200 years ago, on June 14, 1811 Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born. The sixth of eleven children of the prominent clergyman, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, all seven of her brothers became ministers, but her calling was to the written word.
160 years ago, on June 5, 1851, the paper The National Era published the first two chapters of her novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life among The Lowly.” It continued to publish weekly installments of what soon became known, beloved and powerfully influential not just in America but around the entire world. 150 years ago, on April 12, 1861, the confederate attack on Fort Sumter signaled the start of the Civil War, which led to the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing American slaves. Many have credited Stowe’s novel with a major role in creating the national and international support for the anti-slavery cause that made the war possible.
As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of that terrible war we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of this exceptional woman and her remarkable work.
Dan Cryer, in his review “Why Harriet Matters,” of David Reynolds’ new book about Stowe and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in the Boston Globe, says:
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin’’ has been admitted, more or less, into the American literary canon. Overcoming the sneers of mid-20th-century New Critics, the novel now stands alongside the works of Hawthorne and Dickinson. . . . Few would doubt Reynolds’s judgments that “no book in American history molded public opinion more powerfully’’ and that its creator, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the nation’s most famous woman of her time. During the 19th century, her book sold more copies here than any other, save the Bible.
But commercial success is, in some ways, the most meager measure of her work’s success and her contribution to America, then and now. Listen to John Hallwas, writing in The McDonough County Voice:
The primary cultural importance of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is the prompting of so many Americans to fully recognize the evils of slavery, through Stowe’s portrayal of such brutalities as the forcible separation of slave families and the beating to death of morally superb, Christ-like Uncle Tom, who even forgives the evil master (Simon Legree) who kills him. . . . But the book’s impact on the American conscience is more broadly significant, too. As noted literary scholar Alfred Kazin points out in his introduction to the Bantam paperback edition of the novel, “by emphasizing the contradiction, the daily hypocrisy, that supported slavery in this Christian, church-going society, she can (still) teach her white middle-class readers to look at their own lives . . .” In other words, the failure of the American conscience is an ongoing problem in our nation. A great many people still ignore the poverty and suffering of others.
This is a critical point, essential to understanding the enduring relevance and importance of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the story she created.
- Is “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” one of the great works of 19th century American literature? Absolutely.
- Is understanding “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” central to understanding the major events of 19th century American history? Unquestionably.
- Did “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in its original form and in its many, though often degraded, spinoff versions, exert a powerful influence on American popular culture and racial attitudes, not only through the late 19th century but well on through the 20th? It did. Though it must be said that by the 20th century that influence was typically as powerfully negative as the original novel’s had been positive in the earlier years. Yet understanding how and why that happened is an important part of the story of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the story of America.
Is “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” still important and relevant today? Yes it is, for all of the historical reasons cited above, and for one very important forward-looking reason, for which we’ll hear from Annette Gordon-Reed, also reviewing Reynolds’ new book, but this time in The New Yorker:
In the twentieth century, changing sensibilities about race took a toll on the novel’s prestige. . . . For all that, it’s still possible to see “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for what its author intended it to be: a cri de coeur to the American people, one that forced them to ask what kind of country they wanted their nation to be.
For as long as we strive, survive and hopefully thrive as a nation, that is a question we must continue to ask, and Harriet Beecher Stowe will continue to remind us just how essential it is. Happy Birthday Harriet.