Domestic Goddess Harriet Beecher-Stowe(1) is most famous for her controversial anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe was born in 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut, the seventh of nine children. Her father was the well-known Congregational minister Lyman Beecher and his wife was Roxana Foote Beecher. Roxana Beecher died when her daughter was five years old, causing Beecher to feel great empathy, she felt, for slave mothers and children who were separated under slavery.
As Elizabeth Ammons points out in her preface to the Norton edition, if Beecher had been a man, she probably would have followed in her father's footsteps and become a minister. As it was, she was also wife and sister to preachers. She maintained that it was her Christian passion which compelled her to write her novel. The Stowes' family was not rich, and therefore, Harriet's life was sometimes conflicted between the necessities of motherhood and writing, or, between vocation and avocation. She eventually bore six children, with whom her writing competed. Stowe chose to write Uncle Tom's Cabin because her sister-in-law urged her to use her skills to aid the cause of abolition. The novel was incredibly popular and sold more copies than any book before it, with the exception only of the Christian Bible. "Today, Uncle Tom's Cabin raises many questions. It requires readers to confront and think about racism, and theories of race in the United States. It provokes important questions about differing feminist ideologies and agendas across race and time" (Ammons, intro). Whatever our feelings about the novel, it remains one of the most influential American texts written by either man or woman. It is possibly the first American social protest novel, and anyone concerned with the state of race relations should read it. Critics often denounce the novel for its often sentimental and stereotyped portrayal of its African-American characters, and for romanticizing slavery, but others answer their claims by saying that the critics have not read or completely understood Stowe's intended message and agenda. Whatever your personal feelings about the novel, and Stowe's agenda, it remains an important text for our history.
Stowe's other novels, including Oldtown Folks and The Pearl of Orr's Island contain another picture, one of the domestic lives of the northeastern region that Stowe grew up in and was familiar with. We can find, by studying all of her works, a more complete portrait of her as a writer, and we can possibly understand more about Uncle Tom's Cabin when we read all of Stowe's writing.
1. Bio, photo, and quotations are from:
Amons, Elizabeth. Foreward. Uncle Tom's Cabin. By Harriet Beecher Stowe. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1994.