Study Guide

Harriet Beecher Stowe Introduction

Harriet Beecher Stowe Introduction

Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin didn't start the Civil War. It just threw a gallon of lighter fluid onto the already-smoldering debate over slavery that divided North from South during the 1850s. Slavery – and the issue of whether states should be able to decide for themselves whether or not they wanted it – would eventually lead to the greatest crisis in American history, the Civil War. Beecher Stowe, a wife and mother living in Maine, wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin to dramatize the grotesque, dehumanizing horrors of slavery. Though her nineteenth-century depictions of race can be uncomfortable to read today, there's no question that the book had a major historical impact, pushing America much closer to a final reckoning with the question of whether or not slavery could remain a legitimate cornerstone of American society.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born into the Beecher family, a large, pious, and influential New England clan headed by the Reverend Lyman Beecher, a famous Calvinist preacher. Harriet and her nine siblings were raised to be a force for good in the world; they grew up, in the words of one writer, "unselfishly, stubbornly and often annoyingly bent on doing good to their fellow-mortals." Harriet's older sister, Catharine, founded one of the most progressive girls' schools in the country, and another sister, Isabella, fought for women's suffrage. The sermons of her preacher brother, Henry Ward Beecher, probably did as much to shape public opinion during the Civil War era as did Uncle Tom's Cabin. Harriet Beecher Stowe set out to change the world the best way she knew how – through the power of the pen. And though she probably would have described herself simply as a Christian wife and mother, she was also – as an old legend put it – the little lady who made a big war.

Harriet Beecher Stowe Trivia

It's a popular (but untrue) myth that upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln said, "So this is the little lady who started this great big war." Lincoln's rumored greeting first surfaced in an obituary of Stowe in 1896. It's not even clear whether Stowe and Lincoln ever actually met.

When Beecher Stowe graduated from grammar school at the age of thirteen, one of her essays was read aloud at the assembly; it was entitled "Can the immortality of the Soul be proved by the light of nature?" Her father, Rev. Lyman Beecher, turned to the person next to him to ask who had written the impressive piece and was told, "Your daughter, sir." Beecher Stowe later recalled it as the proudest moment of her life.

The first American film was a fifteen-minute silent version of Uncle Tom's Cabin by Edwin S. Porter. It was released in September 1903, three months before Porter's more famous film, The Great Train Robbery.

In an awful irony, Uncle Tom's Cabin has been used as a vehicle for racism. Early theatrical versions and films of Uncle Tom's Cabin scrapped Beecher Stowe's plot, turning the characters into grotesque racial stereotypes. Vaudeville stars (and sisters) Rosetta and Vivian Duncan starred in a popular musical number called "Topsy and Eva" that they performed for 30 years. Like many stage interpretations of Uncle Tom's Cabin, it bore little resemblance to the novel's plot and relied heavily on blackface racial gags.

During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the phrase "Uncle Tom" took on a pejorative meaning for African-Americans, who interpreted Tom's forbearance in the novel (and certainly the racist caricatures in later adaptations of the book) as a humiliating kind of servility. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee wrote a paper condemning the novel's depiction of the slave that asked, "Who is the real villain – Uncle Tom or Simon Legree?"

The Boston publisher Phillips, Sampson & Co. rejected the manuscript of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1851 for fear that it would "disturb their business relations with the South."

The writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of The Yellow Wallpaper, is Harriet Beecher Stowe's grandniece. Her father, Frederick Beecher Perkins, was Stowe's nephew.

Harriet Beecher Stowe Resources

Books

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852)
This is the novel that made Stowe famous. Stowe's book didn't start the Civil War, but it certainly helped change the course of American history. During her lifetime, the anti-slavery book sold three million copies and was translated into 37 languages.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Minister's Wooing (1859)
Though Uncle Tom's Cabin was certainly Stowe's best known book, it was not her only one. Stowe wrote roughly one book per year for 30 years straight. Her novel The Minister's Wooing was a satiric reflection on Calvinism, the uncompromising Christian theology preached by her father. Stowe wrote the book two years after her son Henry drowned, and the book also explores a mother's grief over losing a child.

