Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) is an American writer best known for her anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851–1852). Stowe was a religious activist, prolific writer, and champion for women, publishing more than 30 books and numerous pamphlets and articles. She wrote at home, through childrearing and child loss, while running a household for her professor husband, Calvin. Born into an accomplished family of religious dignitaries, she seized one of the few leadership avenues open to women in the nineteenth century to write about the moral and spiritual gifts of women. Stowe was educated at the Hartford Female Seminary, and in addition to her effortless biblical discussion, she undergirds her writing with literary, classical, and musical allusions. The body of her work could be called homiletic fiction, for she uses the fictional vehicle to carry on a biblically grounded argument that women offer spiritual perspectives uniquely tinctured by their experiences as mothers.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Originally serialized in 1851 in the National Era, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (UTC) was the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century. Stowe uses the idealized symbol of home—the cabin—to carry the readers through a series of homes that are harmed by slavery. Uncle Tom is living in Kentucky with Aunt Chloe and their children, but he and Harry, the young child of Eliza Harris, are sold by Mr. Shelby to satisfy his debts. Eliza flees with her child, hoping to meet her husband, George, who has already begun a journey to Canada. The narrative follows the upward progress of Eliza and George to freedom in Canada and the downward progress of Tom to the hellish Legree plantation in Louisiana.
Stowe said that her grieving for 18-month-old Charley, who died of cholera in 1849, was the emotional catalyst for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “It was at his dying bed, and at his grave … that I learnt what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her” (Hedrick, 1994, p. 193). In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe retells the story of the crucifixion and redemption through the lives of slaves. Coupled with this approach is Stowe’s view that women are uniquely suited for facilitating human redemption. The grief of mothers for children and the empathy of mothers for each other and across racial lines dramatize how slavery violates the sacred relationships that are the basis of a biblically grounded home.
The Bible in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Stowe knew how slave owners used the Bible to rationalize slavery. Genesis 16:9, where Hagar is ordered to return to Abraham, justified compelling a slave woman to submit to her owner’s command over her child, and Philemon 16 proved that slaves should return to their owners. Stowe undermines these justifications by quoting or invoking scripture liberally, a veritable cataract of biblical counterpoint. Mr. Shelby’s slaves call upon the Exodus story (Exod 1–15) in song and prayer, and Eliza leaping the ice floes of the Ohio River crosses the Jordan River into the Promised Land of Canaan. Visions of the Promised Land are supplemented by the vivid imagery of the Revelation to John, whose angels are understood as part of the divine rescue story. Characters relish the judgment that will be pronounced on slave traders and owners and anticipate the relief and comfort awaiting them in the New Jerusalem. Aunt Chloe lifts up her voice and weeps like Hagar in the wilderness when she hears the news about Tom’s impending sale (Gen 21:17), and later a slave woman named Hagar is forcibly separated from her child on the auction block. Tom working for Augustine St. Clare is like Joseph tending the pharaoh’s wealth (Gen 37–50).
The epigraph for chapter 12 could be the epigraph for all of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “In Ramah there was a voice heard,—weeping, and lamentation, and great mourning; Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted” (Matt 2:18). The verse refers to the slaughter of innocents in the Gospel of Matthew, which in turn is appropriating the text from Jeremiah 31:15. Mary Bird, wife of Senator Bird, upbraids him for voting for the Fugitive Slave Law, saying, “Now, John, I don’t know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate; and that Bible I mean to follow” (Matt 25:35–36; UTC, p. 88). So apt is this particular reference that Augustine St. Clare is found reading the entire apocalyptic sequence, from the “Son of Man coming in glory” to the chilling “inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it not to me” (Matt 15:31–45; UTC, pp. 327–328). It dawns on St. Clare that God is indicting those who fail to act for the good, and he considers the possibility that this applies to him.
Christ figures in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Stowe’s use of biblical language creates a motif where Eva and Tom converge as a Christ figure. Evangeline St. Clare, whose name suggests both the mother of the creation story and the good news of the gospel, prepares the way for Tom’s messianic sacrifice. Eva says she would willingly die for the slaves just as Jesus did for humanity. Cousin Ophelia admits that she cannot bear to touch the slave girl Topsy and wishes she could be more like Eva, who is “no more than Christ-like” (UTC, p. 298). As Eva sickens, the St. Clare household gathers to pray and be evangelized by the dying girl, who bids farewell to her friends in the words of Jesus at the Last Supper (John 13:33). As her time approaches, Tom sleeps outside her door, keeping watch for the bridegroom (Matt 25:1–13), who comes only for the virgin who is prepared. While Eva ostensibly dies of consumption, one reading of the novel is that the child is poisoned by slavery itself.
