, going through 120 editions in a year. Harriet became, in the same year, the most beloved American author in the country, and the most hated. Northerners considered the very symbol of all that the anti-slavery movement stood for-never mind that she, in fact, advocated gradual emancipation of slaves rather than instant and irrevocable-and the South considered her a great threat to their way of life.

Although best known for Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote hundreds of novels, short stories, articles, children's books and religious inquiries. Each book she published was a bestseller; each issue of a magazine in which she published an article sold out overnight. People wanted to hear what she had to say, and even the best authors of the time respected her work–including Dickens, George Sand, Henry James and Anthony Trollope. However, despite her success as an author, she never saw her writing as anything other than a job. Her husband was the most important person in her life, and the care of her many children always came first in her life.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was a full-fledged celebrity, both in America and abroad, and Lincoln famously called her "the little lady that made this big war", in reference to the Civil War. Her many trips to Europe and England enlarged her mind, and her books sold as well abroad as they did in America.

When she died in 1896, Harriet Beecher Stowe's books had fallen out of favor, as the social issues had become less relevant and the art of the books had been thrown into question. However, Uncle Tom's Cabin remains in print today and is considered an extraordinarily important social document of a fractured America.

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