Story of Harriet Beecher Stowe - R. B. MacArthur

A Famous Woman

From a modest, retiring little mother one day, to the author of the world's best seller the next, from obscurity to fame almost overnight,—such was the experience of Mrs. Stowe, and it is no wonder that she was amazed at the position she had achieved unsought. Such a modest disposition as hers could scarcely be other than amazed. She had looked for neither fame nor money. Her one object in writing Uncle Tom's Cabin  was to open the eyes of the nation to the dreadful injustice of the system of slavery, to rouse the people to the menace it had become to the home life of our land.

She knew slavery was wrong, and therefore she was its enemy. She recognized the fact that there were good masters as well as bad, and was willing even to concede that probably the good masters were in the majority, but as long as the system allowed families to be separated one from another and sold into different states, as long as there were no laws that would deal justice to the black as well as to the white, as long as marriage among the slaves was not regarded as sacred, as long as it was possible for a master to kill his slaves if he liked, without retribution in the courts of our country, Mrs. Stowe felt that the system was a curse to our land, and that Christian people ought to rise up and rid the nation of that blot on its fair name.

But she was not a follower of William Lloyd Garrison. She did not believe it was necessary to disrupt the nation in order to free the country of this curse. She did not believe in nor advocate the secession of the southern states. She was a staunch patriot in the deepest and best sense of the word. She thought slavery should be abolished, but really believed some peaceable settlement could be made between the North and the South: The idea that these two factions must go to war to settle their differences was farthest from her thoughts. Some action must be taken in order to free the slaves, but if Christian people could just be brought to see the injustice of the whole system, she knew that slavery was doomed. The fact that Christian people owned slaves themselves and saw no harm in it was what made it possible for slavery to continue to flourish in our land.

But neither North nor South stopped to analyze her intentions. The North embraced her as an Abolitionist; the South repudiated her as an enemy. She was overwhelmed by an avalanche of criticism, both good and bad, that swept over her as soon as the nation had recovered its breath after reading her story. To her, Uncle Tom's Cabin  was a sermon directed against a great moral evil. She had not written it for the sake of the plot, she did not recognize its dramatic power, she had never once tried to give it a literary style. But she had written the truth as she saw it, and now indignant slaveholders denounced it as untrue. This was more than she could stand, so she promptly began to compile her Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was to contain all the facts and documents on which the story was founded.

Long before she began actual work on Uncle Tom's Cabin  itself, she had busied herself in collecting authentic material, until she thought she had evidence enough to prove her statements, and yet it kept pouring in upon her from all sides while she wrote the many chapters, till she was shocked almost beyond endurance at the evils she saw uncovered. Sometimes she was so overwhelmed by the dreadful tales that came to her ears, that it seemed as if she could not live to finish the book. But the thought of her mission that must be performed kept her up and gave her strength to write. She verified all the incidents she made use of, which she had not witnessed personally, and read reports of legal investigations. These sources of information she now proceeded to put into book form that the whole world might know where she had obtained her material and be convinced of the truth of the things she wrote.

She made friends as well as enemies through this book, and it was balm to her hurt soul to think people wanted to see her because she was its author. While she was in New York aiding escaped slaves, she had the opportunity of hearing Jenny Lind, the famous singer; and her delight overshadowed everything else for the moment. Mr. Howard, publisher and friend of the Stowes, undertook to procure tickets for the performance, when he learned how much Mrs. Stowe wanted to hear the singer, but was told by Mr. Goldschmidt, Jenny Lind's husband, that the house was sold out. In expressing his regret at this bit of information, Mr. Howard chanced to mention the author's name. Instantly Mr. Goldschmidt demanded to know if it could be the Mrs. Stowe who had written Uncle Tom's Cabin, and immediately set about to get tickets regardless of the fact that the house was sold out. Taking his hat he left the theater, promising to be back directly with the necessary bits of pasteboard. Upon his return he handed Mr. Howard an envelope containing two complimentary tickets for the best seats in the house, addressed to Mrs. Stowe in Jenny Lind's own handwriting. Mrs. Stowe never forgot this occasion, but writes that "the affair was a bewildering dream of sweetness and beauty."

Four months after the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Mrs. Stowe received her first check for ten thousand dollars, which not only permitted her to do many things for home and family that she had never been able to do before, but also gave her an opportunity to go abroad, a thing she had long wished to do, in order that she might meet distinguished people who were in sympathy with the cause which she had taken up with a determination never to lay aside again until it was won.

Many famous writers in England and France had written her, praising her book and expressing sympathy for the anti-slavery cause. Among these were George Eliot, George Sand, Madame Belloc, Lord Carlisle, Earl of Shaftesbury, Archbishop Whately and the Reverend Charles Kingsley. So it was with a feeling of joy that she received an invitation from the Anti-slavery Society of Glasgow to visit Scotland, for it would give her the opportunity of meeting the people she desired, and her royalties froth her book made it possible to accept the invitation the spring of 1853. They were living at this time in Andover, Massachusetts, where Professor Stowe had been called to teach in the Andover Theological Seminary, and the Professor accompanied her on her first trip abroad.

So little heed had Mrs. Stowe paid to the fame that had crowned her literary efforts, that she was wholly unprepared for the reception she met across the sea. The wharf was crowded with people eager to catch a glimpse of her when she landed at Liverpool, and everywhere she went she found the same crowds of enthusiastic admirers, waiting to do homage to the author of so great a book. She said it reminded her of the passage in the Bible, "What went ye out to see? A reed shaken with the wind?" And she was sure the people, after having once seen her, must have felt that God had indeed chosen the weak things of this world to do his great work. She has described herself as "a little bit of a woman, just as thin and dry as a pinch of snuff." She never had the least bit of conceit, for when her brother Edward wrote that he hoped her head would not be turned by the praises sung by the universe, she remarked that she saw no cause for being conceited, for she had not written Uncle Tom's Cabin, that God Himself was the author and she had but set down what he had told her.

She had looked forward to her trip abroad as a vacation, but found it crammed full of receptions in her own honor, and we find her wishing that she had two bodies so one might be resting while the other was keeping some of the many engagements that became part of her daily program all the while she was gone. The most notable of these receptions was one given her by the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland at Stafford House, in London. On this occasion Lord Shaftesbury read an address from the women of England to the women of America, urging them to abolish slavery from their shores. This was signed by 562,448 women of every rank in England, and it required twenty-six thick volumes to hold all the signatures. This set, beautifully bound in morocco, and packed in a solid oak case, was presented to Mrs. Stowe, with a recommendation from Lord Carlisle that she present it to the women of America in any way she saw fit. It was exhibited at the Boston Anti-slavery Fair, and there still remains as a monument to the sentiment kindled by Uncle Tom's Cabin. Mrs. Stowe was much impressed by this show of feeling from across the sea, but remembering that slavery was forced onto the American colonists in the face of their opposition, by the mother country, England, she thought the time was not yet ripe for a reply, and it was not until years later that her famous address to the women of England was written.

While visiting England, she was presented with many beautiful gifts, to show the appreciation of the people for the work she was doing in America, to further the cause of the slave. In Scotland, a penny offering, amounting to a thousand gold sovereigns was presented to her on a silver salver. Ireland gave her a bogwood casket, gold lined, and engraved with the national emblems, containing a substantial offering for the cause of the slave. At Surrey Chapel in London, she was presented with a silver inkstand representing Religion, Bible in hand, giving liberty to the slave. Some school children gave her a gold pen, and the only speech she made in public was in accepting their gift. On all other occasions, the handsome, genial Professor had made her responses for her, and they were always well received.

The most significant of all the gifts tendered her was a bracelet presented at the Stafford House meeting in London. It was made of ten links and represented a slave's shackle. One of the links bore the inscription, "March 25, 1807," the date slavery was abolished in England, and "August 1, 1884," the date it was abolished in the English colonies. The clasp bore the number "562,448," the number of signatures appended to the Earl of Shaftesbury's address. It was suggested that Mrs. Stowe have engraved on one of the other links the date of the abolition of slavery in the United States, but she expressed doubts as to her living long enough to witness that event. Had anyone prophesied at that time that slaves would be emancipated in America ten years later, she would have scouted the possibility, but she did live to see the day of the black man's freedom, and engraved the date upon this bracelet with great satisfaction.

It was a delight to Mrs. Stowe to visit the places she had read about in England and Scotland, and her one great grief was that her health would not permit her to visit all the historical places and see all the people she had wanted to. She made many lasting friendships during this visit with such people as the Duchess of Sutherland, Lady Byron, Ruskin, Dickens, George Eliot, and Macaulay, and during the winter that followed, she wrote two volumes called Sunny Memories  which chronicle her experiences of that first brief tour.

In 1856 Mrs. Stowe returned a second time to England. Her main object was to secure a copyright on a new book, Dred, which had just appeared, but she also wished to take her daughters to France to study the language of that country. She enjoyed another very pleasant visit, renewing old friendships wherever she went and making new ones. She had the good fortune to meet Robert Browning and his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning this time, which pleased her greatly, as she had missed seeing them on her previous tour. Queen Victoria gave her audience, also, and the Professor, describing this experience later, said they had "the pleasantest little interview that ever was" with her Majesty, and that she was a "nice little body, with exceedingly pleasant, agreeable manners."

The new book, Dred, was a gigantic success. One hundred thousand copies were sold in four weeks! This story, also, deals with the black man, and the author's aim was to show the bad effect slavery had upon our civilization, the demoralization of all classes of society from the wealthy, overbearing planter to the oppressed "po' white trash." The story was better written from a literary standpoint than Uncle Tom's Cabin, but did not have the dramatic, soul-stirring pathos of the latter, nor is it read as much in our day.

Mrs. Stowe had placed her daughters in a Protestant school in Paris, and when she decided to return to her native land she left them there because they were making such good progress in their studies. She had scarcely reached home once more when she met with the most crushing blow of her life, in the loss of her eldest son, Henry, who was drowned. July 9, 1857, while swimming in the Connecticut River near Dartmouth College, where he was a Freshman. There had been an exceptionally strong bond of sympathy between this son and his mother, and it seemed for a time as if she could not bear the overwhelming sorrow of his loss. Two days after the funeral Mrs. Stowe and the Professor went to Hanover and visited Dartmouth College. Henry's classmates took them around the campus, showed them the room where their son had spent so many hours while away from them, led them down through an enchanting glen to the beautiful river which he had loved so dearly and where he had lost his life, and let them watch the different boating crews at practice during the evening. The boat, Una, which had been Henry's, had its flag furled and tied with black crepe, in memory of the member gone from their midst, and his companions were so grief-stricken at his death that the mother heart felt strangely comforted.

In the summer of 1859, the Stowes once more ventured to cross the ocean. This was the last trip abroad for any of them. The Professor and the youngest daughter, Georgiana, were Mrs. Stowe's companions this time, but after a few weeks of visiting their friends in England, father and daughter returned to America, leaving the mother to go on alone to France, where her twin daughters were still at school in Paris. They settled in Florence for several months, then moved on to Rome. Here one day Mrs. Stowe went to visit the Castellani brothers, who were famous workers in gold; and while admiring the beautiful things the shop contained, she saw the head of an Egyptian slave carved in black onyx. It was marvelously done, and while Mrs. Stowe was silently studying it, one of the Castellani brothers told her he wanted her to accept it for her own, because of what she was doing for the slave in America, reminding her that they, too, were slaves in Italy. She accepted the gift, but when her friends looked for her to say some word of thanks, they found her in tears, so touched was she by the whole incident.

This trip abroad was the longest one she made, for she was gone nearly a year and though she wanted to be with her loved ones at home, she was reluctant to leave old Europe's shores. A happy climax to this happy visit was the voyage homeward. In those days it took a full fourteen days to cross the ocean, but the weather was beautiful all the way over, and for fellow voyagers she had the good fortune to have Mr. and Mrs. James T. Fields, and the Hawthornes. In such company no one could be dull or bored and many pleasant hours were spent on deck telling stories to while away the time. So pleasant was the trip, in fact, that Hawthorne was heard to say, "Oh, I wish we might never get there." But all journeys come to an end some time, and this merry party reached homeland at length, glad to be once again in America. Mrs. Stowe and her daughters went to Andover immediately, and very soon the busy pen was writing Agnes of Sorrento, a story inspired by their sojourn in Florence.