- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2007

On June 14, 1811, Harriet Beecher was born in Litchfield, Conn., into a family in which the most extreme aspects of Puritanism were still flourishing.

The following year, her father, Lyman, was appointed pastor of the Congregational Church. He became renowned as a ranting hellfire preacher of the grimmest kind. Also born in Litchfield, Harriet’s brother, Henry Ward Beecher, arrived on the scene in 1813. He became pastor of the Plymouth Congregationalist Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1847, making his mark with his virulent anti-slavery preaching.

Inevitably, Harriet was greatly influenced by Puritan disciplines throughout her formative years, accepting them unquestioningly. She won a prize for her grade school essay, “Can the Immortality of the Soul Be Proved by the Light of Nature?” Quite a topic for a 12 year old.

In 1832, her family moved to Cincinnati, where she became a teacher. Four years later, she married Calvin Ellis Stowe, professor of biblical literature. They would have five children, the last when she was 39. In 1850, Calvin became professor of natural and revealed religion at Bowdoin College, and the Stowes made their home at 63 Federal St. in Brunswick, Maine.

It was there, with her husband’s encouragement, that she began to write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” serialized in 1851 in the National Era and published in book form on March 20, 1852. It was inspired by a visit to Kentucky and by her family’s and her own abhorrence of slavery. A worldwide best-seller, it aroused Northern approbation and permanent Southern detestation. Later, it would be distorted by thoroughly bad dramatic versions. Simon Legree, originally a Yankee slave owner, became his Southern plantation’s equally brutal overseer.

In his critical work “Patriotic Gore” (1962), Edmund Wilson devoted many pages to Stowe and her writing, acknowledging the vitality of her characters in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” while condemning what he saw as its undistinguished narrative and describing it as “inelegantly and carelessly written.” Whatever its flaws, it became the bible of the abolitionists.

In 1853, the Stowes visited Scotland and England, being warmly received until at Essex Hall in London a big audience erupted in anti-American speeches and noisy hostility. Many years after the book was first published, “Uncle Tom” became a term of derision among blacks, who saw the character’s cooperation with whites as being disloyal to their cause for greater civil liberty.

Stowe was not a one-book author. She wrote many others, with none approaching the runaway success of her first. In “Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp” (1856), she returned to her anti-slavery theme. Others were “The Pearl of Orr’s Island” (1862), which had a Maine setting; “Old Town Folks” (1869), set in the New England of her childhood; and “Palmetto Leaves” (1873), written while she was living in Florida. In later life, she also turned out many short stories.

Accustomed as she had become to adulation, although the stormy reception at Essex Hall would have been a shock, Stowe must have been profoundly upset by the vituperation aroused in 1869 when her book “Lady Byron Vindicated” appeared. It has as its theme Lord Byron’s supposed incestuous relationship with Angela Leigh, his half-sister.

It appears that Stowe’s treatment of an ultrasensitive topic was excellent, but readers were in no mood to be tolerant, and she was reviled for the Byron book.

One wonders what effect such public hostility had on a woman accustomed to lavish praise. After all, during the Civil War she had been invited to the White House, where President Lincoln greeted her with the words: “So this is the little lady who made this big war.” It is unlikely Lincoln had intended that to be taken seriously, but Stowe may well have done so. Many factors brought about the conflict, and certainly slavery was one of them.

In 1871, the Stowes moved to Nook Farm in Hartford Conn. There she continued to write. But her husband’s mind was giving way, and he was much troubled by ghosts. He was becoming insane, and he died in 1886. Stowe’s own life was far from happy at this time.

Her brother Fred, who had been wounded in action during the Civil War, disappeared afterward in San Francisco, never to be found. As she aged, Stowe’s own keen mind began to deteriorate, and she gradually lapsed into senility. She died on July 1, 1896, at age 85, being regarded at the time of her passing as the greatest American author of the century.

That surely cannot be an opinion held today. Other than “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” none of her books was outstanding, and it probably is fair to say it was the theme of her first novel that made it so successful. What is undeniable is that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” exploding when it did when relations between North and South were poor, exacerbated the situation while making her famous.

Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.

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