September 13, 2010

Stowe's "most amazing adventure"

The success of her writings, including Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852, prompted Harriet Beecher Stowe's lecture tour. Her first public reading was held on Springfield, Massachusetts on September 13, 1872. She spent most of September through December in front of various audiences in an experience she referred to it as "the most amazing adventure" of her later years.

Stowe's decision to go on a reading tour despite a slight aversion to public speaking was purely practical: she needed money. Two years earlier, she had to sell (at a loss) her home, Oakholm, in Hartford, Connecticut, after living there only five years. At the same time, she was investing in property in Florida at the suggestion of family, losing some $40,000 in the process. She wrote incessantly as a means of income: books like Old Town Folks, Little Pussy Willow, My Wife and I, and Pink and White Tyranny were published within only three years.

The reality is that Stowe's financial woes were not due to a lack of income. Uncle Tom's Cabin, after all, earned over $10,000 in its first three months (compared to The Scarlet Letter earning about $1,500 for Nathaniel Hawthorne over 14 years). Stowe's problems came from her expenses: she was a philanthropist and often gave her money away.

These lectures by Stowe, over 60 years old, billed her as "a distinguished lady whose works have been read wherever the English language is spoken." Tickets were fifty or seventy-five cents each and anywhere from 150 to 1,500 people attended. She began a second tour the next fall, traveling much farther than she did in 1872.

*Thanks to Philip McFarland for much of the information from this post, included in his biography Loves of Harriet Beecher Stowe (2007).

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