Story of Harriet Beecher Stowe - R. B. MacArthur

As a Writer of New England Stories

Mrs. Stowe's best literary efforts are without doubt her New England stories, although her two books dealing with the slavery question won her the great reputation she still bears, and always will bear. Uncle Tom's Cabin  and Dred  were written about a subject very dear to her heart, but the characters she depicts were not, as a rule, personal acquaintances. She had to rely upon the impressions of others for these studies, and it is really wonderful how true to life these pictures are. There was no opportunity for her to travel through the South to familiarize herself with scenes and settings for her tales; there was no opportunity for her to mingle with the slave traders in their daily lives; and yet she was able to picture human nature so faithfully that very little criticism was offered as to faults in location or description of southern life.

If she could write such gripping stories of people with whom she had not come in personal contact, such as Legree, Augustine St. Clair, and other slaveholders, how much better able she was to write stories of people whom she met in her daily life, and she certainly knew New England people, having lived among them most of her life. Indeed, we can scarcely think of anyone better fitted to preserve for us the scenes and characters of the day in which she lived.

Her first successful story was a New England character sketch, called Uncle Lot. Her first New England novel was The Minister's Wooing. This story, as well as The Pearl of Orr's Island, she began in 1857, the summer her eldest son was drowned; and in it we find her own bitter sufferings vividly pictured in the experience of Mrs. Marvyn in the death of her son at sea. Mrs. Stowe began The Pearl of Orr's Island  first, but the scene of this is laid in Maine, where she had spent two of the happiest years of her life with her children, and she was so forcibly reminded of the loss of her boy, Henry, whenever she tried to write about those days that at length she laid aside that book for other interests until the bitterness of her own sorrow should be softened by time and resignation.

Had she been able to finish it at once, there is little doubt but that it would have been her masterpiece, for the first chapters gave that promise. But she laid it by first to compile her Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin  and while she was writing Dred;  then again in order to push The Minister's Wooing  to a finish, and two years elapsed before she turned to it once more. The Minister's Wooing  suited her mood at the time, being a tale of great sorrow and suffering, and into it she poured the accumulated sadness of her own bleeding heart. This book was for the most part dictated, and went forward very rapidly.

She did her best work when she had an audience to listen to the various chapters as fast as they were completed, and while she was in the midst of any important work, her family hovered close in the background, ready to be called at a moment's notice to criticize and suggest improvement in the tale. If the Professor took exception to any argument she had propounded, or if she had not been minutely accurate in some local description or character, he promptly pointed out the short-comings, and Mrs. Stowe as promptly corrected the passage. Her twin daughters passed judgment on all the love-making scenes, and usually their mother was as quick to heed their advice as that of their father. Typewriters were unheard of in that day, and all her manuscripts were laboriously written out in long hand, but she was a rapid writer, and prided herself on the fact that she seldom found it necessary to revise or copy. Happy author!

Into The Minister's Wooing  Mrs. Stowe has woven the story of her sister Catherine's romance, the loss of her lover in a storm at sea, and the doubts that drove her almost frantic because she did not know whether or not he was a Christian. Her heroine, Mary Scudder, is betrothed to a wild young sailor boy, who does not understand the spiritual nature of his sweetheart, but holds a deep reverence for her in his heart. His ship is reported lost at sea, and of course he is supposed to have gone down with it. The minister, believing the lover is dead, courts the maiden, and finally she consents to marry him, though she does not feel the love for him that she had for her wild sailor boy. Before they are married, however, the sailor returns to his home, expecting to claim his bride. Here the minister shows his unselfish devotion to the girl as well as the greatness of his soul by giving up his claim on her, whom he loved dearer than life itself, and thereby winning the wayward sailor to a better life.

Two years later when she again took up the thread of The Pearl of Orr's Island, she had begun another novel, called Agnes of Sorrento, dealing with her travels in Italy. She seemed to take keen delight in writing of the life in this sunny, picturesque land, but remarks in one of her letters that it makes her shiver to work on her Maine story, and so, through these many delays, this book loses much of the power it started out with, although Whittier has called it the most charming New England idyl ever written.

Oldtown Folks  was her next great attempt at picturing New England life. This was published in 1869, and Mrs. Stowe called it her "resume of the whole spirit and body of New England." She explained that she tried to make her mind as still as a looking-glass, and then to put into words the images she saw reflected there. In this book, she has attempted the difficult task of depicting characters that her husband knew and described to her. Oldtown is South Natick, Massachusetts, where Professor Stowe lived as a boy; and several times while the tale was in progress, he took his wife to visit this town in order that she might get the scenery while he recalled childhood memories and incidents.

In 1877 Poganuc People  appeared, the last serial Mrs. Stowe undertook. She had not intended to write another book, but began this as a Christmas brochure, and it kept growing as she wrote, until it became book size. It is a companion story to Oldtown Folks, in that it deals with her recollections of her own childhood, instead of her husband's, and is, in fact, her autobiography. She has described in it the old parsonage with its many garrets and cellars, the woods and lakes, the brothers and sisters, her father and mother. The Dolly  of Poganuc People  is Harriet Beecher herself.