Wednesday, March 18, 2020
March 18, 2020: StoweStudying: New England Local Color
[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 how and why to link Stowe to the popular 19th century literary movement.
I haven’t been able to find too much information about it, but Harriet Beecher Stowe’s first published literary work (after 1833’s ground-breaking educational textbook Primary Geography for Children) was an 1835 short story collection entitled New England Sketches. Published while Stowe was living in Cincinnati, the collection nonetheless reflects her deep and abiding literary and personal interest in New England, one that she would extend across her career with works in multiple genres: other short story collections like The Mayflower; or, Sketches of Scenes and Characters among the Descendants of the Pilgrims (1843); novels like The Pearl of Orr’s Island: A Story of the Coast of Maine (1862) and Oldtown Folks (1869); and nonfiction like Poganuc People: Their Loves and Lives (1878). Stowe was born and died in Connecticut, and lived for many years in Maine (where the family moved from Ohio when Calvin got a job at Bowdoin College), but it was through these and other literary works that she most fully and influentially contributed to New England culture.
Better remembering that central through-line to her literary career helps us challenge a couple of overarching narratives in important ways. Obviously it complicates any narrative of Stowe’s writing and her literary interests that focuses only on UTC, or even on UTC and Dred; but I would also say the opposite: that linking these different sides to her writing and career reminds us of the deep interconnections between New England and the South, between the “free” and “slave” states (as of the immediate antebellum moment), between seemingly divided and opposed American communities. Stowe was frequently criticized by Southerners for not being familiar with the Southern communities about which she wrote in those anti-slavery novels; but among the many problems with that narrative is that assumption that either Cincinnati or Connecticut were fundamentally divorced from the world of the antebellum slave South. Nothing could be further from the truth, as these distinct yet interconnected threads of Stowe’s work and career illustrate quite effectively.
Engaging with Stowe’s New England local color writing also helps us (and by us I mean me, as usual) complicate our general sense of that literary movement’s timing and influences. I’ve been writing about New England local color since my dissertation/first book, and there as elsewhere I’ve thought about it (as many scholars do) as principally a post-Civil War/late 19th century movement, connected to best-selling writers like Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Rose Terry Cooke, and many more. Yet if we consider Stowe one of the movement’s originating voices, and one who began exploring that literary landscape decades before the Civil War, that could have a couple particularly striking effects: helping us identify a first wave of New England local color authors in the early 19th century (a group which would certainly also include Catherine Maria Sedgwick, from her debut book A New-England Tale; or Sketches of New-England Character and Manners  on); and, in the case of Stowe most especially, linking this literary movement’s origins to social reform generally and abolition specifically in a way that offers one more argument for seeing New England local color writing as anything but provincial or limited.
Next StoweStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?