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Literature >> 19th Century
author of the first major American novel to feature a black hero
Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on June 14, 1811. She was the seventh child of Reverend Lyman Beecher, an influential minister of the Congregational Church, and the sister of clergyman Henry Ward Beecher and of reformer and educator Catharine Beecher.
At the age of 11 Harriet began studying at the Hartford Female Seminary, a school established by her sister. There she was taught languages, natural and mechanical science, composition, ethics, logic, and mathematics, all subjects which traditionally had not been taught to girls. At the time girls were expected to marry and then run a household, and few believed it necessary for them to receive anything more than a very basic education. Catherine Beecher, however, believed that it took just as much brain power to run a household as to run a business and that, therefore, girls should receive just as much education as boys. After completing her education, Harriet taught at the seminary for a short time.
From 1832 to 1850, the Beecher family lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Lyman Beecher served as president of Lane Theological Seminary. There she and Catharine established the Western Female Institute. The sisters also collaborated on a geography book for children, which was published in 1833.
In 1836, Harriet married widower Calvin Ellis Stowe, a member of the Lane faculty. The couple would eventually have seven children. To help support the family financially, Harriet began writing for local and religious periodicals. Her first book, The Mayflower, was published in 1843. Before long she was making enough money to hire household help.
In 1850, Calvin secured a professorship at Bowdoin, and the now large family moved to Brunswick, Maine. It was while living there that Harriet wrote the novel for which she is most known.
Uncle Tom's Cabin
While living in Cincinnati, Harriet had occasion to learn about the evils and horrors of slavery, since the slave state of Kentucky lay just across the river. She was inspired to write a novel about those horrors after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it a crime for citizens of free states to aid runaway slaves. Uncle Tom's Cabin began as a serial for the Washington-based anti-slavery weekly, National Era. Stowe expected it to be three or four installments at most, but the story eventually grew to forty chapters. It was published in book form in 1852.
The first major American novel to feature a black hero, Uncle Tom's Cabin was almost immediately successful. It was translated into 37 languages, and sold over half a million copies in the United States within five years. Few readers remained neutral after reading the book, they were either staunch supporters of Stowe or equally staunch opponents. The book focused public interest on the issue of slavery, and is said by many to have been a catalyst for the Civil War because it brought the issue to the forefront of public discussion. Stowe became an instant celebrity, and was invited to speak against slavery in England and other European countries.
The Stowes moved to Andover, Massachusetts, in 1853, after Calvin became a professor of theology at Andover Theological Seminary. He retired in 1864, after which the couple moved to Hartford, Connecticut.
Although Harriet Stowe wrote several other books after Uncle Tom's Cabin, none of them enjoyed the same level of success. She died in Hartford on July 1, 1896.
Her Major Writings
The Mayflower: or,
Sketches of Scenes and Characters Among the Descendants
of the Pilgrims (1843)
This page was last updated on 03/20/2017.