Charles Edward Stowe, Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1889)
Stowe's son Charles wrote this biography of his mother using information gleaned from her letters and journals. Though the writer is obviously biased, the book is a loving tribute to a woman much respected by her seven children, only three of whom outlived her.

Catherine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, The American Woman's Home (1869)
The Beecher family's progressive ideals extended to women's rights. Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister Catherine Beecher wrote this book premised on the radical idea that the work women did to run their households was important, and as deserving of study as men's professions.

Josiah Henson, Autobiography of Josiah Henson (1849)
Former slave Josiah Henson escaped to Canada in 1830 at the age of 41. His autobiography is believed to have inspired Stowe during the writing of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe wrote a preface to a later edition of his memoir.

Joan D. Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (1994)
Hedrick's is one of the best biographies written on Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe was a standout in a family of standouts – her father and brother were famous preachers, and many of her thirteen (!) siblings and half-siblings were distinguished as well. This biography looks at Stowe's life and achievements in the context of her time and her unique background.

Music

Civil War Songs
Music was an important part of the Civil War. Soldiers sang to stave off boredom, fear, and homesickness. Civilians back at home sang to remind themselves of what their boys were fighting for. Check out this site to see which tunes were popular with the North and South.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, "Still, Still With Thee"
Stowe, a devout Christian, was the daughter of famous preacher Lyman Beecher and the sister of another notable clergyman, Henry Ward Beecher. She wrote this hymn, still used in churches today, at her brother's request.

Fife and Drum Music
During the Civil War, fifes and drums were used as both tactical instruments to signal to troops as well as musical instruments. These songs were played by Union and Confederate troops.

N**** Spirituals
Enslaved African-Americans used songs to express comfort, faith, and protest. Some spirituals were sung by slaves as they worked. Others, such as "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and "Wade In the Water," were about the Underground Railroad. This site explores the genre in depth.

Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe
For many Southerners, Harriet Beecher Stowe was the embodiment of Northern hypocrisy. After Stowe left the U.S. in the 1850s for a book tour in England, this Southern ballad was written mocking her and accusing her of "abandoning" African-Americans.

Warrant, "Uncle Tom's Cabin"
You don't often think of glam rock and abolitionism in the same sentence, but the band Warrant apparently wants to change that. Their song "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is inspired by the book.

Images

Harriet Beecher Stowe
A portrait of the writer circa 1865, near the end of the Civil War.

Later Harriet Beecher Stowe
A portrait of the writer in her later years.

Calvin Stowe
Beecher Stowe's husband, Calvin Stowe.

Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher
A portrait of the writer with her brother, clergyman Henry Ward Beecher.

Famous Beecher Family
Harriet Beecher Stowe with her father, Rev. Lyman Beecher, and siblings.

Uncle Tom's Cabin
An 1885 edition of the novel.

Scars of Slavery
A Civil War-era photograph of a slave scarred from whipping.

Stowe House
Stowe's home in Hartford, Connecticut.

Movies & TV

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1987)
Of all the many film adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin, this made-for-TV film is one of the only ones to honor the original intention of the story and its characters, instead of lapsing into crude racial stereotypes. It features notable African-American actors like Phylicia Rashad and Samuel L. Jackson.

Dimples (1936)
Holy cow, is this movie racist!! The film is a fictional account of the first theatrical version of Stowe's novel. There are a host of uncomfortable stereotypes here. These include white actors in blackface (e.g., racially derogatory, stereotypical theatrical makeup). This movie is worth watching only as a period example of the racially charged ways in which Uncle Tom's Cabin has been portrayed over the years.

Gone With the Wind (1939)
If Harriet Beecher Stowe and Scarlett O'Hara ever met in real life, they probably wouldn't have agreed on much of anything. Nonetheless, this classic tale of the Civil War – as seen from the perspective of the South – is historically dubious, but still one of the best movies ever made. Period. Disagree? Frankly, my dear, I don't give a d--n.

