Story of Harriet Beecher Stowe - R. B. MacArthur

As a Writer

Harriet Beecher's first ventures as a writer were made to amuse herself, and with no thought of ever becoming an author. Indeed, her early ambition was to be a great poet, and when but a child of thirteen she wrote a lengthy drama in blank verse, called Cleon, that being the name of an historical character about whom she had been studying in school. Cleon was a Greek lord who lived during Nero's time and was Nero's friend. He worshiped Greek gods until he heard about Christ and became a Christian. This brought down the wrath of the wicked king upon his head, and Cleon was subjected to every conceivable torture to make him renounce his faith, which he steadfastly refused to do.

[Illustration] from Harriet Beecher Stowe by R. B. MacArthur


Harriet became so engrossed in her theme that she forgot everything else, neglected her studies, and actually filled several books with her verses. But when Catherine saw her complete absorption in this thing, she put a stop to it, saying that the girl was wasting her time and must discipline her mind by studying Butler's Analogy. Consequently she gave up her idea of writing poetry and settled down to such hard study that in a very short time she was set to instructing a class of girls her own age in this Analogy. She managed to keep herself prepared a chapter in advance of her pupils, and in this way began her teaching while she was still a pupil herself. Thus Catherine's interference effectually checked the younger sister's youthful ambition, and when she took up her pen to write again, it was prose she selected to express her thoughts.

Soon after the Beechers went to live in the spacious house at Walnut Hills, which they came to love so dearly, Harriet was invited to become a member of a literary club, organized by her uncle, Samuel Foote, and some old New England friends then living in Cincinnati, many of whom later became famous. This club was called the "Semi-colon Club," and they explained their choice of name by saying that "Colon" was the Spanish name for Columbus. If the discoverer of a continent could be called a colon, then the discoverers of a new pastime ought to be allowed the privilege of calling themselves "semi-colons." The new pastime was, of course, the exchange of ideas at their weekly meetings, and Samuel Foote drew about him a host of intellectual as well as genial spirits, who made the gatherings most interesting and helpful to all the members, but especially to such eager, inquiring minds as Harriet Beecher's was, and she let her fancy run riot in the new field this club opened up to her.

Her first literary flight after she joined the ranks of the "Semi-colons," was a letter written in the exaggerated, pompous style of Bishop Butler. Her next effort was a satire on the modem uses of language. This was so well received by the Club that the editor of the Western Magazine asked permission to publish it in that periodical. She was so well pleased with the result of her first attempts that she became more ambitious and planned to play a practical joke on the rest of the Club by writing a series of letters purporting to come from a group of country people, who were intellectual, refined and agreeable. These letters were written after a plan adopted by the Beecher family when its members became so widely scattered that individual letters to each person would have made the family correspondence a heavy tax on time and energy. Catherine, perhaps, would start the ball rolling by writing a letter to Harriet. She, after reading it, would add a letter from her own pen and send it on to the married sister Mary, who, in turn, would put in her contribution of news and mail it to Edward; and so on until the accumulation of letters had been the rounds of that large family circle, and every member knew what the other members were doing.

When Harriet had written the first one of her series, she smoked it to make it look yellowed with age, and tore the edges to give it the appearance of having been much read. She imitated the postmark by smearing the ink, sealed the letter with sealing-wax, and broke it open again, just as a real letter would have been broken open. Finally she enclosed it in another envelope and addressed it to Mrs. Samuel E. Foote. Then she wrote her cousin Elizabeth Foote about the joke, so she would he on the lookout for the letter which arrived in due time and completely fooled the whole family, even the world-wise Uncle Samuel himself, who thought it was a real letter of years past..

About this time the Western Magazine  offered a prize of fifty dollars for the best short story submitted to its editors, and Harriet won the prize with a story she called A New England Sketch, but afterwards renamed Uncle Tim  and incorporated in the volume, Mayflower, published by Harper Brothers in 1843. At first she seemed reluctant to sign her own name to her writings, and was delighted when her productions were attributed to Catherine's pen; but as time went on she laid aside such scruples and took great pleasure in her literary achievements.

Before her marriage, she wrote merely for the pleasure she found in expressing her thoughts, but afterwards it became a stern necessity, for she married a man whose only wealth lay in his learning; and as the years brought a large family of children into the home, she could not make ends meet with only his meager salary to depend upon; so when a new mattress or a carpet was needed, she laid aside her household cares long enough to compose a "piece," as she called her stories, and these pieces always seemed to bring in the necessary funds to replenish the furnishings of her home. With the first money she earned in this manner, she bought a featherbed and pillows!

She was never a student of literature, and many of her works have been severely criticized because of their lack of style; yet their very lack is sometimes an added charm to the simply-told, everyday happenings which she chose to write about. Her great sympathy for humanity inspired most of her efforts, and that is why they are so successful.

She was a good housekeeper and naturally found little leisure for literary flights after her babies came, but fortunately she composed rapidly, wrote swiftly, and did very little revising; so she accomplished wonders in the few minutes she snatched from household drudgery when her faithful friend, Anna, was minding the children. And when the stories did need copying, she usually found some friend or relative ready to take the task off her hands. Her sister Catherine tells in a droll way of an incident she witnessed while visiting Harriet, which shows how the busy mother wrote and managed the house at the same time. Catherine found her in the nursery tending one baby and watching the twins, then just able to walk, and when the older sister reminded her of a serial she was writing for the Souvenir and asked for the next installment that very day, Mrs. Stowe told her it must wait until housecleaning was over and the baby had cut his teeth. Catherine thought the housecleaning could wait, and as it would take months for the baby to cut all his teeth there was no good in waiting for him, either. Still Mrs. Stowe demurred, saying she had a new girl in the kitchen and it was baking day, but Catherine was firm, and brushed away the excuses as fast as they were made. "You know that you can write anywhere, and anyhow," she told her younger sister. "Just take your seat at the kitchen table with your writing weapons, and while you superintend Mina, fill up the odd snatches of time with the labors of your pen.

