Story of Harriet Beecher Stowe - R. B. MacArthur

As the Sun Set

In 1872, driven by the need of funds, Mrs. Stowe accepted a proposal from the American Literary Bureau of Boston to deliver a course of forty readings from her own books in the larger cities of New England. The offer was liberal, it appealed to her from more than one standpoint, and she accepted with the understanding that the readings be completed before December, so she could join her family in Florida. Even this made her a month late in her southern home, and the. Professor, who loved her so devotedly and grew more and more dependent upon her as the years flew by, felt much aggrieved at her protracted absence. He wrote such dismal letters, threatening to die of homesickness if she did not come home at once, that it worried her not a little, but she replied in her humorous vein, begging him to wait a little longer so they, could have another quiet evening together before he left her, and trying in this way to cheer him up till she could be with him again.

Traveling in those days was not as easy nor as comfortable as it is in our time, nor were the hotels as complete and well managed, but on the whole Mrs. Stowe enjoyed this experience of riding about the country and reading to the public from her own compositions, and the public certainly enjoyed her. In one of her audiences was a stone-deaf woman who made it a point to see her after the program was over, just to tell her that she came merely to look into Mrs. Stowe's face, for she would rather see her than the Queen of England. Another time, Mrs. Stowe met a woman who had named her two daughters Harriet Beecher and Eva, a compliment that seemed to please the modest little author very much. Several times she met old friends of bygone years and renewed friendships with people she had well-nigh forgotten in the stress of her hurried, busy life. But she did not make any more tours as a public reader, once this course was done, although she often appeared in churches or private homes for the benefit of various charities.

Her last public appearance was in June, 1882, when she was seventy-one years of age. Her Boston publishers, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., gave a reception for her at the home of ex-Governor Clafiin, at Newtonville, Massachusetts, and the gathering was notable for the number of famous literary people present. Among these were Holmes, Whittier, Aldrich, Trowbridge, Mrs. J. T. Fields, Mrs. A. D. T. Whitney, Louise Chandler Moulton, Lucy Larcom, Bronson Alcott, Elizabeth Stewart Phelps, and Julia Dorr. The Stowe and Beecher families were well represented also, as three brothers, one sister, a son and a daughter were able to attend.

When the guests had all had opportunity to pay their respects to the guest of honor, Mr. H. O. Houghton addressed this unique assembly of celebrities, stating that the occasion of the gathering was the birthday of one whose years, if they were measured by the amount of work she had accomplished, would place her with the antediluvians, but if measured by the freshness of her stories and her sympathy with youth, would indicate that she must have found the fount of perpetual youth herself. He gave a brief sketch of her life, calling attention to the fact that her unusual training and intense way of living had naturally fitted her for the important part she was to play in the field of literature and in the history of her country. Uncle Tom's Cabin, in his opinion, was the greatest epic of that period, and would for centuries be the Iliad  and Aeneid  of American literature. He spoke of how it had been read by every class of people on the globe, from the poorest of men who could scarcely read or write, to crowned heads of great lands, saying that while her New England stories were sufficient to give any author an enviable reputation, in his mind, Uncle Tom's Cabin  outranked them all.

Henry Ward Beecher, in his happy way, responded to this address of welcome by a wonderful homily on "Our Mother," in which he said that Harriet was most like her own mother in characteristics and sympathies, though possibly not in physical likeness. Edward Beecher also addressed the assembly, relating how favorably his sister's writings had effected the woman's suffrage movement in this country.

These speeches were followed by poems in Mrs. Stowe's honor, written by Whittier, Holmes, and other celebrities. One by her own daughter, Georgian, Allen, is particularly noteworthy:

"A child came down to earth

Just seventy years ago,

And round its form the angels trod,

Whispering low,

''Tis an instrument

To be played by the hand of God.'

"Though the instrument's feebler grown,

'Twill sound loud and full until death,

Like the harp with its strings Aeolian-blown,

Rising and falling,

Whispering and calling,

With the strength of God's own breath."

Then Mrs. Stowe herself rose to speak, and the whole assembly came to their feet and remained standing while she said her thanks in her quiet, modest way, urging all her friends to trust in God, remembering the great things He had brought to pass, and particularly that the scourge of slavery had been driven from our fair land. Then followed an eloquent plea for the black man, slave no longer, but pitifully ignorant and full of faults which the white man was inclined to be intolerant of, now that he had his freedom. So we find her still laboring for the cause of, this downtrodden people as long as mind and strength endured, a faithful servant in the sight of God.

During the year that followed, Mrs. Stowe put her letters and papers in order, and wrote her son Charles of what she had done. It seemed to gratify her to find that through all the letters she herself had written, there was one theme running from the time she was thirteen years old, and that was "the intense, unwavering sense of Christ's educating, guiding presence and care," as she expressed it. She named over the friends and relatives who had gone on before her to the spirit land—her girlhood friend, Georgiana May, her three sons, her brother George and sister Catherine, her father and her mother—and she seemed to feel that she herself was very near the border. But as a matter of fact, she lived many years longer, though the splendid mind became that of a little child once more, and the last years of her life were like a fading sunset, as someone has so aptly described it.

Professor Stowe was afflicted with an incurable disease during his old age, and for several years was a helpless invalid, over whom his devoted wife hovered with tender solicitude and yearning heart. He loved her with all the strength of his great soul, and as he grew weaker he clung to her more and more, as a child clings to its mother in its helplessness. This taxed her physical strength to the uttermost, but she would not permit anyone else to nurse him as long as she could keep it up herself; so trained help was called in only when he was far spent and she was well-nigh exhausted. His death came August 6, 1886. The setting sun filled the room with its golden glory when he suddenly opened his eyes, and gazing off toward the distant, cloud-hung hills, he whispered, "Peace with God! Peace with God!" His eyes closed again, and he drifted off, into eternal sleep. Within a year he was followed by Henry Ward Beecher, and the youngest daughter, Georgiana. What depths of sorrow that mother heart plumbed during her long, illustrious life!

With so many of her best beloved gone on before, it was only natural that from this time on, Mrs. Stowe's thoughts turned more and more to things spiritual, and the last real letter she ever wrote, sent to her friend, Mrs. Howard, says in part, "My sun has set. The time of work for me is over. I have written all my words, and thought all my thoughts, and now I rest me in the flickering light of the dying embers, in a rest so profound that the voice of an old friend arouses me but momentarily, and I drop back again into repose."

Like her father, Dr. Lyman Beecher, she had lived so intensely that the fires of her mind seemed to have burned out long before her body was released from earthly bondage, and though she realized her condition, she uttered no complaint. Her children cared for her tenderly until she slipped away July 1, 1896, after eighty-five years of loving and living. She was laid to rest beside her husband and children in the cemetery at Andover, while her friends gathered about the grave and sang the old hymns which had never failed to soothe her to the last. What more fitting close to such a sweet and beautiful life!