The King and I (1956)
When Anna Leonowens arrives in Thailand (then Siam) to teach in the Royal Palace, the King's many wives are fascinated by her description of a book written by a woman. "Small House of Uncle Thomas" is a musical adaptation of the novel that appears in the film. It is interesting to see Stowe's message of freedom as interpreted by women virtually enslaved as concubines in a far-off land.

Glory (1989)
This Academy Award-winning film tells the story of Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first all-black units in the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Shaw, a white, Harvard-educated officer, died at the age of 25 alongside 116 of his men in a battle near Charleston, South Carolina. Shaw's liberal Bostonian parents were friends with Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns (1990)
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has a reputation for taking overwhelmingly broad subjects and distilling them into films of nuance and detail. His nine-part, eleven-hour take on the Civil War took six years to make – longer than the war itself. It is a masterpiece and a fascinating look inside America's greatest crisis.

Websites

The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center
The center is located at the Harriet Beecher Stowe House and Library in Hartford, Connecticut, the city where Stowe lived from the 1860s to her death in 1896. Its website is a lovely and authoritative guide to Stowe's life and times.

Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture
Stephen Railton and his team at the University of Virginia have knocked it out of the park. This site is an incredible online library of primary documents related to Uncle Tom's Cabin.

An American Family: The Beecher Tradition
Harriet Beecher Stowe wasn't the only distinguished member of her family. This site looks at the illustrious Beechers, a clan who made a heavy imprint on the American landscape. From Stowe's father Lyman Beecher, a noted clergyman, to her grandniece, the author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the Beechers made important contributions to American faith, literature, and reform.

Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site
Uncle Tom's Cabin was inspired, in part, by Josiah Henson, a Maryland-born slave who escaped to Canada. He established the Dawn Settlement in Dresden, Ontario to assist former slaves. The settlement is now a historic site, and its website contains useful information about Henson and his cause.

Ken Burns' Civil War: The Website
Burns' mammoth documentary of the Civil War is an amazing educational resource. The companion website to the film is pretty great, too. It contains short, simple biographies of nearly every major player in the war, including Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The Underground Railroad
The National Park Service runs this virtual tour of the Underground Railroad, the network of safe houses that allowed slaves to escape to the North. The site also points to locations that were not part of the Railroad but are significant to the history of slavery. These include Harriet Beecher Stowe's house in Cincinnati, where she held abolitionist meetings, and the house in Brunswick, Maine where she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Video & Audio

Uncle's Tom's Cabin: 1914 Movie
A short, silent clip from a 1914 film version of the book.

Uncle Tom's Cabin Vitagraph
A silent clip from a 1910 filmed version.

A Slave's Story: Running to Freedom
The narrative of an escaped slave.

Ken Burns' Civil War Intro
Seven minutes of Burns' eleven-hour epic.

Slavery in America
A three-part documentary on the history of slavery in the U.S.

Civil War Images
A collection of photographs of the Civil War.

Confederate Rebel Yell
A vintage Civil War film clip of the Confederate battle cry.

Primary Sources

Uncle Tom's Cabin
E-text of the 1852 novel.

A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
The book Stowe wrote in 1853 to rebut accusations of inaccuracy against her novel.

Manuscript pages
Images of Stowe's actual manuscript of the novel.

Review: By a Southerner
A four-part review of Uncle Tom's Cabin by a Southerner that appeared in the New York Times.

The Christian Examiner Review
A review of Stowe's novel by a Christian paper.

The Great American Novel
An 1868 article in The Nation arguing for Stowe's book.

Josiah Henson
Excerpts from the autobiography of former slave Josiah Henson, who inspired Stowe to write Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
The abolitionist's 1845 autobiography.

The Drummers' and Fifers' Guide
A widely-used 1862 manual for military corps musicians.

"Cabin Fever"
Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on Uncle Tom's Cabin.

"The True Story of Lady Byron's Life"
A scandalous gossip story Stowe wrote in 1869.

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