Eva’s life is Christ-like, but she foreshadows Tom, whose martyrdom is constructed from the drama of the Passion. When St. Clare dies, the household of slaves is scheduled for auction. Tom pleads that his impending suffering be canceled, but “The more he said ‘Thy will be done’ the worse he felt” (UTC, p. 339; Luke 22:42), a Gethsemane motif that shows his Christ-like submission to God and his human longing for freedom. Tom is sold to Simon Legree, who is infuriated by Tom’s dignity and Christian commitment. Tom stands up for the other slaves and refuses to betray Cassy’s escape plan. For this nonviolent resistance, Legree condemns him. Tom commends his spirit to God, uttering Psalm 31:5, which is the basis for Jesus’s dying proclamation in Luke 23:46: “Into thy hands I commend my spirit. Thou has redeemed me, Oh Lord God of Truth.” Strengthened by the presence of “[o]ne like unto the Son of God” (Heb 7:3), Tom forgives Legree, just as he forgives the two slaves who have helped Legree torment him. Echoing the shortest verse in the Bible (John 11:35), the slaves weep. Like the thief on the cross (Luke 23:42), they beg for spiritual mercy, saved by Tom’s deathbed graciousness.
Stowe’s biblical quotations and her implied theology encourage the believer to aspire to freedom from the slavery of sin and freedom from the sin of slavery. So ardently has Stowe wedded her anti-slavery homily to the biblical salvation story, the narrator uses biblical diction even when scripture is not being quoted. Tom, who usually speaks in dialect, speaks perfect scriptural English when quoting the Bible. Stowe does not just quote scripture, she creates multiple scenes where characters read the Bible and talk about the moral implications of the text. Characters commit this act of literacy in defiance of law and in devotion to a higher law. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s radical gift to Christian America is that she gave the nation a black savior in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a move that was almost as unthinkable in some northern minds as it was in the South. In her hands, the Bible is interpreted away from the distortions of man-made belief, brought to centrality in American life through its message of social justice wedded to eternal salvation.
The Bible in The Minister’s Wooing and Later Novels.
In addition to her anti-slavery convictions, Stowe’s signature theme is her campaign against the cruelty of male-constructed theology. Stowe’s challenge to Calvinism is inspired by partnership between the Bible and women’s hearts. In The Minister’s Wooing (MW, 1859) Stowe chastises male theologians—Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Hopkins in particular—for their espousal of doctrines of predestination and damnation. The Minister’s Wooing expresses Stowe’s grief over another child death, this time her son Henry Ellis, who drowned in 1857 at age 19. Stowe’s Bible is read from the domestic interior to the precious interior within, a woman’s heart, thus championing the woman-dominated domestic realm as a site for intelligent conversation about and encounter with the divine. The main character is the virginal and pious Mary Scudder. When her sweetheart, James Marvyn, is lost at sea, Mary’s spiritual serenity abandons her, while James’s mother plumbs a despair that is nearly suicidal and she attacks doctrines of predestination. Tormented by the implications of Mrs. Marvyn’s thoughts, Mary cries out “My God! my God! Oh where art Thou?” (Mark 15:34; Matt 27:46).
Mary will recover from her cry of dereliction and, in defiance of Calvinism, become a witness for God’s merciful love. But in the immediacy of the moment, comfort for the brokenhearted mother is offered by Candace, the former slave of the family. Candace gathers Mrs. Marvyn in her arms, offering biblical healing that the obtuse minister in the novel cannot. “Look right at Jesus. … Don’t ye ’member how he looked on His mother, when she stood faintin’ an’ tremblin’ under the cross, jes’ like you? He knows all about mothers’ hearts; He won’t break yours” (MW, p. 348). Candace is exalted as a Christian exemplar along with Mary Scudder. The good news is that “one verse in the Bible read by a mother in some hour of tender prayer has a significance deeper and higher than the most elaborate of sermons, the most acute of arguments” (MW, p. 396).
Stowe’s witness on behalf of women’s spiritual genius is a theme in later novels as well. She interweaves the biblical story with William Shakespeare’s The Tempest in The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862). Mara Lincoln, the “pearl of great value” (Matt 13:45), is Miriam to the shipwreck orphan Moses Pennel. Characters are likened to Zechariah and Elizabeth, Jonah, the Philistines and Moabites, Deborah, Samson, Mary, and Jesus. Mara, whose name evokes both Naomi’s grief (the book of Ruth) and Mary’s grief—mothers from each testament—is a living word. “It’s as good as a psalm to look at her,” says an admirer (Pearl, p. 179). Again, a woman is the living embodiment of biblical wisdom. In Oldtown Folks (1889), Stowe displays an effortless acquaintance with classical philosophy and literature, as well as interrogating a variety of divines from St. Augustine to Jonathan Edwards. Here, too, Stowe amplifies her theme—that theology built without a woman’s insight is a cruel construct that damages the true meaning of the Bible and does irreparable harm to women.
There is an apocryphal story about Abraham Lincoln meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe and commenting, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war” (Civil War, 1861–1865), referring to the effect of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on national consciousness. Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 300,000 copies in the United States and more than 2 million internationally in a year; only the Bible charted a higher reading audience. Recently freed slaves attested that the portrayal of Uncle Tom was plausible and admirable, and for decades after the war, the title character was seen as a model of Christian virtue. However, the fortunes of the novel declined as it became remote from its historical context, and as it was popularly translated into minstrel shows, musicals, and theater. The stage shows created debased racial images that effaced the novel’s subversive character.
