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 Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Biography

   --from Nook Farm, by Joseph Van Why

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born on June 14, 1811, the seventh child of the Reverend Lyman Beecher, one of New England's most eloquent ministers, and the former Roxanna Foote of Guilford, Connecticut. Harriet spent her childhood in a parsonage crowded with the other Beecher siblings and the students from Miss Pierce's school who boarded at the vicarage. Harriet left Litchfield in the autumn of 1824 to attend the Hartford Female Seminary, newly formed by her oldest sister, Catharine Beecher. By 1829 Harriet was a full-time teacher of composition and rhetoric in Catharine's flourishing school. Harriet took her first step in her literary career with the writing of "Primary Geography for Children" in 1833. Initially, Catharine, much better known as an educator, was given as its sole author. Only after several successful printings was Harriet indicated as a co-author, although evidence indicates that she wrote much of the text. There soon followed such stories as "A New England Sketch" (1834), "Uncle Tim" (1834) and in 1843, a collection of fifteen stories, "The Mayflower; or, Sketches of Scenes and Characters Among the Descendants of the Pilgrims."

While she drew upon her remarkable memory of childhood incidents and people for her early writings, Harriet's experiences in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she was teaching with her sister, also influenced her. Cincinnati was one of the starting points of the Underground Railway. The abolitionist James G. Birney published his newspaper there, and a short distance from the city, in the small town of Ripley, on the Ohio River, the Reverend John Rankin had been helping fugitive slaves from across the river in Kentucky since 1825. It was Rankin's account of a Negro woman named Eliza, who braved the thawing ice of the Ohio River in her escape, that provided Harriet with the character of Eliza in "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

In 1836 Harriet married Calvin Stowe, a distinguished scholar and member of the Lane Seminary faculty. His first wife, Eliza Tyler, had been Harriet's close friend. Eliza died of cholera in 1834. Throughout their marriage, Harriet managed both the household and the children. She felt compelled to bolster their meager budget with earnings from writing.

The first installment of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" appeared on June 5, 1851, in the National Era. Harriet had arranged with John P. Jewett of Boston, Massachusetts, to publish the novel in book form. It appeared on March 20, 1852. Cautious Calvin advised his wife against the contract with Jewett; it would have given her fifty percent of the profits but included a financial obligation to defray half the expense of manufacturing the book if it did not sell. She settled for a straight ten percent of the profits. The first five thousand copies of the book sold out in two days. She received nothing for the incredible number of plays and translations published in more than 20 languages. The book sold more than 3 million copies during her lifetime.

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" eclipsed the efforts of the abolitionists with whom Harriet had never publicly allied herself, despite their claims after the novel's success. The emotions aroused and the opinions influenced by "Uncle Tom's Cabin" were major factors in the nomination and election of Abraham Lincoln eight years later.

Harriet's published writings span fifty years, from "Primary Geography for Children," published in 1833, to her last book, "Our Famous Women," issued in 1883. She was the author of over thirty books and numerous essays and articles.

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