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The Unexpected Mrs. Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe, an extraordinary member of an extraordinary family, always claimed that God wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin
August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
She had been brought up to make herself useful. And always it suited her.
As a child she had been known as Hattie. She had been cheerful but shy, prone to fantasies, playful, and quite pretty. After she became famous, she would describe herself this way : “To begin, then, 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.” She wasn’t altogether serious when she wrote that, but the description was the one people would remember.
She was born in Litchfield, Connecticut—in a plain frame house that still stands—in 1811, when Lincoln was two years old and when Dolley Madison was in the White House. She was the seventh of the nine children Roxana Foote bore Lyman Beecher before being gathered to her reward, and she was such a worker, even when very small, that her preacher father liked to say he would gladly have given a hundred dollars if she could have been born a boy.
As a child she had found most of his sermons about as intelligible as Choctaw, she wrote later, and never would she be at peace with his religion. But she loved him, and for all his gloomy talk of sin and damnation it is not hard to understand why. He was a powerful, assertive figure who had an almost fiendish zest for life—for hunting and fishing with his sons, for listening to all music, and for playing the violin, which he did badly. But could he only play what he heard inside him, he told them all, he could be another Paganini. Best of all he loved to go out and “snare souls,” as he said. Ina corner of the cellar he kept a pile of sand, and if his day was not enough to use him up, and stormy weather kept him from outdoor exercise, down he would go, shovel in hand, to sling sand about.
Sunday mornings he would come bounding along through the sunshine, late again for that appointed hour when weekly he brought down Calvinist thunder upon the heads of upright Litchfield people. He had a special wrath for drunkards and Unitarians, and he believed passionately in the Second Coming. But something in him made him shy away from the strictest tenet of his creed- total predestination—and its logic. Once when he had agreed to exchange pulpits with another pastor, he was told that the arrangement had been preordained. “Is that so?” he said. “Then I won’t do it!” And he didn’t.
The happiest times in her childhood, Hattie would write later, were the days spent away from him, visiting an Aunt Harriet in Nutplains, Connecticut, in a house filled with books and pictures gathered by a seafaring uncle and a wonderful old Tory grandmother, who in private still said Episcopal prayers for the king and queen.
At twelve Hattie often wandered off from the noisy parsonage to lie on a green hillside and gaze straight into a solid blue sky and dream of Byron. One month she read Ivanhoe seven times.
In 1832, when Hattie had turned twenty-one, Lyman Beecher answered the call to become the first president of the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. He packed up his children and a new wife and set off for what he called “the majestic West.” A New Jerusalem was to be established on the banks of the Ohio. The family spirits were lifted; and crossing the Alleghenies, they all sang “Jubilee.” A Philadelphia journal likened the exodus of the Reverend Mr. Beecher and his family to the migration of Jacob and his sons.
The following summer the Lane Theological Seminary’s first (and at that time, only) professor, Calvin Ellis Stowe, a Biblical scholar and Bowdoin graduate, travelled west in the Beechers’ wake. For all his learning and devotion to the Almighty, Stowe was a very homely and peculiar worker in the vineyard.
He was accompanied by a beautiful young bride, Eliza, who soon became Hattie Beecher’s best friend in Cincinnati but died not very long afterward. Apparently it was a shared grief over Eliza that brought Hattie and Calvin Stowe together. Years later, with some of the proceeds from Uncle Tom’s Cabin , they would commission an artist to do a portrait of Eliza, and every year thereafter, on Eliza’s birthday, the two of them would sit before the portrait and reminisce about Eliza’s virtues.
The wedding took place in early January, 1836. What exactly she saw in him is a little hard to say. The night before the ceremony, trying to describe her emotions in a letter to a school friend, she confessed she felt “nothing at all.” But Lord Byron had not appeared in Cincinnati. At twenty-four she may have felt she was getting on.