One objection to the novel is that it too fully promotes racial stereotypes to be exonerated for them. In the 1960s, Black Power advocates derided Uncle Tom for his passivity. The name “Uncle Tom” became an epithet meaning a black man whose subservience to white society was a racially traitorous act of self-loathing. Stowe’s portrayals of African Americans are limited by her class and racial context, and for some readers these limitations may be formidable.
Another objection to Uncle Tom’s Cabin is its prose and structure. Rhetorical excess and implausible plot devices encourage shallow, useless tears without stimulating fresh insight or social change. In this view, Stowe’s writing is sentimental and the predictably inferior product of the woman writer. Her woman-centered performance in Uncle Tom’s Cabin can seem unpleasantly narcissistic, especially because the male characters, with the exception of Tom, are so socially and spiritually clueless. Stowe’s vision is constructed around the domestic rhythms of women’s lives (cooking, sewing, childrearing), a cultural location considered too trivial to sustain the great questions of the day.
Reassessments of the novel in the twenty-first century reclaim the novel’s strengths. In her use of ornate and melodramatic prose, Stowe was a writer of her time, along with many other literary dignitaries, male and female. If she overstates the case for women, she is doing so understandably, in defiance of male domination. Feminist critics have suggested that the academic prejudice against Stowe emanates from a male critical establishment that resented her success and found it impossible to accept that a woman could have so spectacularly outpaced her male contemporaries.
Josephine Donovan (2001) argues that Uncle Tom’s Cabin easily meets any rational and informed definition of great literature, lauding Stowe’s rich and varied characterizations, the ethical structure of the novel, and her remarkably contemporary understanding of evil. Donovan’s assessment complements that of David Reynolds (2011), who says that Stowe may have used conventional literary structures and styles but that she used them to package radical ideas, and the worldwide impact of the novel must be acknowledged and honored. Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought a living tableau of slavery before Northern eyes, chastised ecclesiastical passivity, held a mirror before Southern eyes, and shamed a nation into a more vigorous pursuit of its ideals.
Edwin Cady, searching in vain for biblical inspiration in American literature, celebrates Stowe as the one exception to his lament, saying that “she has had no parallel in fiction before or since” (1983, p. 44). Cady’s essay is dated, but it may still be true. While Uncle Tom’s Cabin is Stowe’s masterpiece, her other novels should be better known and studied as cultural resources. They confirm her achievement as a formidable theologian who read her Bible with originality and compassion. Her erudition, her passion for spiritual truth, and her lifelong witness for women’s lives establish Harriet Beecher Stowe as one of America’s preeminent interpreters of the Bible.
[See also FICTION, BIBLICAL.]
Works by Stowe
- The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Hollis Robbins. New York: Norton, 2007. Introductory essays open new ground in understanding the novel. Notes are lively, critical, and insightful as reading aids.
- The Minister’s Wooing. Introduction by Sandra R. Duguid. Hartford, Conn.: Stowe-Day Foundation, 1978.Oldtown Folks. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Fredonia Books, 2004. Reprinted from the 1889 edition.
- The Pearl of Orr’s Island: A Story of the Coast of Maine. Foreword by Joan D. Hedrick. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
- Cady, Edwin. “ ‘As Through a Glass Eye, Darkly’: The Bible in the Nineteenth-Century American Novel.” In The Bible in American Arts and Letters, edited by Giles B. Gunn, pp. 33–55. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983.
- Donovan, Josephine. Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Evil, Affliction, and Redemptive Love. Christchurch, New Zealand: Cybereditions Corp., 2001.
- Hedrick, Joan. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
- Reynolds, David S. Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.
- Ammons, Elizabeth. “Stowe’s Dream of the Mother-Savior: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Women Writers before the 1920s.” In New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Essay and General Literature Index, edited by Eric Sundquist, pp. 155–195. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Establishes Stowe’s importance for white and black women writers and focuses on the significance of her matrifocal values.
- Baldwin, James. “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” In Collected Essays, edited by Toni Morrison, pp. 11–19. New York: Library of America, 1998. Noted black author makes the case that UTC is a “very bad book.”
- Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Knopf, 1977. Nineteenth-century women and clergy were relegated to cultural sidelines. Their resulting alliance created sentimental society and the beginnings of mass culture.
- Hochman, Barbara. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Reading Revolution: Race Literacy, Childhood and Fiction, 1851– 1911. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.
- Morey, Ann-Janine. “American Myth and Biblical Interpretation in the Fiction of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 55, no. 4 (1987): 742–763.
- Tompkins, Jane. “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History.” In Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1770–1860, pp. 122–146. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Looks at how the reputations of male authors are established; responds to criticism of Stowe from that perspective.