America in the 1850s

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

How did Harriet Beecher Stowe become the most famous woman of her time?

Born in Connecticut in 1811, Harriet Beecher was the daughter of the nation’s most prominent Protestant minister, Lyman Beecher. Not surprisingly, all of her brothers became men of the cloth. And when it came time to marry, Harriet Beecher joined hands with Calvin Stowe, yet another Protestant minister.

The couple lived for a time in Ohio, where they came to know people escaping along the Underground Railroad. Harriet Beecher Stowe interviewed a number of escaped slaves and compiled the nucleus of what later became her novel. The turning point came, however, when she learned of the new Fugitive Slave Law, enacted by Congress. This persuaded her to seek the publication of her work. It was first published in serial form by a magazine in Washington, D.C., then brought out by the Boston publisher John Jewett. It is no exaggeration to say that American literature was never the same again. Mrs. Stowe certainly had her critics; they claimed she sensationalized her material, but on the other hand they accused her of being a dry journalist. Literary style was never the strongest element of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; rather, it was the moral tone that paved the way to its success. Within a few years of its publication, Harriet Beecher Stowe was known all over the transatlantic world; when Lincoln first met her, he is said to have exclaimed: “So you’re the woman who wrote the book that started this great big war!”


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