Today is the birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe

On this day in 1811, Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born to prominent minister Lyman Beecher and his wife Roxana Foote Beecher in Litchfield, Connecticut.  She was the seventh of an eventual thirteen children.

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Harriet Beecher was fortunate in that she received a thorough classical education at a time when most women did not.  She would meet widower Calvin Ellis Stowe in the mid-1830’s after she moved to Cincinnati.  They would marry in 1836.

By 1850 the Stowes were living in Brunswick, Maine, where Calvin taught at nearby Bowdoin College.  Harriet was inspired to write something after the new Fugitive Slave Law was passed in early 1850.  She wrote to Gamaliel Bailey, publisher of the antislavery newspaper The National Era, and told him she wanted to write something in serial form to be published in his paper.  Stowe was paid $400 (a not-inconsiderable sum for its time) for the story, which was published from June 1851 until April 1852.  The story, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly, was published in book form soon afterward.  The book became a bestseller, selling over 300,000 copies in the U.S. and over 1,000,000 copies in Great Britain in less than a year, thus becoming the second most-popular book in English in the 19th century (its sales were exceeded only by the Bible).

By current standards the book portrays a lot of offensive racial stereotypes of African-Americans.  But it is hard to overstate the influence of the book on attitudes of the 19th century public towards slavery.  In the South, negative reaction to the novel was widespread, and the book was banned and burned in many places.  People caught with copies of the book in the South were at best ostracized by their peers, and at worst they became victims of mob violence and vigilante justice, like a bookseller in Mobile, Alabama who was driven from the city.  But many Southerners instinctively recognized the power of Stowe’s story, and so the novel inspired an entire genre of Southern literature that became known as anti-Tom literature or plantation literature.  But even the bestsellers of this genre never came remotely close to the popularity of the original Stowe novel.

In the North and in other countries, the book was hailed as an agent for social change.  Within five years the book had been published in twenty languages.  In addition to its political themes, the book was a popular culture phenomenon.  One of its characters inspired many parents across the Northern United States to name their daughters Eva.  The book inspired numerous plays and dramatic readings.  It would eventually inspire a number of film adaptations as well.

~Geoff

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