Story of Harriet Beecher Stowe - R. B. MacArthur

As a Reader of Books

Mention has already been made of the lack of children's story books when Harriet was a small child, and of how she read and reread the few volumes that accidentally fell into her eager hands. But it is hard for us, in this age of children, to realize how unimportant a part children played in the world's affairs a century ago. America was very young when Harriet Beecher was born. We had no literature of our own. Few writers of merit had been produced within our borders. The country had been too busily engaged in building cities, surveying the boundaries of its holdings, fighting for independence, struggling for recognition as a nation, and fashioning its new and untried form of government, to pay any attention to novels and poetry. In fact, most folks looked askance at the idea of a wholesome novel being written. Good poetry had made a place for itself in the minds of men, but prose had yet to prove its worth except as a means for preachers to preserve their lengthy exhortations in book form. Women writers were almost unheard of. Indeed, when a certain German professor heard that Catherine Beecher had written a splendid argument against Edwards' learned work, The Will, he raised his hands in utter amazement, and cried, "God forgive Christopher Columbus for discovering America!"

Behold, then, the rapid strides this country made in the field of literature during the nineteenth century, producing, as it did, such authors and poets as Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, Poe, Lowell, Emerson, Irving, Julia Ward Howe, Sarah Orne Jewett, Celia Thaxter, and others. In England and other European countries, literature had received a like impetus. So if Harriet Beecher found little to read that was suited to her age as a child, she certainly had no reason for complaint as she grew in years, and such rich treasures in both prose and rhyme sprang into being all about her. And this much can be said on the other side of the question, also. If there was a dearth of good stories for children for this eager child mind a century ago, at least there was no silly trash nor Diamond Dick exploits to be had by the youth of the land to sear their brains and besmirch their souls. The very lack of children's literature sent these inquisitive young folk to the encyclopedia and dictionary for amusement as well as for information, and consequently they accumulated a wonderful fund of real knowledge that helped them in many ways.

A certain young lady of Litchfield, finding it necessary to take a tedious journey—and all journeys were tedious in those days,—asked Miss Sally Pierce, Principal of the Litchfield Female Academy, for a list of suitable books to take with her to occupy her thoughts, and Miss Pierce suggested Wilberforce's View, Memoirs of Miss Susanna Anthony, and Reflections on Death, as being both amusing and instructive. She might have added Sir Charles Grandison, the one novel of that day which was admitted to the best of homes, but this tiresome love story of little action or excitement rambled its lengthy course through seven thick volumes, and it is hardly likely that even the most voracious reader would want to pack so large a set of books about, no matter how long the journey. In later years Mrs. Stowe described "Sir Charles Grandison" as a "delightful old bore."

Certainly any new book published during those barren years was hailed with delight as a real friend and discussed at every parlor gathering for weeks after its first appearance. The Beechers were constantly adding to their library in spite of meager finances, and to her Uncle Samuel Foote, Harriet owes many a precious volume, for he was a great reader himself and enjoyed sending boxes of the latest publications to his appreciative nieces and nephews, who not only read them over and over, but memorized whole passages of such things as Scott's Lady of the Lake, Marmion, and The Lay of the Last Minstrel.

Byron also was at the height of his fame during Harriet's girlhood, and exerted so powerful an influence over the theological students and the seminary girls that they wore the same kind of loosely tied cravat that he affected, and allowed themselves to become so thoroughly saturated with his melancholia that Dr. Beecher and other noted divines of the day felt called upon to preach against his harmful influence from their pulpits, although Dr. Beecher himself was an ardent admirer of this great poet. However, he realized Byron's shortcomings, and sincerely mourned his untimely death, because the man of such great genius should so wastefully misuse his life.

When Harriet was but eleven years of age, her Aunt Esther one day loaned her a copy of Byron's Corsair, to keep the restless mind occupied for a time, and the child was so entranced with the only-half-understood lines that she besieged her aunt for explanations of many phrases contained therein, and from that time on, read everything of his that she could find. The news of his death was like the loss of an intimate friend to the sensitive, imaginative girl, and she went out on Chestnut Hill and lay down among the daisies to find a solace for her grief. The Sunday following the receipt of this news, Dr. Beecher preached a funeral sermon in memory of the dead poet, taking for his text, "The name of the just is as brightness, but the memory of the wicked shall rot." His sermons were generally too profound for Harriet to understand, but this discourse she never forgot, so clearly did her father explain that no matter how talented and brilliantly gifted a person might be, it was no excuse for being vicious, and any writer's works would eventually sink into oblivion if he let the impurities of his thoughts find expression in words. The sermon was intended especially for the young people who formed the mass of his congregation, as a warning against living such a loose life as Byron had lived, and Harriet was not the only person who long remembered his earnest, vigorous exposition.