"I carried my point. In ten minutes she was seated; a table with flour, rolling-pin, ginger and lard on one side; a dresser with eggs, pork, and beans and various cooking utensils on the other, near her an oven heating, and beside her a dark-skinned nymph waiting for orders.

"'Here, Harriet,' said I, 'you can write on this atlas in your lap; no matter how the writing looks, I will copy it.'

"'Well, well,' she said, with a resigned sort of an amused look. 'Mina, you may do what I told you, while I write a few minutes, till it is time to mold up the bread. Where is the ink-stand?'

"'Here it is, on top of the tea-kettle, close by,' said I.

"At this Mina giggled, and we both laughed to see her merriment at our literary proceedings.

"I began to overhaul the portfolio to find the right sheet. 'Here it is,' said I, 'here is Frederick sitting by Ellen glancing at her brilliant face and saying something about "guardian angel," and all that—you remember?'

"'Yes, yes,' she said, falling into a muse as she attempted to recover the thread of her story.

"'Ma'am, shall I put the pork on the top of the beans?' asked Mina.

"'Come, come,' said Harriet, laughing. 'You see how it is. Mina is a new hand and cannot do anything without me to direct her. We must give up the writing for to-day.'

"'No, no, let us have another trial. You can dictate as easily as you can write. Come, I can set the baby in this clothes basket and give him some mischief or another to keep him quiet; you shall dictate and I will write. Now this is the place where you left off; you were describing the scene between Ellen and her lover: the last sentence was, "Borne down by the tide of agony she leaned her head on her hands, the tears streamed through her fingers, and her whole frame shook with convulsive sobs." What next?'

"'Mina, pour a little milk into this pear-hash!' said Harriet.

"'Come,' said I, '"The tears streamed through her fingers, and her whole frame shook with convulsive sobs." What next?'

"Harriet paused, and looked musingly out of the window as she turned her mind to her story. 'You may write now,' said she, and she dictated as follows:

"'Her lover wept with her, nor dared again to touch the point so sacredly guarded.—Mina, roll that crust a little thinner.—He spoke in soothing tones.—Mina, poke the coals in the oven.'

"'Here,' said I, 'let me direct Mina about these matters and write a while yourself." Then Catherine continues:

"Harriet took the pen and patiently set herself to work. For a while my culinary knowledge and skill were proof to all Mina's investigating inquiries, and they did not fail till I saw two pages completed.

"'You have done bravely,' said I, as I read over the manuscript; 'now you must direct Mina awhile. Meantime dictate, and I will write.'

"Never was there a more docile literary lady than my sister. Without a word of objection she followed my request.

"'I am ready to write,' said I. 'The last sentence was, "What is this life to one who has suffered as I have?" What next?'

"'Shall I put in the brown, or the white bread first?' asked Mina.

"'The brown first,' said Harriet.

""What is this life to one who has suffered as I have?"' said I.

"Harriet brushed the flour off her apron, and sat down for a moment in a muse. Then she dictated as follows:

"'Under the breaking of my heart I have borne up. I have borne up under all that tries a woman,—but this thought,—oh, Henry!'

"'Ma'am, shall I put ginger in this pumpkin?' queried Mina.

"'No, you may let that alone just now,' replied Harriet. She then proceeded:

"'I know my duty to my children, I see the hour must come. You must take them, Henry; they are my last earthly comfort.'

"'Ma'am, what shall I do with these egg-shells, and all this truck here?' interrupted Mina.

"'Put them in the pail by you,' answered Harriet.

"'"They are my last earthly comfort," said I. 'What next?'

"She continued to dictate,

"'You must take them away. It may be—perhaps it must be—that I shall soon follow, but the breaking heart of a wife still pleads, "a little longer, a little longer."'

"'How much longer must the gingerbread stay in?' asked Mina.

"'Five minutes,' said Harriet.

"'"A little longer, a little longer," 'I repeated in a dolorous tone, and we burst out into a laugh.

"Thus we went on, cooking, writing, nursing, and laughing, till I finally accomplished my object. The piece was finished and copied, and the next day sent to the editor."

It is true that Mrs. Stowe often wrote her stories while superintending the housework, but she did not advocate such a plan for authors. In fact, when her genius became an acknowledged fact, and her own husband was urging her to devote her life to it, she wrote him while away on a vacation, that if she were to produce acceptable articles, she must have a room of her own where she could go and be quiet and undisturbed. She suggested a certain room in the house, and proposed setting up a stove there so she could have her plants and be cosy while she wrote. She had bought a cheap carpet for the floor, even as she wrote of her plans. But she knew Professor Stowe would never object. He would heartily endorse any plan that would give his talented wife the opportunity she craved. So she got her room and the quiet she found so essential, and no doubt found it possible to write better stories than ever before.

There certainly is no sameness about her tales. She wrote on every subject under the sun, books of nature for youthful readers, in which she relates the experiences of the Nutcracker Lodge, of the Robin family, of the hummingbird that was blown in at the window one windy day, of the squirrels and magpies, and of the katydids who refused to associate with the crickets because they were black; novels, tales of foreign travel, romances, character sketches, slavery stories, and textbooks, all dripped from her versatile pen with apparent ease.

Early in life she conceived the idea that she had a particular mission in the world to perform, and thought she had found it when the plot of Uncle Tom's Cabin  unfolded in her mind; so she worked at it tirelessly while it grew in magnitude until it became the stupendous production that was one of the chief causes of our Civil War.