Harriet Beecher Stowe Research Paper

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As an active figure of the nineteenth century and the so-called “feminine fifties,” Harriet Beecher Stowe lived and wrote, negotiating between extremes of unfolding cultural elements. During that time, young girls commonly learned that the meek could and should inherit the world by practicing self-discipline and humility. As they matured, women might learn that they could through their own wit and activity earn a place in an emerging capitalist economy. Stowe’s life and writings approach such cultural contradictions as played out in the realms of race, sex, class, religion, and changing ideas of what constitutes noble identity and behavior.

Stowe’s best-selling Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, first appeared as serialized in 1851-1852 in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era. In 1852 these “sketches” were published in book form and widely translated into theater and over forty languages. As Stowe states in her preface, “The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system necessarily cruel and unjust.” Appealing to her readers’ various faculties, Stowe shows that the institution of slavery is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. By 1862 when she met with President Abraham Lincoln, the cultural impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had become so great that Lincoln is said to have acknowledged, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!”

Public reaction to Stowe’s million-seller in large part reflects debates in American racial history. After receiving scathing contemporary pro-slavery reviews, she documented her sources by publishing the five-hundred-page A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1854). Later, Harlem Renaissance writers and others have sharply criticized Stowe’s Christ-like portrayal of the martyr Uncle Tom as obsequious and a role model obstacle in the struggle for racial equality.

Born on June 14, 1811, Stowe’s early life prepared her well for facing slavery and women’s issues head-on and resolutely. She gained rhetorical skills early from her austere and demanding Protestant evangelist father, Lyman Beecher, and later from her brother, abolitionist and theologian Henry Ward Beecher. Available to her were books, sermons, and philosophical discussions. In a home peopled by siblings, relatives, and boarders, she developed a lively mind as well as a reverence for an idealized image of womanhood. Stowe attended the Hartford Female Seminary—founded and run by her sister Catherine Beecher—and later taught there. Unlike other women’s schools that prepared women for marriage, Beecher’s seminary taught women to use their own judgment and to become socially useful. Such teachings evolve as a concluding lesson in Uncle Tom’s Cabin as readers are urged to see to it that in their actions they “feel right.” In 1836 Harriet Beecher married the Bible scholar Calvin Ellis Stowe and subsequently bore seven children before moving to Bowdoin, Maine, in 1850.

Later in life Stowe spoke and wrote to protect the women’s rights movement from those who advocated free love and free divorce. Her later works question the cultural bases of capitalism and consumerism by revisiting the early 1850s virtues of humility, charity, self-discipline, and social usefulness, but these works generally lack the fire that had established her earlier place in literary history. She died on July 1, 1896.


  1. Hedrick, Joan. 1994. Harriet Beecher Stowe, a Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Henning, Martha L. 1996. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Modeling Communal Willfulness. In Beyond
  3. Understanding, Appeals to the Imagination, Passions, and Will in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Fiction. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
  4. Knox, Thomas W. 1887. Life and Work of Henry Ward Beecher. Hartford, CT: The Hartford Publishing Company.
  5. Parker, Rev. E. P. 1869. Harriet Beecher Stowe. In Eminent Women of the Age, eds. James Parton et al., 296–331. Hartford, CT: S. M. Betts & Company.
  6. Sklar, Kathryn Kish. 1973. Catharine Beecher; A Study in American Domesticity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Sundquist, Eric J., ed. 1986. New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

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