LecturesShort biography

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) is best known today as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which helped galvanize the abolitionist cause and contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War. Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold over 10,000 copies in the first week and was a best seller of its day. After the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe became an internationally acclaimed celebrity and an extremely popular author. In addition to novels, poetry and essays, she wrote non-fiction books on a wide range of subjects including homemaking and the raising of children, and religion. She wrote in an informal conversational style, and presented herself as an average wife and mother.

In 1832 Harriet moved with her family to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Lyman Beecher became President of Lane Theological Seminary. At that time, Cincinnati was considered the western frontier of the United States. In Cincinnati, Harriet met and married Calvin E. Stowe, a professor at Lane. Six of the Stowes’ seven children were born in Cincinnati.

Cincinnati was just across the river from Kentucky, a slave state. It was in Cincinnati that Harriet first became aware of the horrors of slavery. Cincinnati was one of the largest cities in the country, twice the size of Hartford at that time. When Harriet and Calvin learned that their servant, Zillah, was actually a runaway slave, Calvin and Henry Ward drove her to the next station on the Underground Railroad. One night, Harriet’s friend, Mr. Rankin, saw a young woman run across the river over the ice with a baby in her arms. This story moved Harriet deeply and would later become one of the most famous scenes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In Cincinnati, Harriet became a member of the Semi-Colon Club, a local literary society in which members wrote articles which were read and discussed by other participants. Her experiences in this club sharpened her writing style. During her early married years, Harriet began to publish stories and magazine articles to supplement the family income. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which appeared first in serial form in an abolitionist newspaper, The National Era, in 1851-52, was written largely in Brunswick. In 1852 the story was published in book form in two volumes. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a best seller in the United States, England, Europe, Asia, and translated into over 60 languages. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which deeply distressed Harriet, was a factor in inspiring her to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This Act made it a crime for citizens of free states to give aid to runaway enslaved people.

Many readers criticized Harriet because she had never visited the South. However, she had heard, from people she knew personally, first hand stories of conditions among the enslaved people. For example, Harriet employed an African-American woman in Cincinnati who told her what is was like to be a woman under slavery.

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