Saturday, June 30, 2012

Road-trip to Ripley: Front Street

Part One
I recently took my first Classical Quest road trip to Ripley Ohio! I was joined by my dear friend Christine, her lovely mother, and three awesome children.

Ripley is located on the Ohio River about fifty miles east of Cincinnati. Almost two centuries ago, it was the epicenter of the abolitionist movement in Ohio. Ripley's courageous past was an inspiration to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her character, Eliza, was based on the true story of a woman who escaped a life of slavery by crossing the Ohio River on ice floes with her child in her arms.
 During the Civil War, the Ohio River separated free states from slave states.
What happened in that little river town nestled in a majestic valley would forever change a nation and aspire to rank as pivotal and seminal moments in the heritage of a free people. That place is Ripley-Freedom's Landing in Ohio.  ~ Judge Thomas F. Zachman
Inscription on the monument at Freedom's Landing.

View of Front Street which faces the river.
When you walk the streets of Ripley and climb the steps of Liberty Hill you are on hallowed ground.  Courage, compassion, and moral outrage against slavery dwelled in the hearts and minds of men and women who lived and walked here. Their words and deeds are not of our time, but have shaped our time and their stories are stories for all time and all mankind. ~ Judge Thomas F. Zachman
A view of Kentucky, which was slave territory during the setting of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
"A little town with a big heart."

Peering above Liberty Hill is the Rankin House -- a very important part of the Underground Railroad. It  is often referred to as a "lighthouse for freedom".
Home of Thomas Collins, "Chief conductor on the Underground Railroad"
"Thomas Collins,
Englishman, cabinet-maker, chief conductor on the Underground Railroad. Its portals were always open. Through this door stole refugees innumerable. The night was never too dark, nor the journey too long for its owner to issue forth, leading the helpless across the hills to freedom."
"Through this door stole refugees innumerable"

... I am reminded of the most important incident that ever took place at Ripley, during all the years of the activities of the abolition group. Strange as it may seem, no one placed any importance to the episode when it occurred, because we did not know what was in the mind of Harriet Beecher Stowe. It was she who took the incident and wove it into the pages of Uncle Tom's Cabin, making it one of the most appealing and forceful attacks of this epoch-making book.... I am referring to that incident of Eliza with her babe in arms crossing on the ice, chased by dogs to the water's edge. This all really happened, and it took place at Ripley... I have heard the story directly from Rev. John Rankin, to whom Eliza told her story within an hour after she had made the crossing, as she sat by his fireside in his hilltop home.  John Parker -- freed slave who became a conductor on the Underground Railroad. His home is on Front Street.
...nerved with the strength such as God gives only to the desperate, with one wild cry and flying leap, [Eliza] vaulted sheer over the turbid current by the shore, on to the raft of ice beyond. It was a desperate leap -- impossible to anything but madness and despair... 
...The huge green fragment of ice on which she alighted pitched and creaked as her weight came on it, but she staid there not a moment. With wild cries and desperate energy she leaped to another and still another cake; -- stumbling -- leaping -- slipping -- springing upwards again! Her shoes are gone -- her stockings cut from her feet -- while blood marked every step; but she saw nothing, felt nothing, till dimly, as in a dream, she saw the Ohio side, and a man helping her up the bank...
The Signal House -- "a historic home with rooms overlooking the Ohio River. Legends tell of its involvement in the Underground Railroad. A lantern from a skylight in the attic signaled Rev. John Rankin that the waterfront was safe to transport slaves to freedom." Now a Bed & Breakfast.
..."I'd be glad to do something for ye," said he; "but then there's nowhar I could take ye. The best I can do is to tell ye to go thar," said he, pointing to a large white house which stood by itself, off the main street of the village. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin

Window on the rooftop of the Signal House -- clearly visible from the Rankin House on the hill above.
The proprietor said these roses were prettier a few weeks ago. I thought they were still picture-worthy.
A view of Front Street facing East.

In my next post, I'll show pictures of my visit to the Rankin House, where Harriet Beecher Stowe was once a guest.
Other posts in this series:

Monday, June 18, 2012

How Did She Do It?

File:Harriet Beecher Stowe by Francis Holl.JPG
image credit
In 1851, Harriet Beecher Stowe exposed the ugly truth about human slavery in her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A long list of male, abolitionist orators had been trying to shake the complacent population for years, but it took a mother's voice to finally get the job done. Not only did her book set the stage for vast change in the United States of America, her simple, direct words left readers reeling all over the globe. 

Ever since I finished the book and learned of its world-wide influence, I’ve been in awe of the “frail, overburdened, Yankee woman” who penned it.
People often ask me how I find time for reading through the classics. I suppose it is a valid question -- I have five young children! Many days there is hardly time to think. Often my mind is numb from sleep deprivation. In a large family, if one person is awake for any reason, Mother is awake too.

To be honest though, the reading really isn’t the hard part. No, my biggest challenge is the writing – note-taking, blogging, commenting on other literary blogs, completing the Hebdomadal Review at A Classic Case of Madness. (Christina, will you please forgive me for neglecting this lately!) The somewhat passive skill of reading is restorative. Writing, on the other hand, is work. It demands focus! For starters, you must be fully awake.

