March 9, 2012

A word for freedom and humanity

Calvin Stowe was preparing to move to Andover, Massachusetts, where he would teach at the Phillips Academy. Meanwhile, his wife was making the greatest decision of her life: Harriet Beecher Stowe was preparing to write something to signify her stance against slavery. In a letter dated March 9, 1851, she wrote to Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the abolitionist newspaper The National Era:

Up to this year I have always felt that I had no particular call to meddle with this subject, and I dreaded to expose even my own mind to the full force of its exciting power. But I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak. The Carthagenian women in the last peril of their state cut off their hair for bowstrings to give to the defenders of their country; and such peril and shame as now hangs over this country is worse than Roman slavery, and I hope every woman who can write will not be silent.

The Stowe family was living in Brunswick, Maine at the time. Though she had never cared for slavery (much like her other family members, including father Lyman Beecher and brother Henry Ward Beecher), her inspiration to speak out came in the form of a divine intervention: while at church, she suddenly had a vision of a dying slave. The first serialized installment of the book which became Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in May; originally planned as a four-part sketch, that number rose to 40.

The title character, Uncle Tom, has become a negative stereotype - though not because of the book but because of an unauthorized stage adaptation in the 19th century. Stowe's character is a suffering though patient character, strengthened by his religion. In fact, like Stowe himself, he has a divine vision which urges him onward. After being sold to the villainous and cruel Simon Legree, who tries to break Tom's spirit and his faith. Tom's vision elevates him to a Messiah-like state:

When a heavy weight presses the soul to the lowest level at which endurance is possible, there is an instant and desperate effort of every physical and moral nerve to throw off the weight; and hence the heaviest anguish often precedes a return tide of joy and courage. So was it now with Tom. The atheistic taunts of his cruel master sunk his before dejected soul to the lowest ebb; and, though the hand of faith still held to the eternal rock, it was with a numb, despairing grasp. Tom sat, like one stunned, at the fire. Suddenly everything around him seemed to fade, and a vision rose before him of one crowned with thorns, buffeted and bleeding. Tom gazed, in awe and wonder, at the majestic patience of the face; the deep, pathetic eyes thrilled him to his inmost heart; his soul woke, as, with floods of emotion, he stretched out his hands and fell upon his knees, — when, gradually, the vision changed: the sharp thorns became rays of glory; and, in splendor inconceivable, he saw that same face bending compassionately towards him, and a voice said, "He that overcometh shall sit down with me on my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father on his throne."

*For some of the information in this post, I am indebted to Joan D. Hedrick's biography Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (1995).

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