Dr. Beecher was very much opposed to novels as a class, and refused to permit his children to read such trash; but he recognized the real merits of Scott's works, and even bought Ivanhoe, himself, in order that Harriet and her brothers might have the opportunity of reading it, which they did seven times in one summer. Nor were they content with merely reading such books. They must play them out, discuss them with their friends, and compare their merits and faults with those of other books which they had read. In fact, it was an age of amateur dramatization. Schools encouraged it, homes fostered it, and even the Sunday School, just in its infancy, made use of symbolism and moralities.

In Miss Pierce's school the dramatic tendency was unusually strong, for the principal herself wrote some dramas of no small merit, which her pupils presented at the exhibitions that marked the annual close of school. Catherine and Mary Beecher were among her best youthful actors, but Harriet seems to have been too young for very important parts, though we have reason to believe that the oldest sister displayed real talent in portraying the parts that fell to her lot. Miss Pierce's favorite drama was called Jephthah's Daughter, an intensely tragic play based on the Bible story. Catherine Beecher took the part of Bethulah, Jephthah's wife, and was a great success in that role. The play was very realistic and adhered very closely to the Bible story. The actors did not hesitate in their portrayal of every historic incident, even to the bringing in of Ada, unfortunate daughter of the great general, who sacrificed her life because of a vow made to the Lord, on a bier, accompanied by a procession of weeping damsels and lamenting youths. When male characters were needed to complete the cast, as in this play, students from the Litchfield Academy gladly volunteered their services, and were as gladly accepted.

Costumes played an important part in these theatricals, and much study was given to the subject, The encyclopedia and dictionary were consulted, garrets were ransacked for suitable materials, and ancient chests yielded up long-hoarded gowns and garments of all descriptions, which were painstakingly adapted to the needs of the hour. Gilt paper made effective helmets, shields and royal crowns; and swords or guns were easily carved out of wood. Satisfactory thrones could be made from just an armchair, and even a realistic gallows was not difficult to arrange, but when it came to staging a hanging, which they really attempted in the play of Queen Esther, they found it necessary to substitute a dog for the victim, as no one was willing to take the part of Haman on the gallows. However, the Bible did not supply all the plots which these ardent young actors chose to portray. The pupils of the Litchfield Seminary analyzed the stories in Plutarch's Lives, for plots, and even dramatized modern historical events, such as the battle of Bunker Hill, where the cannonading was imitated by rolling cannon balls across the floor behind scenes, and two lone cannons in the foreground served as ample battleground scenery.

Dr. Beecher raised no objections to these simple theatricals as long as they took place under the supervision of the Seminary or the Academy, but Catherine's ambition soared higher than that. She wanted to put on a drama all by herself, and lacking any more suitable setting, decided to give a play at home. She chose one of Miss Edgeworth's stories, called, The Unknown Friend, which had characters enough in it to give each Beecher child a part of his own. "Variety is the spice of life," and this story had enough variety to please anyone, for certain passages were written in Welsh, Scotch and Irish dialects, and for change of scene, the play took place in a palace, on a mountain top, and in a shop, all of which could be easily staged with a little different arrangement of a few chairs, rugs and draperies.

Secret rehearsals took place very frequently for some weeks, and then one evening unexpected guests arrived and kept arriving in such numbers, that the doctor and his wife began to wonder at the coincidence. But before they could voice their suspicions even to each other, or could investigate the circumstances, the dining-room door was suddenly pushed open, and the amateur actors began their play with great earnestness from the stage set up in the farthest corner of the room. All went well and the admiring audience applauded lavishly, while the amazed preacher and Mrs. Beecher sat by in watchful silence. The little band of performers at length retired flushed and elated by their success, while the guests departed. But the next day Catherine was called to her father's study and emphatically told that she must never again indulge in home theatricals.

Soon after this, she left Litchfield to study in Boston, and the Seminary lost one of its most promising actors. Then a few years later Harriet also left her home town, and Litchfield knew them no more. But though Harriet ceased to act in such amateur dramatizations, they had left their effect ineffaceably upon her, and in her secret heart she cherished the idea of becoming a writer of drama, an ambition she actually tried to realize while still a very young girl, as we shall see.