When the Fugitive Slave Act went into effect, panic spread among blacks. Outrage spread among the abolitionists. Isabella Beecher wrote an impassioned letter to her sister-in-law, Harriet Beecher Stowe. "Oh Hatty," she wrote. "If I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that will make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is."
Years later, Hatty’s older children still remembered the scene when their mother read Isabella’s letter out loud to them in the parlor and they never forgot the fervency of her determination to write the book. Hatty wrote feverishly, as one possessed — and she was; — she was consumed by her passion and her sense of calling to this crucial task. She devoured everything she could find about slavery and listened to former slaves so that she could tell their stories.
The book that Hatty wrote was first published in serial stories. They became an overnight sensation. One of her biographers wrote: "It was a powerful novel, filled with memorable characters and incidents drawn from life, and, unlike any novel before, its hero, Uncle Tom, was a black man — a courageous slave, moreover, whose dignity and strength grew not out of resignation but from a profound Christian faith." Langston Hughes, black author and poet, described Uncle Tom as a "gentle black Christ who turned the other cheek."
The book catapulted the problem of slavery into the national spotlight. Harriet described slavery as "the next worst thing to Hell." She also put a human face on slavery — copies of the series were passed around "as if the tear stains on them were sacred." Through Uncle Tom, readers came to understand that slaves were human beings who were suffering cruelly. Her book has been called "one of the most effective pieces of reform literature ever published." When Harriet Beecher Stowe met Abraham Lincoln, he remarked, "So, this is the little lady who started this big war!"
Such is the power of the pen. When the book was published March 13, 1852, it broke all sales records: selling 3,000 copies the first day, eventually more than 3 million copies were sold worldwide, and it has been translated into more than 20 languages. Tolstoy considered the book to be a "great work of literature." Alfred Kazin wrote that the book "is the most powerful and most enduring work of art ever written about American slavery." Elizabeth Barrett Browning declared that Harriet’s powerful writing had, more than any other man or woman of her era, "moved the world for good."
What made the book so powerful?
Harriet asserted that "she did not write ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin‘; God wrote it; and she served merely as His instrument." She also believed that the book "had its root in the awful scenes and bitter sorrow" of the summer that her son died. She explained, "It was at his dying bed and at his grave that I learned what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her." Mrs. Stowe went on to write, "I felt I could never be consoled for [the death of her baby, Charley, in 1849] unless this crushing of my own heart might enable me to work out some great good to others." Her obedience to that call and her faithfulness to that mission produced "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" — a book that not only "moved the world," but was also a novel "unparalleled among works of fiction for its impact on contemporary opinion."
Harriet’s background prepared her to write hymns and stories with deeply spiritual messages; her father was Lyman Beecher a famous preacher and seminary president. Beecher was reputed to have fathered more brains than any other man in America — all of his sons became outstanding, influential clergymen and three of his four daughters became famous and influential. Harriet’s brother, Henry Ward Beecher, was a distinguished preacher and reformer and her husband was a respected theologian and Bible scholar.
Harriet described herself as "a little bit of a woman, somewhat more than forty, about as thin and dry as a pinch of snuff, never very much to look at in my best days and looking like a used up article now."
In many respects, Harriet’s description was accurate; by then she was "used up" physically. For almost 30 years, she produced a book a year and writing, on top of all her other responsibilities, was like "rowing against wind and tide." And, while "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" was a remarkable success and booksellers couldn’t keep up with the demand for the book, there were outspoken critic of the book as well. Harriet was called a "wicked authoress" and a "vile wretch in petticoats;" the book was called "detestable and monstrous" and Harriet lived with constant threats and barrages of obscene letters.
Harriet never lost her masterful use of language. Toward the end of her life, she wrote, "I feel about all things now as I do about the things that happen in a hotel, after my trunk is packed to go home." She had fought the good fight, had been faithful to her talent and calling, now she was ready to leave for a better place. She suffered a mild stroke, afterwards writing to Oliver Wendell Holmes, "I make no mental effort of any sort; my brain is tired out. … And now I rest me, like a moored boat, rising and falling on the water, with loosened cordage and flapping sail." When she died, there was a lovely wreath on her grave with a simple card from "The Children of Uncle Tom," sent by former slaves in Boston.
Sign up to the Human Events newsletter