Stories entertain and provide the means for temporary escape, but they also can shed light on aspects of our society that need to be changed. No one has done this better than Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Her Uncle Tom’s Cabin illustrated the human cost of American slavery, depicting the agonizing story of African-Americans attempting to gain freedom through the Underground Railroad.
In fact, many say the novel was one of the causes of the American Civil War.
Who was this woman that changed a nation?
Harriet Beecher Stowe was born June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut. After receiving a wide-ranging education, she taught school and wrote articles for her local newspaper. Her first book, The Mayflower; or Sketches of Scenes and Characters Among the Descendants of the Pilgrims, was published in 1843.
When she and her husband, Calvin Ellis Stowe, moved to Cincinnati, they were separated only by the Ohio River from a slave-owning community. Stowe talked with fugitive slaves and learned of their plight. She crafted Uncle Tom’s Cabin from personal observations from her trips to the South, as well as from reading abolitionist literature.
The novel first appeared as a serial in 1851-52 in National Era, a Washington D.C.-based anti-slavery newspaper. The book version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly was published in 1852 and sold 10,000 in the first week, 300,000 in the first year. Across the ocean, the novel sold 1.5 million copies in one year in Great Britain. Those are impressive statistics in any time period.
Stowe followed it up with A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853, which contained documents and testimonials of the disputed details of her indictment of slavery, and Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp in 1856, which detailed the deterioration of a society resting upon a slave foundation.
She also was a contributor to the newly created The Atlantic Monthly, the Independent and Christian Union. Stowe wrote more novels, chief among them being The Minister’s Wooing, published in 1859, and many studies of life in fiction and essays.
Encyclopedia Britannica states Uncle Tom’s Cabin “exerted an influence equaled by few novels in history.”
As a matter of fact, it is said that when Stowe met Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the president exclaimed, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!”
Obviously, there were several reasons for the American Civil War, but clearly Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel moved people to act against the injustice of slavery in a way that other things could not.
And that, my friends, is the power of words.
"Harriet Beecher Stowe." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 23 Mar. 2011.