Harriet Beecher Stowe at 200
Tess Chakkalakal is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and English at Bowdoin College, author of Novel Bondage: Slavery, Marriage, and Freedom in Nineteenth-Century America, writes of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s impact and her enduring legacy.
June marks the two hundreth anniversary of the birth of Harriet Beecher Stowe. When Stowe scholars from around the world descended on Bowdoin College last week to discuss the life and work of the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, they were also assessing the role she is said to have played in the Civil War. President Lincoln may have called Stowe “the little woman” whose novel “made this big war,” but Uncle Tom’s Cabin, like her subsequent antislavery novel Dred, made no such call to arms. And that was not all it did not do. Although it inveighed against particular laws—especially the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850—the book did not point to any particular law or policy to put an end to the greater evil it identified.
Stowe’s fiction has been read, and should be read, as an inspiration of antislavery sentiment in the years before and during the Civil War. But it should also be read as evidence of the difficulty that most Americans, including Stowe herself, had in deciding how to extinguish slavery. There was some truth in Lincoln’s remark that Stowe’s novel caused the war, but it would have been truer to say that the novel reflected the war’s cause.
At Bowdoin College and its environs, where Stowe found the inspiration for her most famous novel, opinions were divided between the same shades of ambivalence found elsewhere in the country. The U.S. congressional election of 1850—the same year in which Stowe decided to write the novel—was contested in her district by two Bowdoin alumni embodying the ambivalence. William Pitt Fessenden, class of 1823 and later to be Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary, was a Whig; John Appleton, class of 1834 and lately in the Departments of the Navy and State under President Polk, was a Democrat. Both avowed their opposition to slavery. To Fessenden, that implied forbidding the extension of slavery in any territories that might be acquired, and abolishing it in just one place, namely, the District of Columbia. To Appleton (who, notably, was the narrow victor), it implied flexibility and compromise in the extension of slavery while awaiting its gradual demise.
Neither candidate, not even the more fervently antislavery Fessenden, sought the political abolition of slavery where it already existed, outside of the nation’s capital. In fact Fessenden, not to mention Appleton, positively disclaimed such a step. And so did Stowe: although she concluded Uncle Tom’s Cabin by admonishing those “sons of the free states” who “connived at the extension of slavery, in our national body,” she shared her eminent and pious father’s decided aversion to abolitionism. How to get from opposing slavery to actually ending it (by means other than African colonization) was a seemingly intractable problem in the realm of politics. All the more reason to turn to literature.
In that turn, Stowe blazed what became a well-trodden trail. Following the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, writers, in the South as well as the North, black as well as white, undertook to write slave fiction. Few would match Stowe’s eloquence or popularity. But each would offer a new perspective on slavery, based, like Stowe’s novel, on the particular experiences and opinions of its author. How was Stowe able to transform such an ugly thing as slavery into the stuff of literature?
Situated apart—or above—the political fray in her cottage on Federal Street in Brunswick, Maine, Stowe viewed herself as more of a “painter” than a writer. In a letter to Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the National Era in Washington, D.C., Stowe provided insights into her literary method, a method that was intended to transcend politics.
"My vocation is simply that of a painter, and my object will be to hold up in the most lifelike and graphic manner possible slavery, its reverses, changes, and the negro character, which I have had ample opportunities for studying . There is no arguing with pictures, and they impress everybody, whether they mean to be or not."
Much to the chagrin of radicals like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass who wanted slavery abolished at whatever cost, Stowe’s novel attempted the impossible: to bridge differences between North and South, Democrats and Republicans, radicals and moderates, by appealing not to political conviction but rather to individual feeling. “But, what can any individual do?” Stowe asks at the end of her novel. To which she characteristically provides the answer: “Of that, every individual can judge. There is one thing that every individual can do—they can see to it that they feel right.”
It should not be surprising, then, that the novel supposedly responsible for starting the Civil War was so far from a call to arms. It was instead a battle cry for literature. For Stowe, reading a book and being moved by it was just as, if not more, significant than fighting in a war. While some, like Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Bowdoin Class of 1852 and future hero of Gettysburg) called Stowe a “genius,” there were others like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Bowdoin Class of 1824) who felt her novel was “a pathetic and droll book on slavery.” Though Longfellow, like Chamberlain, was opposed to slavery he, like many literary men of his time, did not view it as an appropriate subject for literature. But the popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed his view not only of the novel but also of literature. Stowe’s novel made slavery a suitable subject of literature.
When slavery ended and Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Stowe left slavery behind. She turned her attention to other more salient subjects like marriage and women’s rights. But none of her later novels would receive the attention of her first. While Stowe’s “genius” may be the source of the novel’s power, its ongoing popularity has more to do with its readers than with its author. Stowe may have been the first to transform the facts of slavery into fiction but she was certainly not the last. As witnessed by a plethora of novels written in the twentieth century—from Gone with the Wind to Beloved—slavery remains as popular a subject of literature today as it did when Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. Perhaps this is because slavery—at least the end of it—remains the one idea around which Americans today can unite.
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