Saturday, March 1, 2014

One Woman's Spiritual Life

Here it is the last day of Black History Month and I am trying to squeeze in a review of the biography of a famous American woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe. She was author of many short stories, articles, and books, but probably best known as author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a singularly influential work of fiction against the practice of slavery in the U.S. in the 1850s.

Published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., the book title is Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Spiritual Life, and it is available at www.eerdmans.org. The author is Nancy Koester and she is an ordained Lutheran minister who teaches religion at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

Harriet Beecher was born June 14, 1811, the sixth child of Lyman and Roxana Beecher. Her father, Lyman, was known as a fiery, evangelical Calvinistic preacher. He was a Congregationalist and served a church in Litchfield, Connecticut. In those days, boys had access to formal education, girls, rarely. But next door to the manse was the Litchfield Female Academy, so Harriet began her education there. She and her sister became teachers though Harriet also knew she wanted to write. And she did: many articles, short stories, books and whatever she could, whenever she could along with her teaching and her rising interest in social action. She was active in helping her sister Catharine gather signed petitions in favor of the Cherokee Nation when they were threatened with removal from their territory. She also became more and more concerned for those who were slaves and she began gathering stories and experiences as she became acquainted with slaves and their stories.

In January 1836, Harriet married Calvin Stowe from Natick, Massachusetts. A graduate of Bowdoin College in ME, and Dartmouth in NH, Calvin taught at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Lyman Beecher was president. Calvin had been married to Eliza, but when cholera swept through Cincinnati, she died and he then married Harriet.

Through correspondence with Editor Gamaliel Bailey, who started a new anti-slavery paper, called the National Era, Harriet began submitting articles to him. They agreed that attacking slaveholders was not helpful. It was better to show the effects of slavery more broadly, and to try to persuade those who were wavering to give up the practice of having slaves. Stowe’s articles in Bailey’s paper began in 1850 and continued weekly for some time.

In those days, women were not expected to speak in public, especially on issues like slavery, and those who did were shunned as fanatics. But Bailey encouraged Stowe to continue her writing and he continued to publish it.

 In June of 1851, when Stowe was in her 40s, Bailey began to advertise Stowe’s weekly installments in his paper as Uncle Tom's Cabin. She began with her own material, gradually weaving in appropriate Scripture passages, newspaper clippings, anti-slavery writings and other sources. The book was finally published on March 20, 1852. Within the first year, the book sold 300,00 copies in the U.S. and 1.5 million in Great Britain. Thousands of “Stowe’s readers were changed, converted to Christ and to anti-slavery at the same time.” Stowe said “she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin to ‘awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race.’” She wanted readers to know slaves as human beings in their own right. Slavery was a heavy subject, so Stowe decided to add humor and readers laughed and cried their way through the pages, unable to stop reading.

Reviews, reactions, discussions, disagreements went on for a long time. Stowe continued her writing. She also traveled abroad, first to Britain, then Scotland, and Paris. She and her husband, Calvin Stowe, made three trips to Europe before settling down at home. She continued to write until she suffered the effects of stroke. Author Koester says of her: “She changed the world with her pen.” Harriet Beecher Stowe died on July 1, 1896. Koester has given us Harriet's life in remarkable detail and I for one am grateful.

 —Lois Sibley