Writing a book to change the world is no easy task for anyone, let alone a person in Harriet’s position. When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, she was a forty year old mother in the thick of child-rearing. She was not a woman of large means; her husband was a theology professor whom she described as “rich in Greek & Hebrew, Latin & Arabic, & alas! rich in nothing else…”

Though Harriet’s children were similar in age to mine at present, her chore-burden would have been much greater. In the book Never Done, author Susan Strasser describes the workload for a homemaker in the nineteenth century, before labor saving devices brought women relief:
Even some who could afford occasional domestic help had to carry water from wells, streams, and urban hydrants, and haul fuel for their cookstoves. Women who had indoor plumbing still hung laundry up to dry and sewed by lamplight.

Harriet once wrote that after “a dark, sloppy, rainy, muddy, disagreeable day” in the kitchen, she told her husband, “I am sick of the smell of sour milk, and sour meat, and sour everything.” She felt “so loaded and burdened with cares as to drain [her] dry of all capacity of thought, feeling, memory or emotion.”

So, what set Harriet Beecher Stowe apart and enabled her to accomplish her great work for humanity?

First, she had a strong sense of her life-purpose. "The Beechers expected their children to shape their world."  Her father delighted in her, praising her for winning an essay contest at age seven. He sent her to an excellent school  in a time when most girls learned only ornamental arts. He also allowed her to hone her skill in creating a persuasive argument at the family table. Later, as a married woman, she found encouragement from her husband. In 1840, he told her, “My dear, you must be a literary woman. It is so written in the book of fate. Make all your calculations accordingly.”

Second, she wove scenes into her prose which she had been pondering for years. She did not arrive at Uncle Tom’s Cabin out of the blue.  In 1833, three years before her marriage, she took her only trip into slave territory. She traveled with her friend Mary Dutton on a steamboat up the Ohio River from Cincinnati to Maysville, Kentucky and continued six miles by carriage to a home in Washington, Kentucky. Each day they visited surrounding towns and plantations. She was shocked to discover that a beautiful, good, amiable woman she had seen in church was owned by “Mr. So-and-so”. Other material came forth from the memorable Kentucky visit as well. The following is an excerpt from Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America, by David S. Reynolds:
Mary Dutton remembered during the plantation visit Beecher sat quietly, abstractly in thought and seemingly oblivious of everything around her. But when Mary later read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she recognized “scene after scene of that visit portrayed with the most minute fidelity, “including moments when “the negroes did funny things and cut up capers."

Third, Harriet was aided in her craft by a sense of urgency. As a sensitive reform-minded mother, She was outraged by the wicked Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it illegal to house run-a-way slaves in the North. She firmly believed in the concept of higher law -- the idea that an evil law, contrary to God’s law must be broken. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she made this point through the voice of Mary Bird in an appeal to her husband, Senator Bird:
It’s a shameful, wicked abominable law, and I’ll break it, for one, the first time I get a chance; and I hope I shall have  a chance, I do! Things have got to a pretty pass, if a woman can’t give a warm supper and a bed to poor starving creatures, just because they are slaves, and have been abused and oppressed all their lives…Obeying God never brings on public evils. I know it can’t. It’s always safest, all round, to do as He bids us.

Fourth: Her crushing load of housework indirectly served a purpose too. For over a decade before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, Harriet wrote feverishly for three hours a day to pay for domestic help. In 1838 when her twins were two years old, she hired a housekeeper in addition to the English governess she employed. That year she wrote a letter to her good friend Mary Dutton:
I have realised enough by my writing one way & another to enable me to add to my establishment a stout German girl who does my housework leaving to Anna full time to attend to the children so that by method in disposing of time I have about three hours per day in writing & if you see my name coming out every where -- you can be sure of one thing, that I do it for the pay -- I have determined not to be a mere domestic slave -- without even the liesure to excel in my duties -- I mean to have money enough to have my house kept in the best manner & yet to have time for reflection & that preparation for the education of my children which every mother needs -- I have every prospect of succeeding with this plan & I am certain as yet that I am not only more comfortable but my house affairs & my children are in better keeping than when I was pressed & worried & teased into trying to do more than I could -- I have now leisure to think -- to plan-- contrive -- see my friends and make visits &c besides superintending all that is done in my house even more minutely than when I was shut up in my nursery. 
In Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life, Joan D. Hedrick called Harriet a “tiger chasing her own tail”.
Harriet escaped the nursery but she never escaped the circular treadmill: she wrote to get money to hire help to enable her to write (to get money to hire help and so on).
Seeing how writing well is a skill which is honed through many hours of practice, I wouldn’t say she was “a tiger chasing her own tail”. For, in the decade that Harriet appeared to be on her “circular treadmill” she was really moving forward with her craft toward the day when she would crank out Uncle Tom’s Cabin in forty installments for the National Era. 

More facts:  The death of her 18 month old son Charley of cholera in 1849, helped her to understand what a slave-mother would feel when separated on the auction block from her children.

The ages of Harriet's children at the time of the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851 were as follows: 
infant son under age one 
eight year old daughter
eleven year old son
thirteen year old son
twin fifteen year old daughters. 

Her twin daughters never married; they worked as assistants to their mother.

Harriet’s youngest son, Charles Edward wrote Harriet’s biography, The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe, in 1889.