AT one point during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have greeted the diminutive, bird-like Mrs. Stowe, who was visiting him in the White House, with the words, "So this is the little lady whose book started this big war." Lincoln was referring to her size, not to her remarkable sensibility, which had impressed him. Fundamentally, she was a broadminded religious writer who was able to unite conservative religious thinking with progressive social action. She believed and helped her countrymen to believe that in blacks, in women, and in certain regional characteristics and aesthetic sensibilities there were ways of being and feeling that an expansive and aggressive nation badly needed to incorporate into its spiritual identity, if it were to survive the nineteenth century with its soul intact. In her writing she unconsciously transformed Sir Walter Scott's dialectic sense of history as a struggle between religious, social, and political forces into a Christian drama in which her characters struggle in ambiguous circumstances with cosmic issues. And she wrote in a language that sparkles with the tension of the issues and the immediacy of the characters,
In the development of American realism, she is a key figure between James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain, loosening plot structure in favor of character development and dialogue. She is also an American humorist. When Haley, the slavetrader in Uncle Tom's Cabin, talks about his respectability, we know that his speech belongs in the same tradition as Ben Franklin's justification for eating cod and Huck and Jim's debate over the morality of stealing watermelons. She was also a sentimentalist, but she knew how to use sentimentalism in her novels to show how others could find in their feelings patterns for their lives.
Born in Litchfield, Connecticut on June 14, 1811, Harriet Beecher was a contemporary of a group of authors who published much of their best work during the "American Renaissance" (1850-55). She was seven years younger than Nathaniel Hawthorne and six years older than Henry David Thoreau, and she outlived Herman Melville and Walt Whitman. Uncle Tom's Cabin, her most famous but not her only good book, began to appear serially in 1851 · the same year that saw publication of Moby Dick and House of the Seven Gables. Her story became a best seller in book form the next year, while Melville's Pierre and Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance were setting unsold on bookstore shelves. Walden and Leaves of Grass were only two and three years away.
She may seem to have more in common with her British contemporaries: with the humor and dialogue of Dickens or the breadth of Thackeray ; with the moralistic George Eliot, whom she deeply admired and to whom she frequently wrote; and even with the reformist realism of Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Reade, who used the documentary method of Mrs. Stowe's A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin for his own novels. But a second look at the patterns by which her characters move reveals a strikingly orthodox version of her fellow American transcendentalists' beliefs. With Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman, and Hawthorne, she shares a strong sense of the transcendent qualities of historical forces · forces that she sees as a Christian order realizing itself in the secular world. She came to agree with Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau that it is an order that is resisted, not so much because of original sin but because one generation passed on to the next its own social systems and ways of being, acting, and feeling, legacies that blocked God's unfolding plan by insisting that the future follow the past. Hawthorne's magnetic chain of humanity has an orthodox counterpart in her sense of a community transcending racial, sexual, and regional boundaries and centered in a brotherhood and sisterhood of the heart deeper than any bond of the mind. She changed the old Calvinist demand that the believer be willing to be damned for the glory of God into a prescription for acting and suffering with Christ on behalf of the oppressed. She preached, thereby, a harder gospel of social action than most of her fellow American romantics. She felt, with Melville, that the self realizes itself only by confronting the world; with Hawthorne, that sin can be educative; and with Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, that the individual is not a sleepwalker between two worlds but a nexus of history · of God's plan · and that waking to this fact transforms the individual's relation to his world.
Her family first taught her to see the connections between the imminent and the transcendent. The daughter of the Reverend Lyman Beecher and Roxanna Foote, she was the seventh of nine children in a remarkable theological family. Later, there would be two stepmothers and more children. Lyman Beecher, a Presbyterian, lived intensely with his children and his God. His mother had died in giving him birth, and his father, a blacksmith, shipped him off to be brought up by relatives. Later, Beecher went to Timothy Dwight's conservative Yale to fight liberalism, unitarianism, and republicanism. Perhaps his early disappointment with his earthly father later led him to modify his ideas of the believer's relationship with his heavenly one. Through the influence of a more liberal friend, the clergyman Nathaniel W. Taylor, he came to believe that freedom of choice was compatible with God's purposes. His stress on man's possibilities later brought upon him a series of heresy trials from old-school Presbyterians. At Yale he also learned the revival methods that orthodox ministers were using to harvest souls and to fight the "blight" of notional and ethical Christianity sweeping Harvard. Later, Lyman's doctrinal tinkering to widen the gates for church members helped his children in further tinkering of their own, to broaden and apply orthodox doctrine.
Lyman Beecher was colorful. Craving intimate family relationships, he shared his exaltations and depressions freely. When he was wound up from worship or duties, he could relax in the middle of the family playing a violin · badly · and dancing. Harriet Beecher later remembered one tune, "Go to the Devil and Shake Yourself." He loved reading Byron and wished the poet had swept his harp for Christ. He came to approve of Scott's tales and lightened kitchen chores by urging the children to retell the plots. He had a good sense of humor and a lively sense of the ridiculous, even when he was its object. While he was leading a temperance crusade in Boston, his church caught fire. The church basement was leased to a liquor dealer, and when the firemen brought the hoses they howled with delight as they saw the blue flames licking up from the building, which they promptly nicknamed Beecher's Jug. The next morning, Beecher broke the austerity of his church council by announcing "My jug is broke!" His congregation got him a new one.
Harriet Beecher's mother was more polished and more retiring. She came from a "better" family, read widely, and spoke French · at that time the language of atheism and republicanism. She was Episcopalian, but she permitted her husband to bring her · as he was later to bring many of his own children · to a lively sense of her inadequacy and to a hope for grace. Harriet Beecher recalled her mother as "one of those strong, restful, yet widely sympathetic natures in whom all around seem to find comfort and repose." Her death when Harriet was five left an enormous emotional vacuum in both Harriet and her younger brother Henry Ward. Shortly before Roxanna Beecher died, she told her husband of premonitions and visions of heavenly splendor, adding, while shivering lightly, that she would not be much longer for this world. Shortly afterward, she died of galloping consumption, her devoted family standing by. Lyman said he felt like a child, terrified and shut out in the dark. We can imagine what Harriet felt. Her older sister Catharine, her father's favorite, replaced her mother in the household, serving Harriet as surrogate mother and later, with Harriet's older brother Edward, as spiritual midwife.
A life is shaped by the pattern of responses to events that are chosen as significant. The death of Harriet's mother, her separation from her childhood home at the age of thirteen, and her subsequent need to accept and give mothering play a central part in her books and life. In these events lie the beginnings of her emotional strategy to remake the world around her to yield her the mothering · the emotional support · she needed. Still later, her background gave her insight into the consequences of the lack of social mothering-of feminine nurture · in American culture.
Harriet Beecher was born to a religious generation that stressed the differences between the individual and the godhead and that bred strong, torturing doubts about the individual's acceptability as a person. Her own life at first confirmed this sense of cosmic separation, which became the framework upon which subsequent losses would weave themselves into her life. In later years, she made her son Charles begin his biography of her with the account of her mother's death · a memory that stayed with her through her life "as the tenderest, saddest, and most sacred memory of her childhood." Henry Ward Beecher later improved upon this idealization by analogizing their mother's role in their family with that of the Virgin Mary for Catholics.
Harriet's sensitivity to death was sharpened throughout her life. Her parents had given her the name, room, crib, and bedding of another little girl who had died three years before Harriet was born. Her sense of vicarious participation in death was severe. When she was nine her little stepbrother Freddy died from scarlet fever. She also came down with the disease and nearly died. Later, she was to lose two of her own sons.
In Poganuc People, a rather thinly veiled autobiography of her youth, we see some of Harriet's childhood through the eyes of Dolly Cushing, whose girlhood lot it was "to enter the family at a period when babies were no longer a novelty" and consequently to be "disposed of as she grew up in all those short-hand methods by which children were taught to be the least possible trouble to their elders." Lively at times, at times abstracted, Harriet seemed to those around her melancholy, even depressed. In 1824 Catharine brought her to live in Hartford, where she had set up a woman's seminary. She hoped that meeting girls her own age would lighten Harriet's depression.
It is possible to make both too much and too little out of Harriet Beecher's childhood. The death of her mother, which awakened her spiritually; the physical separation from her childhood home; and, later, the regional separation from her native New England were experiences personal to her yet widely shared by a whole generation of Americans and American writers. (Consider how different the work of Emerson, and Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman might have been had any of them experienced paternal continuity. What would have happened to Hawthorne 's preoccupation with the theme of filial disloyalty? to Emerson's gently iconoclastic transcendentalism? to Melville's concern with capricious deities, and to Whitman's trying on of male masks?) Harriet's spiritual solution, her sentimentalism, is one complemental and feminine response to a dilemma that we have been more trained to recognize in our male authors as furnishing much of the energy behind their Romantic iconoclasm. A sense of exile from the parent's world (often underscored by the absence in the writer's family of one parent) is a feeling that occurs repeatedly in nineteenth-century literature and finds expression in that standard figure of fiction, the orphan or bachelor who must make his world anew. Luckily for Harriet, she had older brothers and sisters, and it was Catharine and Edward who bridged for her the gaps between her parents' world and her own. Catharine and Edward, the two older children, were, according to her son, Charles, her closest spiritual advisors and, significantly, they were present while she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin. Their own adjustments to their father's world helped Harriet's own development.
Temperamentally and spiritually closest to her father, Catharine was curious and energetic, but she was precluded by her sex from training for the ministry. Unable, perhaps, to accept her exclusion from a cultural role that claimed all her younger brothers, she resisted the conversion experience · the first stage of which usually demanded that the believer express a strong conviction of personal depravity. When Lyman Beecher brought in his sons to help his favorite child through this stage, he only frightened Catharine, making her more resistant. While she struggled, she became engaged to Alexander Metcalf Fisher, a brilliant young Yale mathematician who had taught her brother Edward. After their engagement, in 1822, Fisher sailed for Europe to gather books and equipment for a promising career. But his boat foundered off the Irish coast, and he was drowned.
Grief-stricken, Catharine fled the home where her father and brothers lost no time in urging her to see in Fisher's untimely death a warning for her own spiritual estate. She spent the next year living with Fisher's parents where, reading her fiancé's diary, she found to her horror that he too had remained technically unconverted because, much like herself, he had not experienced lively feelings of his own depravity. At the end of this trying period, Catharine opened a new spiritual ledger with her God and started a new system of accounting. She could not imagine that God had cast out Fisher and her from heaven; this would be to imagine a cruel and vengeful deity utterly incompatible with the spirit of suffering love revealed in Jesus Christ. Since the path of conversion seemed closed to her as a means of salvation, she decided to make a life of sacrifice her path to sanctification. She would remain single and devote herself to the spiritual uplift of American women. She began the project by selling up the Hartford Female Academy, which drew upon the daughters of the prominent and taught them to become not just ornaments in the drawing room but useful in society.
Under Edward Beecher's spiritual guidance Catharine Beecher shifted her intellectual and emotional allegiance from God the Father to God the Son, in whose life of redemptive suffering she found values that spoke particularly to women. She took those values of self-sacrifice and submission and made them the cornerstone of a new religion of feminine domesticity that elevated the home and the school into secular churches, with the woman ministering a still center of spiritual and cultural uplift to her family. Eventually, her feminine ideal modeled on the compassion and sufferings of Christ, the Man of Sorrows, became one pole of the nineteenth-century feminist movement to help heal the growing social, racial, and geographic antagonisms in an aggressive and expansive male-dominated culture. She spent her life with the help of others · Harriet included · putting her ideals to work by setting up normal schools to train women to educate the rising generations in the Midwest. Catharine's role let Harriet identify her unresolved grief for her mother with the grief expressed by Christ aid led her to see the tie between her own lack of mothering and a general lack of social mothering in a masculine culture. Through Catharine's presence and thinking, Harriet found her needs confirmed and her talents legitimized, first in her role as a teacher at Catharine's school and later as a fiercely devoted mother and as the harassed wife of an intelligent but impractical and underpaid seminary professor.
The summer that Catharine began to resolve her conversion struggles found Harriet still unregenerate. A year later, at the age of fourteen, Harriet Beecher felt sad during a sermon preached by her father as she thought "that when all the good people should take the sanctified bread and wine I should be left out. . . ." Lyman Beecher had abandoned his usual notes and was speaking from his heart about God's patience and love in the figure of Christ. Harriet, who called her father's usual preaching "as intelligible as Choctaw," felt at that moment warm and accepted, and when she related her feelings to her father after the service he tearfully (perhaps overeagerly) accepted her as the latest flower sprung forth in the Kingdom of God.
The experience did not last, however, and it did not change her ideas of God or of herself. Her God quickly regained old-fashioned proportions, and a year later she was still dreamy, peevish, and depressed. When she came to Hartford, Catharine pressed her to write Edward, who urged her to see in Christ the primary revelation in history of God and to take him as a friend. Depressed, she could not at first frame for herself a god other than a judging Jehovah. But Edward urged her to draw closer and to address God as a familiar friend. Still, to the girl who was not yet friends with herself, to use "easy and familiar expressions of attachment and that sort of confidential communication which I should address to papa or you would be improper for a subject to address to a King, much less for us to address the King of Kings. The language of prayer is of necessity stately and formal, and we cannot clothe all the little minutiae of our wants and troubles in it." But Edward's steady urging to find in Christ's acceptance of her, her own acceptance of herself wins through, and her resistance dissolves into playfulness. A year later she shared her excitement of their mutual feelings about Jesus:
Oh, Edward, you can feel as I do; you can speak of Him! There are few, very few who can. Christians in general [and Harriet, for most of her youth] do not seem to look to him as their best friend, or realize anything of His unutterable love. They speak with a cold, vague, reverential awe, but do not speak as if in the habit of close and near communion; as if they confided to Him every joy and sorrow and constantly looked to Him for direction and guidance. . . .
Edward helped Harriet find an accepting savior in the figure of a suffering and compassionate Christ, and Harriet went on to connect her brother's figure of the biblical Christ with her sister Catharine's feminine ideal of a motherly, self-sacrificing teacher. In the same letter to Edward she writes: "I love most to look on Christ as my teacher, as one who, knowing the utmost of my sinfulness, my waywardness, my failing, can still have patience; can reform; purify and daily make me more like myself." Her new insight was not won without backsliding, but by 1832 we find her writing a close friend: "Well, there is a heaven, · a heaven, · a world of love, and love after all is the lifeblood, the existence, the all in all of mind."
Edward helped mediate for her a new kind of God and also a new sense that God was making history all around her. The opening of Western lands that promised economic growth brought with it a feeling of national expansiveness. Lyman and Edward Beecher, too canny to shut up their God in their Bibles, saw in the great national movement West and in the accompanying ferment of spiritual uplift, God visibly writing history all about them. They decided to move West as a vanguard, reaping for orthodoxy and their God a harvest of souls in the Mississippi River valley, which would counter their waning cultural influence back East. Edward went first, and when Lyman was offered the presidency of the newly founded Lane Theological Seminary at Walnut Hills, near Cincinnati, he came back with a glowing report of the city and its possibilities.
In 1832 the Beechers set out overland. They liked to recall themselves as a noisy hymn-singing caravan, passing out tracts and preaching in pulpits along the way. Perhaps they were whistling in the dark for courage. When they finally arrived in Cincinnati, they congratulated themselves on their decision by admiring the city's elegance and prosperity, its religious tone, and the number of settlers from New England. Harriet helped Catharine set up the Western Female Institute, modeled upon the Hartford seminary, and she assisted her father and stepmother with the household.
There were pleasures as well as duties. On Monday nights, she visited the literary Semi-Colon Club in the company of Cincinnati's cultural spokesmen. Here she and other family members would hear the news and listen to essays, stories, and poetry being read and discussed. Guiding spirits at the club were Samuel Foote, her mother's brother and a former captain; the prominent Cincinnatians Dr. Daniel Drake and his brother Benjamin, who had published accounts of the city; the lawyer Salmon P. Chase; Caroline Lee Hentz, a nationally recognized author; and the enterprising Judge James Hall, who had founded the West's first literary periodical, The Western Monthly Magazine. With his program of cheerfulness, uplift, and regionalism, he gave direction to the literary soirées.
As a child, Harriet Beecher had read most of the literary figures of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as well as childhood favorites such as nursery tales, The Arabian Nights, and even Cotton Mather's fascinatingly repellent Magnalia. But, for her, reading and writing were not only pastimes but a separate world both visited and created. Edward Wagenknecht's biography has rescued for us Edward Everett Hale's memory of her engrossment as an adult:
I have seen her come into the house to make a friendly visit, and take up a book within the first half-hour of that visit and interest herself in it, and then sit absorbed in nothing else, till it was time for her to go home in the evening. I have known her, simply because she had an interesting book in her hand . . . take a streetcar going out of town and ride three or four miles without observing that she should have been going in the other direction.
She never lost the child's habit of visualizing the scenes on the page. As a writer, she drew upon her talent for visualization to guide her composition. She would not write until she had a clear and living picture in her mind from which she could literally sketch. This made her art seem like a succession of tableaux, but it gave both characters and dialogue a reality missing from the pages of James Fenimore Cooper, who built his characters slowly and laboriously by amassing external details. Harriet Beecher, supported by the reality of the picture she visualized while she wrote, dispensed with Cooper-like long narrative introductions. With a few bold strokes, she set her characters talking in the parlor, knowing that their life was confirmed every step of the way in the next move she had visualized for them.
"You don't know," Harriet Beecher wrote to her childhood friend Georgiana Day back East, "how coming away from New England has sentimentalized us all." Harriet discovered her past after she had broken with it, sensing for the first time the human geography of her native region across the gulf of intervening states. At the Semi-Colon Club she shared her recollections with other New England members just as Washington Irving had shared, scarcely ten years earlier, an older New York and a lost England.
In the spring of 1834, she won first prize for her story "Uncle Lot" in a competition to exemplify Judge Hall's literary program. It is a New England sketch that Hall had probably heard read at the club in another version the previous fall. "Uncle Lot" and another early story, "Love versus Law," were printed together with other stories arguing for temperance, charity, and uplift in her first collection, The Mayflower, in 1843. "Uncle Lot" and "Love versus Law" are especially interesting because they illustrate the typical way that she sizes up and resolves human dilemmas, and because she catches a regional consciousness with the eye and the ear. They show her to be a sentimental realist.
Uncle Lot is a "chestnut burr, abounding with briers without and with substantial goodness within. . . . He has, too, "a kindly heart; but all the strata of his character were crossed by a vein of surly petulance, that, half way between joke and earnest, colored every thing that he said and did." He is father to Grace, the heroine, who is being courted by young James. But James has "too much of the boy and the rogue in his composition" to please Uncle Lot. At meeting, James leads the singing with a flute rather than a pitchpipe. His freedom, energy, and amplitude of spirit anger Uncle Lot, who marches more to the dead beat of convention. It takes George Griswold, Uncle Lot's son who has come home from seminary, to mediate their differences. Around George, all wrangling seems out of place. Even the disputatious congregation "dispersed with the air of people who had felt rather than heard." James makes George's acquaintance, which deepens with time and with George's failing health, When George lies bedridden, Uncle Lot, who dismissed James as a callow youth, is moved by his care. When George dies, the bereft Uncle Lot adopts James and gives him money for college. So sentimental a death is yet touched with the comic pathos of Uncle Lot's petulant agony in a corner of the death room: "I suppose the Lord's will must be done, but it'll kill me."
Harriet Beecher's concern with the sensibility of her region extends into the setting. The relationship of the houses to each other · each has a different color and is planted every which way · tells us about the inhabitants. They in turn are described in terms of their houses: "The natives grew old till they could not grow any older, and then they stood still, and lasted from generation to generation." Character is sketched dramatically and with an ear cocked to regional dialect. A boy comes to borrow Uncle Lot's hoe:
"Why don't your father use his own hoe?"
"Ours is broke."
"Broke! How came it broke?"
"I broke it yesterday, trying to hit a squirrel."
"What business had you to be hittin' squirrels
with a hoe? say!"
"But father wants to borrow yours."
"Why don't you have that mended? It's a
great pester to have every body usin' a body's
"Well, I can borrow one some where else, I
suppose," says the suppliant. After the boy has
stumbled across the ploughed ground, and is
fairly over the fence, Uncle Lot calls, ·
"Halloo, there, you little rascal! what are you
goin' off without the hoe for?"
"I didn't know as you meant to lend it."
"I didn't say I wouldn't, did I? Here, come
and take it · stay, I'll bring it; and do tell your
father not to be a lettin' you hunt squirrels with
his hoes next time."
In "Love versus Law" Deacon Enos mediates between the quarreling factions. "That God was great and good, and that we were all sinners, were truths that seemed to have melted into the heart of Deacon Enos, so that his very soul and spirit were bowed down with them." It is Uncle Jaw, Deacon Enos' neighbor, who is the problem in this story. He is "tall and hard-favored, with an expression of countenance much resembling a northeast rain storm · a drizzling, settled sulkiness, that seemed to defy all prospect of clearing off, and to take comfort in its own disagreeableness." Jaw has a long-standing dispute with Jones over an old rail fence that might have set his property lines "a leetle more to the left hand. . . . When Jones dies he tries to prosecute his case on the elder daughter, Silence Jones · a "tall, strong, black-eyed, hard-featured woman, verging upon forty, with a good, loud, resolute voice, and what the Irishman would call 'a dacent notion of using it.'" Since the Deacon has been cheated by Jones in another matter, Jaw tries to pull him into his case, but the good Deacon refuses · with good reason. He is quietly matchmaking between Uncle Jaw's son, Joseph, and Jones's youngest daughter, Susan. He marries off the couple and settles his own disputed portion of the land on the newlyweds. Jaw, who always judges things by their price, is so staggered by this act of magnanimity as to be "materially changed for the better." He is heard to declare at the funeral of the old Deacon: "after all, a man got as much, and may be more, to go along as the deacon did, than to be all the time fisting and jawing; though I tell you what it is," he said afterward, "'tain't every one that has the deacon's faculty, any how."
What surprises in these stories is the amplitude of Harriet Beecher's religious vision. Jaw and Lot are genuine sensibilities seen with a sharp but accepting eye. After their conversion, they still have streaks of their former selves. Sin is not the usual array of melodramatic vices · cards, rum, truancy · but is reinterpreted as spiritual repression. Grace says of her father, Uncle Lot: "He is the kindest man that ever was . . . and he always acts as if he was ashamed of it." Conversion is to be freed from repression and to experience a greater freedom in living out one's better impulses, rather than to demonstrate obsessively pious behavior. Deacon Enos and George Griswold work their cures through acceptance rather than by playing on guilt.
The stories published in The Mayflower are examples of Harriet Beecher's apprenticeship work; "The Old Meeting House" and "Old Father Morris" also explore New England's religious sensibilities. The largest group of stories has women and children and their roles as its focus. "Earthly Care a Heavenly Discipline" shows in womanly suffering the same kind of road to salvation that Longfellow was painting in Evangeline, while "Christmas, or the Good Fairy" and "The Coral Ring" rouse the daughters of the wealthy from their vapors on the ottoman and send them scampering down the streets on errands of mercy. These exhibit Catharine's spell on her younger sister. "The Ministration of Our Departed Friends" depicts a dead mother's influence over the living, and "A Scene in Jerusalem" forges an emotional connection between the suffering of Jesus and maternal suffering. "Children," "The New Year's Gift," "Little Fred, the Canal Boy," "Aunt Mary," and "Little Edward" deal in sentimental fashion with children; while "The Sabbath" and "Conversation on Conversation" take up the role of Sunday schools for debate.
Harriet Beecher's life in Cincinnati from 1832 to 1850 was drab, punctuated by poverty and illness in the home, violence and pestilence in the city, and dissension and controversy in the seminary. Eventually problems with health and financial security drove Harriet and her family back to New England. In 1836 · only four years after leaving New England · she had married Calvin Stowe, a seminary professor whose wife Eliza · a close friend of Harriet's · had died in 1833. Stocky and gregarious, Calvin had been a class ahead of Hawthorne and Longfellow at Bowdoin. He was trusted and liked by his peers; and he enjoyed posing, as did Lyman, as a yankee hick, telling stories in dialect that his wife would later use in Oldtown Folks and Sam Lawson's Oldtown Fireside Stories. An eminent Biblical historian, he adjusted to his wife's subsequent fame, taking advantage of the financial freedom it offered to do research. Their letters show much exasperated cameraderie, exhortations, consolations, teasings, pleadings, and humor.
With marriage came shabby gentility, bearing and rearing of children, and supervision of the household · with its close, hard, mean work leading to overwork, exhaustion, depression, and breakdowns. If in an occasional letter Harriet Beecher Stowe strikes the pose of the harried housewife who wouldn't give it up for the world, a letter to Calvin in 1845 reveals: "I'm sick of the smell of sour milk, and sour meat, and sour everything, and then the clothes will not dry, and no wet thing does, and everything smells mouldy . . . I feel no life, no energy, no appetite." In following years both she and Calvin took yearlong rests and water cures at Brattleborough, Vermont; yet back in Cincinnati, psychosomatic illnesses would recur.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati, the Queen City of the West, was showing an uglier side. When James G. Birney brought out the Philanthropist, an abolitionist newspaper, in 1836, prominent citizens had their sons lead a mob against him and his assistant, Dr. Gamaliel Bailey. Not content with dumping Birney 's press in the Ohio, the mob "lost control" and burned down the black district. Another, bloodier race riot broke out in 1841; and the mob ravaged in 1842, 1843, 1844, and 1845. Then, cholera struck · lightly in 1848 and severely in the summer of 1849 when, during the Fourth of July weekend alone, more than a thousand people died. On July 20 Harriet Beecher Stowe's son Samuel Charles succumbed. To Calvin, who was back East, Harriet Stowe wrote: "Many an anxious night have I held him to my bosom and felt the sorrow and loneliness pass out of me with the touch of his little warm hands. Yet I have just seen him in his death agony, looked on his imploring face when I could not help nor soothe nor do one thing, not one, to mitigate his cruel suffering, do nothing but pray in my anguish that he might die soon." Impoverished, with one child dead, several others to be tended, and Harriet pregnant again, Calvin returned to Cincinnati. The offer he had received of the most poorly paid post at Bowdoin must have felt to both of them like a deliverance out of Egypt.
Looking back, the Beechers barely endured. Conservative trustees at Lane Seminary brought upon Lyman a series of heresy trials to discredit him and regain control of the seminary. Between trials, Lane was besieged by liberals as well. Theodore Weld, an older evangelical student who had recruited other students to Lane, had been converted to William Lloyd Garrison's brand of abolitionism and tried to focus the seminarians' religious energies by holding debates on abolition · a delicate matter in 1834 in the border town of Cincinnati with its commercial ties to the South.
Lyman Beecher, a gradualist at best, resisted the idea of the debates; but while he was off East, the acting president forbade the discussion, and the angry students held their debate and scandalized the citizens by fraternizing with blacks on the streets. Weld wrote to Arthur Tappan, a wealthy New York philanthropist whom he had converted to Garrisonism and who was also Lane's financial backer, asking for Tappan's support. Weld then took a good part of Lane's student body and enrolled himself and them at Oberlin with Tappan's backing. In 1835, Garrison's Liberator issued a statement from the seceding students calling Lane "a Bastille of oppression." Lyman, who disliked Garrison's denunciatory tactics, denounced the abolitionists as "a mixture of vinegar, aqua fortis, and oil of vitriol, with brimstone, saltpetre, and charcoal to explode and scatter the corrosive matter." But Weld's successful coup debilitated the seminary, and Lyman Beecher lived to see Oberlin rather than Lane fill Western pastorates.
"It may not be clear why slavery and theology should go hand in hand," Charles Beecher wrote to explain his older brother Edward's commitment to antislavery · a commitment that was to engage all the family members ·
But if we reflect that theology is but another name for the politics of the universe, or the kingdom of God, the problem becomes simple. Two systems or schools of theology were contending at that time Old School and New School. The former enthrones absolutism, the latter constitutionalism. According to the one things are right because God wills them, according to others, God wills them because they are right. The Old School theology enthrones a Great Slaveholder over the Universe; New School enthrones a Great Emancipator.
The Beechers simply applied consistently for their democratic times the social consequences of their theological stance. Having found in Christ's suffering love the historical pattern for human relationships in God's universe, they saw that the old master-slave relationship had to be discarded along with other signs of an outworn dispensation: God's arbitrary Lordship, which propped up the absolute monarchies and kept the people servile.
Contrary to popular belief, the Beechers' familiarity with abolition was of long standing. William Lloyd Garrison had been a member of Lyman's Boston congregation in 1829, and James G. Birney had heard Lyman preach in Boston in 1830 while he visited Catharine Beecher's Hartford seminary. Birney later reprinted several stories by Harriet Beecher Stowe. In November 1837, Edward's friend and former congregational member, Elijah P. Lovejoy, who had helped Edward form the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society, was killed and his press destroyed by a mob at Alton, Illinois. Edward wrote the nationally distributed Narrative of the scandal in 1838, while Calvin preached the sermon at Lane on Lovejoy's death. By 1837 all of Lyman's sons by Roxanna had become committed to the antislavery movement with the exception of young Henry Ward, who later electrified the country by introducing black women during services in his elegant Plymouth Church in Brooklyn and making his congregation buy the women's freedom by passing the plate.
One more event in Cincinnati deserves mention. In 1837 and 1838 Alexander Kinmont, a midwestern proponent of Swedenborgianism, gave a series of twelve lectures "on the natural history of man," which spun a new racial mythology about blacks and whites. Pointing out intellectual development and material expansion as dominant characteristics of an evolving white race, Kinmont urged that blacks also had a role in the progress of mankind perhaps more important than whites: to illustrate the Christian ideal of service and to create in Africa a far nobler civilization than the hardheaded and aggressive Anglo-Saxon race had achieved in America · a civilization that would show the divine attributes of Christianity: compassion and mercy. It is quite probable that Harriet Beecher Stowe attended the series or read Kinmont's lectures, which were published in 1839, or later came in touch with his widely propagated ideas through William Ellery Channing. George M. Fredrickson suggests a meeting of minds in The Black Image in the White Mind and shows that she drew on his ideas for Uncle Tom's Cabin. His ideas would be all the more attractive to her because blacks assumed in Kinmont's thinking the same countercultural function as women did in Catharine Beecher's feminism. Both Kinmont and Catharine Beecher saw as the dominant threat to a Christian civilization a ruthlessly hardheaded and aggressively expansionist culture. American culture, Harriet believed, would need to be complemented by softer qualities · black and female · in order to be spiritually fulfilled.
Strictly speaking, it is the public, not the author, that makes a best seller. Uncle Tom's Cabin did not so much cause a sensation as confirm the existence of it and focus it so dramatically that many generations have found it impossible to think about slavery outside the pictures it created. The inspiration for the book came, Harriet Stowe later liked to recall, during a Sunday communion service in Brunswick as she tried to imagine the death of a pious black man at the hands of a white master. We may only guess that what happened during this moment was that her perception of her black victim fused with her prior thinking about feminine and Christian self-sacrifice and that she saw suddenly that she could treat the issue of race in the same way that she and Catharine had celebrated women: as a redemptive, countercultural, and Christian force. She rushed home in tears and wrote the incident down before it faded away.
The white master in her reverie took the shape of a burly white whom her brother Charles had met years back in New Orleans. He had flexed his muscles and bragged that he got them from "knocking down niggers." In her fiction, he became a transplanted Vermont yankee running a plantation as if it were a northern factory. Hardhearted as well as hardheaded, he has rejected the social graces of the plantation way of life to pursue his lonely profit. He is the son of a drunkard and has spurned his mother and suppressed his softer side in order to conquer the world. He is calculating and brutal, but not stupid. He stands for the darker side of a "go-ahead" ideology and has sensed in Tom qualities that would fit him for a spot in his hierarchy · if only he'd forget that nonsense about the Bible:
"Come, Tom, don't you think you'd better be
reasonable? · heave that 'ar old pack of trash in
the fire, and join my church!"
"The Lord forbid!" said Tom fervently.
"You see the Lord an't going to help you: if
he had been, he wouldn't have letmeget you!
This yer religion is all a mess of lying trumpery,
Tom. I know all about it. Ye'd better hold to me
I'm somebody, and can do something!"
"Father" Josiah Henson, a well-known, pious, fugitive slave whom Stowe knew, filled out the dim figure of Uncle Tom. In this black figure, who was to be torn from his family and sold down the Mississippi to meet a martyr's death, she invested her accumulated feelings about separation, victimization, and motherly self-sacrifice. At the opening of the novel, he is stroking young George Shelby's hair and speaking to him in a voice "gentle as a woman's."
When Calvin Stowe read his wife's description of Uncle Tom's death, he wept over it much as readers had wept over the passing of Dickens' Little Nell a decade earlier. Most of all, he urged her to continue it, and with his encouragement Harriet Stowe committed herself to a serial for Gamaliel Bailey's antislavery weekly, the National Era. The book simply "grew up" around the scene that occurs late in the finished novel. Here, the characters step out of their naturalistic roles to become, momentarily, figures in a cosmic drama and a cultural debate:
Legree drew in a long breath; and, suppressing his rage, took Tom by the arm, and, approaching his face almost to his, said in a terrible voice, "Hark 'e, Tom! · ye think, 'cause I've let you off before, I don't mean what I say; but, this time, I've made up my mind, and counted the cost. You've always stood it out agin' me: now I'll conquer ye or kill ye! · one or t'other. I'll count every drop of blood there is in you, and take 'em, one by one, till ye give up!"
Tom looked up to his master, and answered, "Mas'r, if you was sick, or in trouble, or dying, and I could save ye, I'd give ye my heart's blood; and, if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, I'd give 'em freely, as the Lord gave his for me. Mas'r! don't bring this great sin on your soul! It will hurt you more than 't will me! Do the worst you can, my troubles 'Il be over soon; but, if ye don 't repent, yours won't ever end!"
Like a strange snatch of heavenly music, heard in the lull of a tempest, this burst of feeling made a moment's blank pause. Legree stood aghast, and looked at Tom; and there was such a silence that the tick of the old clock could be heard, measuring, with silent touch, the last moments of mercy and probation to that hardened heart.
It was but a moment. There was one hesitating pause, · one irresolute, relenting thrill, · and the spirit of evil came back, with sevenfold vehemence; and Legree, foaming with rage, smote his victim to the ground.
Legree overreacts because Tom reminds him of the side of himself that he has suppressed. Tom's offer of a qualitatively new life has caught Legree off guard by the sheer genius of its insight into his condition. The blank pause during which the clock ticks off those last minutes of grace extended to a hardened sinner captures those moments of self-despair in which a figure from a dominant and aggressive culture is tempted by the vision of a better way in the culture he has just subjugated · only to follow up his insight with an even more desperate betrayal.
What amazes about the dramatic climax is that Legree is damned to hell, not just that Tom is sent to heaven. It is Legree, then, and not the South who is the national demon. Twenty years of thinking about the repressed and calculating Uncle Jaw led Harriet Stowe to sense the connection between her regional stereotype and a national characteristic: the pursuit of profit without a motive. It is natural for Legree to "make up his mind" and "to conquer," That he has "counted the cost" to "count every drop of blood" is simply an extreme case of business as usual in an economic system that transforms human beings into property. As a representative of the system that gave him birth, Legree is as American as apple pie, and Harriet Stowe saw that the American sin was his state of mind. He is the symptom of a fundamental cultural malaise in what she saw as the Anglo-Saxon race. The contours of earlier debates between the head and the heart, and between law and grace, yield her, tentatively, to a racial conflict between a hard, masculine Anglo-Saxon race bent upon domination and the values represented by women, children, and blacks acting out visibly God's love in history.
This conflict of values touches nearly every character and relationship in the novel. It splits the personality of George Harris, a mulatto modeled upon Frederick Douglass, whose character and career counterpoint Uncle Tom's. From a white father he inherits allegedly white qualities · an excellent mind and a proud and independent spirit; but from his black mother, his legacy is that of bondage and sensitivity. His militancy and atheism (alienated "white" values) must be redeemed by complemental feminine and "black" values in the Quaker home of Rachel Halliday, who presides over a domestic life centered around Christian charity.
Harriet Stowe shared with her brother Edward the perception that slavery was an organic sin, a state of society into which one was born, and not the personal sin that Garrison was denouncing. This insight allowed her to create a rich and complex group of characters, neither very wicked nor very good, whose efforts to struggle with the issues are undercut by the economic system in which they are trapped. The cultured and kindhearted Mrs. Shelby could have graduated from Catharine Beecher's Hartford seminary. When her husband's finances require him to sell Uncle Tom and Eliza's son, she sees their economic base turning into a moral abyss: "How," she asks her husband · who will absent himself on the day of the sale to spare his feelings · "can I bear to have this open acknowledgement that we care for no tie, no duty, no relation, however sacred, compared with money?" Worse, she realizes her false position: "It is a sin to hold a slave under laws like ours . . . but I thought I could gild it over, · I thought, by kindness, and care, and instruction, I could make the condition of mine better than freedom, · fool that I was!"
Tom's next master is already so demoralized that he has refused to play any role at all. Augustine St. Clare is a Byronic figure alienated from his slave-holding father, brother, and society. From his willful and autocratic father he has inherited all the perquisites of noblesse, but from his mother, a deeply sensitive nature, an abhorrence of slavery, and a frustrated sense of oblige. Pursuing a course of indulgent anarchy, he cannot bring himself to discipline the servants · they have not been taught better · nor to free them · they would simply be outcasts in a society that has not taught them anything useful. "Some how or other," he explains to his northern Aunt Ophelia, "instead of being actor and regenerator in society, I became a piece of driftwood, and have been floating and eddying about, ever since." But Ophelia has herself lost her soul. She is a bondslave to her sense of moral obligation; for her the word love has been transmuted by a New England alembic into duty. Her energetic determination to set things right doesn't fool Topsy, who spots the truth about her chill virtue: "she can't bar me, 'cause I'm a nigger! · she'd 's soon have a toad touch her!"
For these broken figures Harriet Beecher Stowe affirms a possible cosmic destiny: of awakening to the power of God's transforming love in history, a love represented by Little Eva, trailing clouds of glory with her; in the suffering sacrifice of women such as Rachel Halliday and Mrs. Bird; and in the racial character of Uncle Tom, who is the culminating example of a new Christian consciousness to which Africa is the key:
If ever Africa shall show an elevated and cultivated race, · and come it must, some time, her turn to figure in the great drama of human improvement · life will awaken there with a gorgeousness and splendor of which our cold western tribes faintly have conceived. In that faroff mystic land of gold, and gems, and spices, and waving palms, and wondrous flowers, and miraculous fertility, will awake new forms of art . . . and the negro race . . . will, perhaps, show forth some of the latest and most magnificent revelations of human life. Certainly they will in their gentleness, their lowly docility of heart, their aptitude to repose on a superior mind and to rest on a higher power, their childlike simplicity of affection, and facility of forgiveness . . . they will exhibit the highest form of the peculiarly Christian life. . . .
Readers who reject this pastoral racial mythology should realize the needs that it satisfied and the cultural functions that it served: to awaken whites to the necessity of recovering their humanity. In this function, American attitudes toward race have not significantly advanced beyond that of Mrs. Stowe. For the figure of Uncle Tom, our times have unfairly substituted the figure of the black hipster, or performer, or radical to carry the burden of our own liberation.
In Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), Mrs. Stowe tried to develop a further scenario: what might happen to a religious black figure tortured beyond endurance? The result is the character of Dred, an impressive achievement. He is a full black of magnificent stature and high intellectual demeanor modeled upon Denmark Vesey. He is a biblical prophet of wrath and judgment, who has assembled a group of fugitives in a swamp retreat to strike out in vengeance when God shall give the sign:
The large eyes had that peculiar and solemn effect of unfathomable blackness and darkness which is often a striking characteristic of the African eye. But there burned in them, like tongues of flame in a black pool of naphtha a subtle and restless fire that betokened habitual excitement to the verge of insanity. If any organs were predominant in the head, they were those of ideality, wonder, veneration, and firmness; and the whole combination was such as might have formed one of the wild old warrior prophets of the heroic ages.
Dred's counterpoint is Milly, a black woman who warns the wavering mulatto hero, Harry Gordon, away from Dred: "He han't come to de heavenly Jerusalem. Oh! Oh! honey! dere's a blood of sprinkling dat speaketh better things dan dat of Abel. Jerusalem above is free, · is free, honey; so don't you mind, now, what happens in dis yer time."
But Harriet Stowe was unable to reconcile Milly's gospel of grace with Dred's gospel of judgment. Horrified by the possibility of race war, she uses the female figure of Milly to head it off. As the fugitives wait for the signal to strike at the community, a wild and mournful tune is warbled through the trees, and Milly steps forth singing "Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed." "When Dred saw her, he gave a kind of groan, and said, putting his hand out before his face: · 'Woman, thy prayers withstand me!'" The pie remains in the sky; the chief characters flee North; and religious femininity rather than racial solidarity wins the hour. In the end, Mrs. Stowe came to focus on gender rather than race to help balance her cultural equation.
Three succeeding novels explore the feminine sensibility suggested by Milly more thoroughly and with a greater understanding of its limitations. The Minister's Wooing (1859), The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862), and Agnes of Sorrento (1862) show through the differing cultural restraints of New England and Italy the limitations placed on feminine development. Although the religious motive remains a central factor, Stowe focuses on the imaginative qualities necessary for religious empathy and forges a bond between the aesthetic and the religious that gave a Christian legitimacy to her function as artist and redirected her ideas of her mission in the world.
The Pearl of Orr's Island, begun in 1853, is a study in contrasting male and female sensibilities. The story of the two orphans, Mara and Moses, is framed by two New England "fates": the hardnosed, realistic Aunt Roxy and the soft-hearted, sentimental Aunt Ruey, who both superintend at the births and deaths on the island. The physical settings repeat the opposing sensibilities. The rocky island is a bastion against a deep and mysterious sea; the outcropping granite headlands confront sandy inlets that invite to play; and the outdoors calls to action and adventure, while the indoors suggests a hoped-for sociality that yields as often to withdrawal and reverie. And so the children. We catch Moses shinnying up a tree to steal eagles' eggs, while Mara sits below copying a cluster of scarlet rock columbine:
All that there was developed of him, at present, was a fund of energy, self-esteem, hope, courage, and daring, the love of action, life, and adventure; his life was in the outward and present, not in the inward and reflective . . . she was, the small pearl with the golden hair, with her frail and high-strung organization, her sensitive nerves, her half-spiritual fibres, her ponderings, and marvels, and dreams, her power of love, and yearning for self-devotion. . . .
Mara is hemmed in and wants to expand her world; Moses himself comes to realize his limitations and senses in Mara a different kind of strength won through suffering, experience, and insight. After long periods of studied neglect he proposes to her, but it is too late and she dies slowly from consumption. Her insight, "I may have more power over you, when I seem to be gone, than I should have had living," is confirmed in Moses' marriage to Sally Kittridge, a robust flirt and Mara's friend. "We have been trained in another life, · educated by a great sorrow, · is it not so?" Moses asks Sally as they recall Mara. Sally replies: "I know it."
The Minister's Wooing, published in installments in 1859 to help out Oliver Wendell Holmes's financially beleaguered Atlantic Monthly, deepens Harriet Beecher Stowe's study of the captive sensibility by exploring the repressive effect of late eighteenth-century High Calvinism on Mary Scudder's and Mrs. Marvyn's human needs.
We are looking at New England character and society at a time when Puritan fervor has congealed into dogma and ritual piety. Mrs. Stowe 's metaphor for the culture is the crystal. James Marvyn's father has "one of the clearly cut minds which New England forms among her farmers, as she forms quartz crystals in her mountains. . . ." The sensibility of the culture is locked in granite and ice, emerging sporadically in congregational song, "those wild, pleading tunes" born in "the rocky hollows of its mountains, and whose notes have a kind of grand and mournful triumph in their warbling wail. . . ." At the center of the religious sensibility is the Reverend Hopkins' crystalline Calvinism, which presents salvation in the famous image of the ladder, at the very top of which:
. . . blazes dazzling and crystalline that celestial grade where the soul knows self no more . . . this Ultima Thule of virtue had been seized upon by our sage as the all of religion. He knocked out every rung of the ladder but the highest, and then, pointing to its hopeless splendor, said to the world, "Go up thither and be saved!"
The spiritual carnage is visible all around in the worst as well as in the best. It is reflected in Aaron Burr's recoil, which turns Hopkins' icy dogmatics upside down into a chill and opportunistic hedonism. And it is implicit in the plainspoken cynicism of Cerinthy Ann, who "come out, declarin' . . . that the best folk never had no comfort in religion; and for her part she didn't mean to trouble her head about it, but have jest as good a time as she could while she's young, 'cause if she was 'lected to be saved she should be, and if she wa'n't she couldn't help it, anyhow." At the teas, everything is admired but little is enjoyed. The china, the silver, the linen, hopes for husbands and hopes for heaven · each has to be picked over, fingered, and laid aside only after the cost has been calculated. Life amidst the spotless linens is a little thin.
Mary Scudder's is the predicament of a heart-felt obligation to a New England past that cannot satisfy her needs, while she yearns inarticulately for a future represented by a group of "outsiders" who understand her far better than she does herself. Her predicament sums up the plot. She loves the dashing but unconverted James Marvyn, and he manages to extract a marnage vow before disappearing on an ocean voyage. He is thought drowned, and Mary's mother makes her give herself to the Reverend Hopkins, a benign man whose personality contradicts his theology, and who is old enough to be her father. When James does return · and freshly regenerate at that · he is eager for Mary, who refuses to break her vow to the good Hopkins.
Those who come to her aid by interceding with the minister are more worldly, or exotic: Miss Prissy, the milliner, who knows about Parisian fashions; Mme. de Frontignac, who is pursuing an affair with Aaron Burr behind the back of her French diplomat husband; and Candace, Mrs. Marvyn's black cook. They manage the minister and he releases her from her vow and blesses her marriage with James.
Neither Hopkins nor his theology is meant for the human heart. When Mrs. Marvyn thinks that James has drowned unconverted, Hopkins urges her to submit and affirm her horrified vision of her son's eternal damnation. This is too much for Candace, who brushes aside the emotional cripples standing around:
"Come, ye poor little lamb," she said, walking straight up to Mrs. Marvyn, "come to ole Candace!" and with that she gathered the pale form to her bosom, and sat down and began rocking her, as if she had been a babe. "Honey, darlin', ye ain't right, · dar's a drefful mistake somewhar," she said. "Why, de Lord ain't what ye tink, · He loves ye, honey! Why, jes' feel how I loves ye, · poor old black Candace, · an' I ain't bettern' Him as made me! Who was it wore de crown of thorns, lamb? · who was it sweat great drops o' blood? · who was it said, 'Father, forgive dem'? . . . Dar, dar, now ye'r crying'! · cry away, and ease yer poor little heart! He died for Mass'r Jim, · loved him and died for him, · jes' give up his sweet, precious body and soul for him on de cross! Laws, jes' leave him in Jesus's hands!"
Candace's gospel of the heart suggests a new religious sensibility in the book; while Prissy, Mme. de Frontignac, and James Marvyn, through their greater experience in the world and the broader sweep and livelier play of their imaginations, introduce an aesthetic sensibility that balances the sad earnestness of Mary Scudder. James sees in Mary "a picture he had once seen in a European cathedral, where the youthful Mother of Sorrows is represented." Aboard ship he has had a vision of a ladder, not Hopkins' but Jacobs':
Well, there [Jacob] was as lonesome as I upon the deck of my ship. And so, lying with the stone under his head, he saw a ladder in his sleep between him and heaven, and angels going up and down. . . . He saw that there was a way between him and God, and that there were those above who did care for him, and who could come to him to help him.
James's trust in a descent from above, in incarnation, gives him his ability to see God's presence in the things of this world, to see where God's light is playing and to see what Hopkins has forgotten: that the base of the ladder to God is planted "in human affections, tender instincts, symbolic feelings" and "sacraments of love."
Such vision, Jonathan Edwards had pointed out a generation earlier, was religious. Harriet Beecher Stowe did not lose the chance to appropriate the insight to her conception of the artist 's vocation. To find romance in a prose world was both a way of redeeming it and a way of tracing the hand of the Creator in His works:
All prosaic, and all bitter, disenchanted people talk as if poets and novelists made romance. They do, · just as much as craters make volcanoes, · no more. What is romance? whence comes it? Plato spoke to the subject wisely . . . when he said, Man's soul, in a former state, was winged and soared among the gods; and so it comes to pass that, in this life, when the soul, by the power of music or poetry, or the sight of beauty, hath her remembrance quickened, forthwith there is a struggling and a pricking pain as of wings trying to come forth. . . .
The Reverend Theophilus Sewall, with the skeleton of romance in his closet, and story-telling Captain Kittridge are the two figures in The Pearl of Orr's Island whose sensibilities can comprehend both Mara's and Moses'. In The Minister's Wooing this function is performed by Candace, Prissy, Mme. de Frontignac and by Mary's lover, James. In Agnes of Sorrento, which she began in 1859 as an entertainment for her own daughters while traveling in Italy, Harriet Beecher Stowe continued exploring the aesthetic dimension in the figure of the Italian artist monk, Father Antonio. It is he who brings about a marriage between the saintly Agnes and the proud and atheistic Agostino Sarelli (note the resemblance to Augustine St. Clare). An Italian nobleman whose patrimony has been robbed by a corrupt Catholic church, Sarelli is led to a state of grace by Father Antonio.
The scenery of Agnes of Sorrento is the antithesis of rocky New England. The fertile Italian landscape suggests overripe human development; an abundance of brilliant flowers, lush foliage, and colorful birds veil black charnel chasms and smoldering volcanoes. Italy suggests a garden much like that of Hawthorne's Rappaccihi, but one where decay and hidden passion are the poisons.
Agnes shrinks from contact with this world. Her mother has been debauched and abandoned by an Italian nobleman, and she has left Agnes in the hands of her own mother, Elsie, who seems like a New England import with a strongly practical streak. She wants to marry off Agnes to a rough but honest tradesman. And when Sarelli spots Agnes in the marketplace and falls in love with her, Agnes and her grandmother see little before them but the melodramatic alternatives of Giulietta's whoredom or Mother Theresa's nunnery. The church is sunk in sloth and sin and proves wholly incapable of dealing with her problem. Her confessor, Father Francesco, is a voluptuary who frightens her away from Sarelli by persuading her she will accomplish her own and his eternal perdition if she encourages him. Mother Theresa is ignorant not only of the times and of the church, but of a young girl's heart as well.
Father Antonio steps in to untangle these motives. He is Elsie's brother and has been searching for a pure original from which to paint a saint's portrait and is thrilled when he sees that Sarelli's motives for a portrait of Agnes match his own. In Sarelli's aesthetic sensibility, Father Antonio discovers veiled religious feelings, and he sets about to win Sarelli over for Savonarola and his God, while assuring Agnes that her lover's impulses are honorable. Agnes' faith in her church is finally shaken when she is kidnapped by church officials eager for some fun during her pilgrimage to Rome.
Through Father Antonio's sensibility, then, Agnes forges a relationship with the world. When she exclaims to Antonio how happy he must be, he replies: "Happy! . . . Do I not walk the earth in a dream of bliss, and see the footsteps of my blessed Lord and his dear Mother on every rock and hill?" In him, Harriet Beecher Stowe justifies the creation of artistic symbols. It is "one of the first offices of every saint whose preaching stirred the heart of the people, to devise symbolic forms, signs, and observances, by which the mobile and fluid heart of the multitude might crystalize into habits of devout remembrance." Here, she is thinking not only of rosaries, crucifixes, shrines, banners, and processions but also of the artist's task of fitting rungs in the ladder that will lead believers to their God. Even Agnes, who is often as severe as Hilda in Hawthorne's The Marble Faun, cannot help but exclaim as Father Antonio delineates the death of a saint: "How great a grace must come from such pictures! It seems to me that the making of such holy things is one of the most blessed of good works."
Each novel in this group marks a development in the heroine by showing her fascination with a progressively more worldly male figure: the robust Moses; the dashing, wealthy James; and finally Agostino Sarelli, a worldly prince. Most important, however, is the reformist Father Antonio, whose religious aesthetics sum up Mara's devotional sketching of flowers and James Marvyn's habit of seeing Mary Scudder in terms of old-world religious portraits. Father Antonio's capacity for seeing is matched by his ability to turn his vision into art. The artist's involvement with the world does not mean to surrender to its values but to consecrate its moments of love and suffering. Through Mara Lincoln, Mary Scudder, and Agnes, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote herself out of her fascination with girlish martyrs and into the figure of the artist. It is through these eyes that she takes a final, broader look at New England.
Harriet Beecher Stowe continued to write of New England · Oldtown Folks (1869), Sam Lawson's Oldtown Fireside Stories (1872), and Poganuc People (1878) · not because of a narrow interest in regionalism, but because she rediscovered her region's significance for the growth of the nation, and because she found a fresh perspective. In this, her final group of novels, the New England story becomes an opening chapter in an unwritten book about the national character. New England is seen as a cradle of the republic disclosing the problems and possibilities of life in America. Looking closer, she also discovered a new perspective from which to tell her story · the perspective offered by native, Down East humor. It is a dry, comic point of view that allows her to tell grimmer truths than before about the weight of her region 's past while dissipating the anguish of some of that past in humor. In Oldtown Folks, we listen to the story of a generation of children through whose sensibilities a New England town is able to recover its capacity for enjoyment. In Sam Lawson's Oldtown Fireside Stories, the village do-nothing, mentor to the children in Oldtown Folks, tells humorous stories that unlock the grim incidents and frozen personalities that Harriet Beecher Stowe saw as typical of her region. Perhaps by telling these stories first through the medium of her husband 's personality (Calvin is Horace Holyoke in Oldtown Folks) and then through the comic perspective offered by Sam Lawson, she found the breathing space that she needed before she put herself on stage as Dolly Cushing in Poganuc People to tell about her own growth.
Mrs. Stowe based the theme of Oldtown Folks on the tale of Hansel and Gretel, children cast out in the world by their impoverished parents and who must free themselves from the spell of a witch. In her New England version of Grimm, the witch is a Calvinist hag who lives in the granite mountains and her spell is melancholy. She has crippled the children 's parents and threatens the children as well. There are, in other words, strong gothic shadows in a book otherwise noted for its sunlight. Oldtown with a relative sufficiency of grace is contrasted with the town of Needmore, where joy shivers at the door; the benign grandparents who first take in Horace, then Harry and Tina, are the pleasant aspect of a regional character that includes Crab Smith and his sister Miss Asphyxia, witches themselves who have squeezed grace dry and turned life into a tortuous round of work. Against the strong, melancholy groundswell of High Calvinism, Parson Lothrup's Arminianism and Lady Widgery's Episcopalianism ripple ineffectually.
In the parents' generation, Horace's father has died in poverty as a broken-down schoolmaster; and his mother, once a pert socialite, has been worn down to a shadow and later disappears under the merciless wing of her sister Lois, a scolding old maid. Uncle Fly and Aunt Keziah are more softhearted · but also quite softheaded. Harry and Tina's father is the alcoholic son of a minor British nobleman and has abandoned his consumptive wife. The Rossiters, a third major family group, carry the psychic scars of a Calvinism against which their hearts rebel. Outwardly wise, they inwardly bleed. Parson Avery's family dilemma derives from his inability to widen the Calvinist sheepfold fast enough to prevent the spiritual ulceration of his daughter, Esther, of whom we are told "her body thought." Finally, we have those whose nerves have snapped: the brilliant lost ones, Ellery Davenport and Emily Rossiter, who skim life's surface, hoping by speed to escape the terror that drives them on and, in the end, claims them.
Horace, Harry, and Tina, the central characters in Oldtown Folks, are spiritual as well as literal orphans to the world of their parents and find more comfortable guardians in their grandparents. Harriet Beecher Stowe took the main features of Horace's story from her husband's childhood. Calvin Stowe had been orphaned under similar circumstances; he was adopted by his grandparents; and he experienced the same spiritualist longings for the alter ego playmate that Harry becomes in the story. Horace's nighttime vision of a boy like Harry standing before him in his bedroom matches exactly Calvin Stowe's own account of a childhood reverie. Horace's tale may, then, be twice-told: first, literally, in his adoption and his achieving his father's lost dream of an education; then, symbolically, through the figure of Harry, whose story seems to develop the darker side of Horace's own.
Harry and his sister, Tina, have been abandoned by their father and brought by their dying mother to the village of Needmore where they are taken in by Crab and Sphyxy Smith who act out in New England fashion the witch's role in Hansel and Gretel. The children are fattened · not for eating (there is no joy in food in Needmore), but for work. Fleeing from a house in which Calvinist grace has been debased in work, the children take refuge in an abandoned mansion the former notoriety of which suggests the degeneracy of a British heritage. Here the children are found by Sam Lawson and he brings them to Oldtown, where they come as if in response to the starved hearts of Horace and Mehitable Rossiter and where they win the affection of the town.
Tina's spirit is elemental fizz. She is bubbly and irrepressible, and her effervescence takes the grandparents by storm. A natural mimic, she sends the adults into stitches with her comic renditions of themselves and their neighbors. Her adoption by Mehitable Rossiter brings joy to the life of the childless old widow and her drab maid. Tina's brother, Harry, is more serious, but equally resistant to attempts, such as Parson Avery's, to scare him into orthodoxy. In short, the children subvert the overly serious adult world through humor and play, and in their presence the village of Oldtown recovers its youth.
Before graduating from school at Cloudland, the children put on two plays for the adults, "Jephtha's Daughter," and a New England farce, which further displace the values of the parents' orthodox world. The central scene in their version of "Jephtha's Daughter" is a procession of the town's young men and women who carry out and bury the corpses of Jephtha's daughter (played by Tina) and her lover (Harry) under the remorseful eyes of Jephtha (Horace). What we are seeing is a mock-tragic representation of New England sacrificing her best sons and daughters on the altar of the past. In the farce that follows, the children exorcise the twin community demons: workaholism and do-nothingism. Tina becomes Hepzibah, the scold; Harry, the ineffectual Uncle Hiakim. These comic performances, which invite the community's symbolic participation and elicit its laughter, break the spell of the hag. And, as the community joins them in laughing at itself, we know at least that Horace, Tina, and Harry will be able to leave those roles behind and escape the fate of their parents' generation.
Tracing the theme of comic displacement brings us to Sam Lawson, the talented village do-nothing who is married, like Rip Van Winkle, to a nagging wife. He spreads Aunt Lois' clock over her kitchen floor while fixing it but walks quite calmly away from the pieces · and Aunt Lois' rage · to return when another fit of work shall strike him. In a community of overwork, Sam Lawson is dangerous and badly needed. Only he can take time out to find and comfort Horace after his father's death and to discover Harry and Tina and bring them to Oldtown. His leisure allows him to father the children on expeditions to the countryside. He is the village 's source of knowledge about the entire country, and he is given the central place at the family fireside to tell his stories. Oldtown Folks closes with his hoping for an easy missionary job in the South Seas. Luckily, Harriet Beecher Stowe brought him back as the central figure in his own book, Sam Lawson's Fireside Stories, where his comedy transfigures both the people in his tales and his listeners.
In Fireside Stories, Sam Lawson says to Horace, " . . . you look at the folks that's allus tellin' you what they don't believe, · they don't believe this, and they don't believe that, · and what sort o' folks is they? Why, like yer Aunt Lois, sort o' stringy and dry. There ain't no sorbtion got out o' not belivin' nothin'." Whether his stories are told at the winter hearthside, in a Thanksgiving kitchen, or (as they mostly are) on rambles for berries and on troutfishing expeditions, his tales always manage to hook the children and yield their own wild fruits. In this no-nonsense world, they supply more than community and continuity between the generations: they are the antidote to Aunt Lois' terrible rationalism. They offer the thirsting soul homegrown marvels capable of rousing its capacity for imagination and wonder.
We relax in the company of Sam Lawson, who has made success out of failure. He has seen the world on ship; he has had a love affair; and he likes to leave us with the impression that, had he wanted to, he could have done better for himself. But, he concludes with unselfconscious irony, after telling the tales of other people's misbegotten wealth, "this 'ere hastenin' to be rich is sich a drefful temptation."
Sam Lawson tells us about people suffering the agonies of a haunting, or caught in the spell of greed, or gripped by the dead hand of formalism · and they become transfigured through his dry, gothic humor. Humor unlocks the parson, for example, whose Sunday meeting is broken up by a sheep that spots a wig and knocks down the deacon wearing it. His shocked parishioners report him to the session for laughing in church; but the session itself dissolves with laughter when he tells the story. A groom working for another parson runs his master's horse in races behind his back during meeting. When the parson gathers a group of his parishioners to put an end to Sabbath racing, his own horse abandons caution and plunges into a race with the parson on his back. A third parson marries his chambermaid after his wife's death despite the town's rumors. Ghost stories, spiritualist tales, folk tales, tales from the Revolution, and funny stories alike are told in leisurely fashion: "He would take his time for it and proceed by easy stages. It was like the course of a dreamy, slowmoving river through a tangled meadowflat, · not a rush nor a bush but was reflected in it; in short, Sam gave his philosophy of matters and things in general as he went along, and was especially careful to impress an edifying moral."
The yearning to escape the routines of Oldtown is satisfied through more direct means than stories in Harriet Beecher Stowe's last novel, Poganuc People. Here, the central character falls for a world of pearls, purples, and Episcopalians. Her book pays tribute to her father's orthodox world but leaves it behind. We may see in Dolly Cushing's flight from the Presbyterians to the Episcopalians a justification for Harriet Beecher Stowe's own return to her mother's and grandmother's childhood religion. She cut her religious ties with her father's church when she left "dour" Andover in 1867. Now, she was a nationally recognized figure with a fine home in Hartford, Connecticut, a pew in the local Episcopalian church, and a winter home in Florida. From this vantage point, she came to see that her bleak childhood world had nourished a fugitive beauty but that it had also vexed the soul. Her memories of her father's austere world set her to create the childhood that she might have had had her mother lived.
Poganuc People opens on little Dolly Cushing standing outside the newly built Episcopalian meeting house, which is being decorated with greens and gilt for a Christmas illumination. Longing for its promise of beauty and glory, Dolly tiptoes out of her empty house at night and enters. There she discovers some of her brothers, as well, drinking in the Episcopalian splendors while their own meeting house is shut up in darkness.
Dolly's growing up, Nabby's love affair with Hiel, and Zepheniah's reconciliation with his God and his church come, as did the Christmas illumination, as treasured moments of transcendence in an otherwise tedious life. Colonel Davenport recalls the moment when George Washington broke propriety and swore furiously at officers and troops for disobeying an order. Zepheniah Higgins shocks and delights his town when he pulls a schoolhouse down from the top of a hill into the village. Even Dolly's father breaks the routine of parish duties to organize nutting expeditions. Inside the Cushing house, small surprises vary the monotony. The children delight in exploring the basement with its possibility of terror. Dolly finds a copy of The Arabian Nights. Atop the kitchen stairs is an alcove that opens into a smokehouse. Young eyes transform the smokehouse into the byway to hell in A Pilgrim's Progress. The Parson's attic study with its copy of Mather's "Magnilly" and its bins of old sermons serves as home for several generations of theological kittens. New England abhors a holiday as nature abhors a vacuum, yet the citizens turn out and transform the Fourth of July into a festive display.
Much of the description is from Harriet Beecher Stowe's childhood home. The capable Mrs. Cushing resembles Catharine, and Harriet's mother reappears as the wife of Zepheniah. Her father is sympathetically sketched in the figure of Parson Cushing, whose fine words to Dolly after her conversion match Lyman Beecher's own words to his daughter on the same occasion. At times obtuse, at times sensitive, he gains a literal truth at the expense of an imaginative one when he warns Dolly that celebrating Christmas without a firm date is unscriptural, popish, and heathenish; but his refusal to meddle during Zepheniah Higgins' mental crisis is a study in pastoral tact.
Her father's world, though, offers little for her development. It seems to turn in on itself, to become ingrown. Again she finds its typical expression in church song:
The wild warble of St. Martins, the appointed tune whose wings bore these words, swelled and billowed and reverberated through the house, carrying with it that indefineable thrill which always fills the house when deep emotions are touched · deepest among people habitually reserved and reticent of outward demonstration. It was a solemn undertone, this mysterious, throbbing subbass of repressed emotion, which gave the power and effect to the Puritan music.
But it is precisely "outward demonstration" that Dolly wants. She wants to be able to show her feelings and to find in the world around her such images of beauty, love, excitement, and surprise as she yearns for. The austerity of her father's faith simply demands too great a sacrifice. Perhaps Parson Cushing has sensed this, for when he readies Dolly, at the end of the novel, for a visit to her Episcopalian relatives in Boston, he urges her kindly to attend the Episcopalian services. Her visit fulfills even extravagantly the wishes of this daughter of the Puritans. It brings her the gift of a beautiful prayerbook bound in purple velvet, a pearl necklace from Uncle Israel, a scarlet cloak trimmed with lace from an aunt, and the offer of marriage from an Episcopalian Englishman who shares her evangelical piety.
Later, more toughminded generations would dismiss such endings · indeed most of Harriet Beecher Stowe's work · as sentimental. But she would probably have found material for comedy in knowing that a generation trained on existentialism and Marxism should so despise the dialectics of the bittersweet. Tenderminded as she was, she would probably have told us that ours are, as hers proved to be, historical attitudes.
From: Johnson, Paul David. "Harriet (Elizabeth) Beecher Stowe." American Writers, Supplement 1, edited by Leonard Unger, vol. 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1979.