February 16, 2014

Stowe: what sort of woman I am!

"So you want to know what sort of woman I am!" wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe with obvious surprise. The letter, dated from Andover, Massachusetts, on February 16, 1853, was written in response to that request and Stowe happily complied. She described herself as, "To begin with... I am 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."

Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin had been published in book form slightly less than a year earlier. Considering the recipient of Stowe's letter was a stranger to her, she was quite open, describing that Uncle Tom's Cabin was inspired in part by her own poor state and "awful scenes and bitter sorrows" of her own life, including the "peculiar bitterness" and "almost cruel suffering" of the death of one of her children. She was equally forthcoming about her poverty, even noting she did not own enough teacups for a family visit to her home. "But then I was abundantly enriched with wealth of another sort," she wrote. Her first payments from publishing stories, she said, was used to purchase a feather-bed, "the most profitable investment" she could think of at the time — she compared it to the philosopher's stone.

Now, Stowe noted, she was working on a follow-up to her novel: "It will contain all the facts and documents on which that story was founded, and an immense body of facts, reports of trials, legal documents, and testimony of people now living South, which will more than confirm every statement in 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'..." The book, which would be published later that year as A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, was causing her difficulty because of the subject matter. "This horror, this nightmare abomination!" she wrote of slavery, "can it be in my country? It lies like lead on my heart, it shadows my life with sorrow."

Stowe's letter was addressed to Eliza Lee Follen, herself a published author, which may explain why Stowe was so forthcoming about personal details. She admitted to having felt already acquainted since her girlhood, having made "daily use of your poems for children." In fact, years ago, Stowe had considered writing to Follen to introduce herself and thank her for her work. In her first book, published 1839, Follen included an anti-slavery poem, "Remember the Slave," which Stowe almost certainly admired:

Mother, whene'er around your child
      You clasp your arms in love;
And when, with grateful joy, you raise
      Your eyes to God above, —

Think of the negro mother, when
      Her child is torn away,
Sold for a little slave — O, then,
      For that poor mother pray...

Ye Christians! ministers of Him
      Who came to make men free,
When, at the Almighty Maker’s throne
      You bend the suppliant knee,—
From the deep fountains of your soul
      Then let your prayers ascend
For the poor slave, who hardly knows
      That God is still his friend.
Let all who know that God is just,
      That Jesus came to save,
Unite in the most holy cause
      Of the forsaken slave.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks. Just noticed a Boston Globe piece about her in-laws' house in South Natick, and its connection to Stowe's book Oldtown Folks.