HARRIET BEECHER – STOWE
The famous American novelist Harriet Elizabeth Beecher-Stowe was born
at Litchfield in the State of Connecticut where her father, Dr. Lyman
Beecher, was a pastor. She was brought up in the religious earnestness
which the New Englanders had inherited from the Puritans. To their
understanding justice and kindness could not exist outside religion, and
this is felt in the works of the writer.
Harriet was four years old when her mother died. The chief influence of
Harriet’s youth was her elder sister, Catharine, who had started a
school. In 1832 the family moved to Cincinnati where Dr. Beecher
accepted the presidency of a Theological Seminary. It was there that
Harriet discovered her gift for writing when a local magazine gave her a
prize for one of her short stories. In 1836 she married Professor Calvin
Stowe, a friend of her father’s, who taught in the Seminary. Mrs. Stowe,
having a family of several children, had little time to write. Early
sketches written in her spare time were stories about local characters,
the descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers. These sketches show the writer’s
deep- interest in social welfare.
Cincinnati was near the border of Virginia — the oldest slave stare. It
was there that Beecher-Stowe saw the institution of slavery; there she
lived through the experiences which compelled her to write on slavery.
She remembered how her husband and brother had saved a free Negro girl,
who was being pursued by her former I master, by hiding the girl in
In 1850 the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 roused general
indignation in the Northern states. It inspired Beecher-Stowe to write a
larger work. Early in 1851 she began the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. When
it appeared, the book had an enormous and continuous success.
Naturally, from that time on she devoted herself to the cause of
emancipation of Negro slaves. Many thought that the book had helped to
bring on the Civil War.
Her second novel was “Dred, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp”. In this
book the author depicts the viciousness of slavery, but this time she
shows the growing revolutionary spirit among Negro slaves.
After the Civil War between the Northern and Southern states
Beecher-Stowe bought a place in Mandarin, Florida, where she lived and
worked for many years. Her works of the last period are realistic novels
and stories about the common people of her time. Her novel “The Pearl of
Orr’s Island” is believed to have begun a new trend in American
literature, the Regional Realists, of which Bret Harte was the classic.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
The purpose of the book was to show slavery as a national institution,
therefore Harriet Beecher-Stowe had no intention to pass judgment on the
South alone, to describe slavery as a vicious system of labour or an
economic error. In the preface to her book Beecher-Stowe states that
freedom should be a principle, and in a country where freedom has become
a privilege, the nation will never be free. The author took pains to
show that the crime of slavery was national and that it was as injurious
and shameful to the Northern states as to the Southern. The novel “Uncle
Tom’s Cabin” took away from the advocates of the slave system any chance
to justify the slave-holders. Once and for all it did away with the idea
that a slave could be happy with a “kind” master. The story from its
very beginning shows that when the “kind” master has fallen into debt,
he will not stop at the prospect of selling his “property”. He sells his
good slave although he had intended to set him free; and the more
valuable the slave, the more surely the creditors would seize him.
Thus the difference between an efficient and virtuous slave and a “wild”
or good-for-nothing slave is that the former has a higher market value.
The religious Uncle Tom who has long become a member of his master’s
family is sold for Mr. Shelby’s debts. Mr. Shelby parts with him
reluctantly but that does not make Tom’s life easier: he is separated
from his wife and children. Tom’s second “kind” master, Mr. St. Clare,
dies unexpectedly, and his selfish widow sells Tom since he is one of
the most valuable servants on the estate. The author shows how near Tom
had come to be a friend to Eva, the master’s daughter. But nothing can
induce the mistress of the house that her deceased husband had promised
to set Tom free. She says: “What does he want of liberty? …Now I’m
principled against emancipating in any case. Keep a Negro under the care
of a master, and he does well enough and is respectable; but set them
free, and they get lazy and won’t work, and take to drinking, and go all
down to be mean, worthless fellows. …It’s no favour to set them free.”
Tom is sold and falls into the hands of a monster. The name of the new
master is Legree. On Legree’s cotton plantation Uncle Tom becomes a
field-hand, and suffers all the misery and torture of Southern bondage.
Tom’s virtuousness and religious principles make him submissive to the
worst of masters so long as exploitation and bad treatment concern him
alone. But when Legree wants him to become an overseer and an instrument
of cruelty for Tom’s fellow-slaves, he refuses to obey. In contrast to
Tom’s noble attitude the author portrays two Negro overseers, Sambo and
Quimbo, who were wild and cruel. An American proverb says: “The worst of
overseers is the former slave.” Legree had trained them in savageness
and brutality. Beecher-Stowe does not conceal that the institution of
slavery gradually deprives human beings of elementary humanitarian
feelings, by developing the worse inhuman nature: “Legree… governed
his plantation by a sort of resolution of forces. Sambo and Quimbo
cordially hated each other; the plantation hands, one and all, cordially
hated them; and by playing off one against another he was pretty sure,
through one or the other of the three parties, to get informed of
whatever was on foot in the place.”
Sambo and Quimbo hate Tom fearing he might take their privileges on the
plantation and they become beastly cruel to him. Gassy, a quadroon slave
on the plantation, whom Legree had bought to be his mistress, warns Tom:
“Here you are on a lone plantation, ten miles from any other, in the
swamps; not a white person here who could testify if you were burned
alive — if you were scalded, cut in inch pieces, set up for the dogs to
tear, or hung up and whipped to death.”
Legree hates Tom. Uncle Tom’s fortitude makes him morally superior to
his master. From the first Legree had felt a secret dislike for Tom:
“…the native antipathy of bad to good”.
When the passionate and rebellious Gassy proposes to kill the master and
run away with her friend, the Negro girl Emmeline, Tom refuses to do it.
He prefers to die a slave rather than to use violence; but he helps
Gassy and Emmeline to hide from their master. Legree, who had been
searching for the two fugitives, suspects Tom of knowing how they
managed to escape his dogs and pursuers, and heiwants to break Tom’s
fortitude. Uncle Tom confronting his master says: fl can’t tell
anything, but I can die.” And Tom dies a martyr.
This was exactly like Beecher-Stowe, she did all she could at that
period to keep the slaves from insurrection. She thought that the only
way to freedom was |b earn it Jay Christian meekness; in the meantime
the abolitionists would by agitation make the slave-holders liberate
their slaves themselves.
Notwithstanding her religious idealism Beecher-Stowe as a writer chose
to be a realist- honest Tem-dies, while freedom is gained by those
characters in the novel who struggle for it. These characters are Gassy
and Emmeline, and also George and Eliza who belonged to Tom’s first
master Shelby. Shelby had wanted to sell Eliza’s little son, but the
mother made a desperate and successful attempt to escape and saved
herself and her child.
After the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” appeared, it was said by many that
the facts represented in the book were exaggerated. Then Harriet
Beecher-Stowe collected the facts that had served as material for the
novel (newspaper reports, the legal codes of the slave states, and
statements by witnesses at trials) and published them under the title” A
Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.
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