When Mrs. Edward Beecher reflected on writing to her sister-in-law, the seventh child of a Protestant preacher and the wife of a clergyman, upon the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, she said this to that sister-in-law's son, Charles Edward:
"I remember distinctly saying in one of [those letters], 'Now, Hattie, if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.' . . . When we lived in Boston your mother often visited us. . . . Several numbers of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin ' were written in your Uncle Edward's study at these times, and read to us from the manuscripts.'"
The sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe, the book was Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the serial novel began its 10-month run in National Era on this date in 1851.
For the Unknown Rebel, whose acts in China on this date in 1989 are as known as his name is not.
We do not today run books serialized in anything, so the concept of a novel running first as parts and only later as the whole. (Imagine the last Harry Potter book serialized. Then imagine trying to keep all those serial parts organized, clean — and in one place, even.)
And we also, the older a book is, tend to talk about it in a general sense more than we actually read it. I'd bet not one out of 10 of you have read Paradise Lost. I haven't. I've tried, but the writing is from a different time, and it doesn't operate as I'm used to. The same is true of much of Shakespeare, who wrote for an audience that in many cases already knew the plot and was more interested in the words used to unfold it.
But Harriet Beecher Stowe's writing is highly accessible:
In Which the Reader Is Introduced to a Man of Humanity
Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of P----, in Kentucky. There were no servants present, and the gentlemen, with chairs closely approaching, seemed to be discussing some subject with great earnestness.
For convenience sake, we have said, hitherto, two gentlemen. One of the parties, however, when critically examined, did not seem, strictly speaking, to come under the species. He was a short, thick-set man, with coarse, commonplace features, and that swaggering air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world. He was much over-dressed, in a gaudy vest of many colors, a blue neckerchief, bedropped gayly with yellow spots, and arranged with a flaunting tie, quite in keeping with the general air of the man. His hands, large and coarse, were plentifully bedecked with rings; and he wore a heavy gold watch-chain, with a bundle of seals of portentous size, and a great variety of colors, attached to it,--which, in the ardor of conversation, he was in the habit of flourishing and jingling with evident satisfaction. His conversation was in free and easy defiance of Murray's Grammar, and was garnished at convenient intervals with various profane expressions, which not even the desire to be graphic in our account shall induce us to transcribe.
1 English Grammar (1795), by Lindley Murray (1745-1826), the most authoritative American grammarian of his day.
His companion, Mr. Shelby, had the appearance of a gentleman; and the arrrangements of the house, and the general air of the housekeeping, indicated easy, and even opulent circumstances. As we before stated, the two were in the midst of an earnest conversation.
"That is the way I should arrange the matter," said Mr. Shelby.
"I can't make trade that way--I positively can't, Mr. Shelby," said the other, holding up a glass of wine between his eye and the light.
"Why, the fact is, Haley, Tom is an uncommon fellow; he is certainly worth that sum anywhere,--steady, honest, capable, manages my whole farm like a clock."
"You mean honest, as niggers go," said Haley, helping himself to a glass of brandy.
"No; I mean, really, Tom is a good, steady, sensible, pious fellow. He got religion at a camp-meeting, four years ago; and I believe he really did get it. I've trusted him, since then, with everything I have,--money, house, horses,--and let him come and go round the country; and I always found him true and square in everything."
"Some folks don't believe there is pious niggers Shelby," said Haley, with a candid flourish of his hand, "but I do. I had a fellow, now, in this yer last lot I took to Orleans--'t was as good as a meetin, now, really, to hear that critter pray; and he was quite gentle and quiet like. He fetched me a good sum, too, for I bought him cheap of a man that was 'bliged to sell out; so I realized six hundred on him. Yes, I consider religion a valeyable thing in a nigger, when it's the genuine article, and no mistake."
In another diary, I introduced many of you to the abolitionist work and beliefs of one Johns Hopkins, whose moral compass was guided on slavery by his religious upbringing.
As paraphrased by Charles Stowe in his 1890 book, The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe, this is part of what guided his mother's moral compass:
[As a result of the Fugitive Slave Act, c]ities were more available for the capturing of escaped slaves than the country, and Boston, which claimed to have the cradle of liberty, opened her doors to the slave hunters. The sorrow and anguish caused thereby no pen could describe. Families were broken up. Some hid in garrets and cellars. Some fled to the wharves and embarked in ships and sailed for Europe. Others went to Canada. One poor fellow who was doing good business as a crockery merchant, and supporting his family well, when he got notice that his master, whom he had left many years before, was after him, set out for Canada in midwinter on foot, as he did not dare to take a public conveyance. He froze both of his feet on the journey, and they had to be amputated.
That guide was also imprinted with the seedling, sprouting at the time and currently blossoming pretty spectacularly, that a woman's thoughts were worth the time to think over:
In 1832, Lyman Beecher was appointed president of Lane Theological Seminary, and he moved his family -- including both Harriet and Catherine -- to Cincinnati. There, Harriet associated in literary circles with the likes of Salmon P. Chase (later governor, senator, member of Lincoln's cabinet, and Supreme Court chief justice) and Calvin Ellis Stowe, a Lane professor of biblical theology, whose wife, Eliza, became a close friend of Harriet.
Catherine Beecher started a school in Cincinnati, the Western Female Institute, and Harriet became a teacher there. Harriet began writing professionally: first she co-wrote a geography textbook with her sister, Catherine, and then sold several stories.
Cincinnati was across the Ohio from Kentucky, a slave state, and Harriet also visited a plantation there and saw slavery for the first time. She also talked with escaped slaves. Her association with anti-slavery activists like Salmon Chase meant that she began questioning the "peculiar institution."
There is much wisdom to be gained from that site, and much from others, so I will not go over the same material twice except to note two facts:
- When Southerners challenged the factual accuracy of Stowe's historical fiction, she published proof of what she'd written about:
Her story was denounced in the South as a distortion, so she produced a new book, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, documenting the actual cases on which her book's incidents were based.
- The South, not content to merely denounce (and reject, one assumes) the work, banned it, and getting caught with a copy wasn't a good idea.
I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother I was oppressed and broken-hearted, with the sorrows and injustice I saw, 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.
High school students act out scenes from the book:
A trailer for a fictional movie version of the book: