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.


  1. I savored this post: the text, the photos, the insight.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for letting me know!

  3. Beautiful perspective. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. I'm laughing right now! That's my self-portrait from college (many moons ago!)

  5. Oh, there's so much hear about which I want to comment, but I'm short on time (this being my child-free time in order to do work in which to pay for my child-free time so that I can do work): I get her.

  6. Christina I'm amazed at how you juggle all of your responsibilities. I really admire you!

  7. I really enjoyed this post. Nice to know that women who "have it all" or seem to "do it all" do not do it ALL BY THEIR SELVES. They do have help, and they MUST make choices.

  8. Thank you Christine!
    Yes, always choices. Good point.

  9. I was so delighted to get home from my trip and find your new post! It's beautiful (as usual), I was happy to learn more about HBS's life, and I appreciated your insights. : ) I'm sure I can speak for all of us in saying that we're glad you do make the time to write; your blog is a blessing to us!

  10. Sandy, your encouragement propels me forward! I've come to the conclusion that I can't keep up with the typical blog pace at this season in my life. In order to write about what really means something to me, I have to do it less frequently. This has been a scary decision, because I can sometimes see readers are returning for new material that is not there! Thank you for supporting me -- from the bottom of my heart!

  11. "Her father delighted in her ..."

    It's a picture of what all of us enjoy in our relationship with God, isn't it? We each have a Father who delights in us. HBS had the double blessing of adding an earthly father to delight in her as well. Thanks for giving us these insights into her life, Adriana. I've given talks on the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the Dred Scott decision and Missouri Compromise, so her era and Uncle Tom's Cabin always get my attention.


  12. Yes, Tim I agree -- and from what I've learned of HBS, I think she would have agreed too! Thank you for that.

    Oh, and I should mention that I thought of consulting you when I was writing the part about the the concept of "higher law". I hope I understood it correctly. My regular readers may be interested in reading your excellent post from last month at Rachel Stone's blog:

    1. Thanks for the shout out, Adriana! Any time you want to run something by me, just feel free to email. (Whether higher/natural law or whatever!)


      P.S. I linked (through my name, above) another guest article I wrote. It's somewhat related to your article on HBS and slavery here as it concerns human trafficking. Jenny Rae Armstrong posted it as part of a short series she did no the subject.

  13. I have never before considered this whole picture of past women authors. Thank you for this.

  14. Fascinating! I always love when I can "catch a glimpse" of how other mothers find the time and energy to write.

    Thanks for sharing the story behind "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Clearly, I am without excuse with my THREE children (ages 6, 4, and 1), a dishwasher, and a washer & dryer. ;)

    1. Stephanie, whenever I think about HBS I feel humbled! What an inspiration! I'm glad you found her story fascinating.

      P.S. Somehow this comment slipped past me back in July. I apologize. I normally respond to comments w/in 24hrs.

  15. I came here through your link on your Madeline L'Engle post, and I'm so glad you posted the link. This is a great post, thank you so much.

    1. I'm so glad you let me know you enjoyed it, Cara. Thank you for reading!


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