In 1851, a woman took a break from raising six children, including a newborn, to write one of the most controversial and influential books of the nineteenth century. Harriet Beecher Stowe famously wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the abolitionist novel that roused opposition to slavery throughout the United States, between completing household chores. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center preserves Stowe’s Hartford home and her spirit by offering the opportunity to connect to her legacy.
On a brisk November Friday, a small group of four starts the first tour of the day. The center, renovated in 2017, is the home that Stowe lived in for the last twenty-three years of her life. The group first experiences a pantry room. The walls are covered in accolades about Stowe and her novel from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass, and Laura Bush. Abraham Lincoln said of Stowe, “So, you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Stowe lived from 1811 to 1896 and grew up in a large family with seven brothers and three sisters. They were all encouraged to take part in lively discussions at the dinner table and were expected to eventually be able to shape the world around them. Her brothers all became ministers, an especially influential vocation at the time. Her older sister, Catharine, was an advocate for women’s education, and her youngest sister, Isabella, was a founder of the Connecticut Woman’s Suffrage Association. Stowe herself always knew her purpose was to write. She didn’t have much interaction with the institution of slavery until her twenties, when her family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. On a trip to nearby Kentucky, she witnessed a mother and child being separated, and sold to different owners. This experience in the Blue Grass state sparks discussion as visitors of the center connect Stowe’s sudden realization of the horrifying truth of slavery to the social injustice that we have in America today.
Among the tour group is Dr. Melissa Mentzer, a professor of American literature at Central Connecticut State University, the perfect companion for an exploration of the center. “I think it’s all part of the same history that’s still being played out in this country.” It’s true that while the Civil War, abolitionist movement, and suffrage campaigns are read about in school history books, we have not yet finished resolving the problems they fought to fix.
Stowe’s bedroom has a copy of The National Era, the newspaper in which Uncle Tom’s Cabin was originally published in a serial format. The room has a small writer’s desk and table, though the guide points out that Stowe did most of the writing for the novel at the kitchen table because she was raising six children at the time. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the masterpiece through which Stowe changed the world. After serial publication, it was released in 1852 as a two-volume book, selling three hundred thousand copies in the United States in its first year, and one and a half million in Great Britain in one year.
I think it’s all part of the same history that’s still being played out in this country.
Stowe showed the painful realities of slavery through her novel, and the millions who read her words were experiencing those realities for the first time. She was deliberately sentimental in the novel, sometimes pausing to call readers out and make them think. “I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed and brokenhearted with the sorrows and injustice I saw,” Stowe said, “because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity—because as a lover of my country, I trembled at the coming day of wrath.”
Stowe’s sentimentality, her attempt to elicit specific emotions in her readers, is often not as well regarded today as it was in the middle of the nineteenth century. Dr. Mentzer explained, “In the 1910s and 20s, we got into a literary period of early modernism.” She discussed how sentimental moralizing in literature fell out of fashion after the international catastrophe of World War One. “There’s an emphasis on doubting the moral integrity of humanity,” she said, pointing out how many writers and publishers felt that “if the public likes it, it must not be any good.” Because of this modernist movement, many women and African American authors began to be left out of anthologies. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center works to reverse that. Sentimentality and empathy may have fallen out of fashion in modern literature, but they are still integral to our society, and wholly, humanity. The ability to feel and understand the emotions of others is the only way we can stand united.
Stowe’s novel sparked theater productions, translations, rewrites, responses, and even toys. Some inspired works represented her original intent, and many tried to unravel the novel, claiming that it was not a fair example of American slavery. The tour explores a guest room in the house that has exhibits of many of those responses, including playbills and translated copies from places as far as Japan.
Dr. Mentzer approaches a display case to inspect it more closely. A few works “changed how the character [of Uncle Tom] is represented. In the novel he’s a young, strong, smart man, and then starts to be portrayed as this old, subservient man. And then the phrase ‘Uncle Tom’ becomes an insult, a slur.” The displays include a copy of Aunt Phillis’s Cabin, a book written specifically to counter Stowe’s portrayal of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Stowe center doesn’t ignore those works, just as our society can’t simply ignore the misinformation campaigns against social justice, climate change, police bias, and more that we have today.
In Stowe’s kitchen, the last stop on the tour, there is a tan paper covering a table in the center of an otherwise period accurate representation of an 1890s working kitchen. The group is asked to consider the issues most dear to them and write them down. Dr. Mentzer quickly reaches for a marker and bends to add her words. This room is one last reminder that we can change the world and should never stop fighting to make it better. Former president Barack Obama may have said it best, “While our nation has made great advances in equality, the obstacles that remain for too many Americans demand we carry forward Harriet Beecher Stowe’s legacy of building understanding and pursuing justice and opportunity for all.”
Headline Photo Credit: Andrew Jacobs
Andrew Jacobs is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine