Author Spotlight: Harriet Beecher Stowe

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
With the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe became one of the most influential people worldwide. Uncle Tom’s Cabin rocked the nation’s perception of slavery, and is credited by some historians as helping to ignite the Civil War. From a young age, Stowe was embedded in the abolitionist movement, with many of Stowe’s 12 siblings working in social reform. A social and literary trailblazer, Stowe forced open a conversation surrounding slavery in 19th century. Here, we’re highlighting the life and accomplishments of author and activist Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Early Years and Activism

In June 1811, Stowe was born to Lyman and Roxana Beecher. Roxana died when Stowe was just five, and her father remarried shortly after. In all, Stowe had 12 siblings, some of whom were half siblings born from her father’s second wife. Of these 12 siblings, most found careers in social activism, primarily the abolitionist movement.
Her siblings’ work had an enormous influence on Stowe throughout her upbringing, but none more so than her sister, Catharine. Catharine was an ardent supporter of women having access to the same education as men. In 1823, she opened the Hartford Female Seminary, a school that focused on educating women. Stowe was a student here, and became a teacher after graduating. When Stowe was 21, she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where her father had become president of Lane Theological Seminary. She joined a literary and social club called the Semi-Colon Club, which fostered a space for her to expand on her writing talents.

Harriet Beecher Stowe.Stowe came face-to-face with the nation’s racism while speaking to local African Americans who were harmed during the Cincinnati Riots of 1829. Because of the city’s steady shipping business on the Ohio River, immigrants from across the globe were migrating to the area. The Riots occurred when white Irish immigrants tried to push out African Americans for fear of them taking valuable jobs. Riots in 1836 and 1841 were similar in nature, steered by anti-abolitionists. This experience strengthened Stowe’s resolve against slavery, and she became heavily involved in the abolitionist movement. 

Writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin

In 1850, Stowe wrote to the editor of a prominent anti-slavery journal stating: “I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak… I hope every woman who can write will not be silent.” Less than a year later, she sent the first installment of what would become her only novel to the journal. Stowe was paid $400 for installments that ran from June 5, 1851 to April 1, 1852. The story published in book form in 1852, with a first printing of 5,000 copies. Less than a year later, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had sold over 300,000 copies.
The book painted a clear picture of the horrific lives slaves in the South were forced to live. Its central goal was to inform Northerners of these harsh realities and inspire sympathy. Uncle Tom’s Cabin revealed the twisted relationships between masters, slaves, and the trade, and questioned the morality of the practice. While the book was a hit in the North, Stowe developed a reputation as corrupt and ill-informed in the South.

The first cover of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.When the Civil War later broke out in 1862, Stowe traveled to the capital with her daughter Hattie to meet with President Abraham Lincoln, who reportedly greeted Stowe with: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” 

Stowe’s Later Years

When her husband died in 1886, Stowe’s health began to decline. In 1888, the Washington Post reported that, struck with dementia, the writer had started crafting Uncle Tom’s Cabin again. She wrote the passages almost exactly word for word, believing to be writing it for the first time. Modern critics believe she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Stowe died in 1896 at the age of 85.
Today, one can visit one of several sites honoring and preserving Stowe’s memory. Her homes in Ohio, Maine, Connecticut, and Florida have all been preserved, and represent significant eras from the writer’s life. A bust was molded in her honor and was placed at the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, and in 1986, Stowe was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Over the course of her life, Stowe became a vocal opponent of slavery. Through her writing and public activism, she fought for the equal rights of African Americans, and set a reputation for herself as one of the leading figures against slavery. The publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin made history with its depiction of the lives of Southern slaves, and is a story still taught to readers today.