Monday, March 16, 2020
March 16, 2020: StoweStudying: Stowe beyond UTC
[On March 20, 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s titanic novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in book form for the first time. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Stowe contexts, leading up to a special post on the wonderful Stowe Center in Hartford!]
On three sides to Stowe’s life & identity beyond (if still connected to) her uber-successful first novel.
1) Religion: It’s impossible to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and miss the central role that religious plays, not just in the lives, perspectives, and experiences of Stowe’s characters (especially Tom himself, who comes to closely parallel Jesus), but in her moral arguments against slavery. But the presence and influence of religion in Stowe’s family and relationships was even more prominent still: from her father, the radical Calvinist minister and reformer Lyman Beecher; to her brother, the even more progressive Congregationalist minister and reformer Henry Ward Beecher; to her husband, the Reverend Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor of Biblical literature at Cincinnati’s Lane Seminary. What links all those men is the same combination of religion and reform that lies at the heart of UTC, making clear that Stowe herself, despite living in an era when she could formally work as a minister, should be seen as an integral part of this family of Christian reformers.
2) Education: Calvin Stowe’s links to education went beyond his work as a professor, as he was also an early advocate for Horace Mann’s concept of “common schools” (part of the nation’s move toward compulsory public education in the mid-19th century). Harriet certainly shared that educational emphasis, as from a young age she had the opportunity to pursue an extensive academic program at the ground-breaking Hartford Female Seminary (run by her sister Catherine; Sarah Payson Willis [Fanny Fern] was a fellow student!). When she joined her father at Lane Seminary, Harriet continued this emphasis, helping found a literary salon known as the Semi-Colon Club and helping organize a controversial and influential 1834 series of debates around slavery and abolition at the seminary. In all those ways, through the lenses of gender, race, and access, Harriet both experienced and contributed to the democratization of American education, an important corollary to her religious reforms.
3) Abolition: Those 1834 debates, which culminated in a large group of students leaving Lane for the new, neighboring, and more overtly abolitionist Oberlin Collegiate Institute, reflect Stowe’s commitment to abolitionism long before she wrote its most famous literary text (she was only 22 years old when she helped organize them). So too, after her marriage just two years later, did Harriet and Calvin’s use of their Cincinnati home as a stop on the Underground Railroad, which in a city as divided as Cincinnati in that period (it saw anti-abolitionist, white supremacist riots in 1829, 1836, and 1841, making it one of the most hostile cities in the nation for African Americans and their allies) was a particularly dangerous and courageous action. Better remembering these early activisms help us see UTC in a much less isolated way, see it indeed as one prong of Stowe’s decades-long, multi-pronged activism on behalf of enslaved African Americans.
Next StoweStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?