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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
Calvin was thirty-three, but he seemed as old as her father. He was fluent in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, Italian, German; he was an authority on education; he knew the Bible better than her father. Also, it is recorded, he had a grand sense of humor. But he was as fat and forgetful and fussy as an old woman. In the midst of a crisis, as she would soon discover, he had a bad habit of taking to his bed, and he had absolutely no “faculty,” that Yankee virtue she defined simply as being the opposite of shiftlessness.
He also had an eye for pretty women, as he admitted to Hattie, and a taste for spirits, but these proclivities, it seems, never got him into any particular trouble.
But there was more. Calvin, from his boyhood until his dying day, was haunted by phantoms. They visited him most anytime, but favored dusk. They appeared quite effortlessly out of the woodwork, the floor, or the furniture. There was a regular cast of characters, Calvin said, as real and familiar to him as anyone else he knew. Among his favorites were a giant Indian woman and a dark dwarf who between them carried a huge bull fiddle. There was a troupe of old Puritans from his native Natick, all shadowy and dark blue in color, and one “very pleasant-looking human face” he called Harvey. They performed music for Calvin Stowe, and somehow or other they talked to him without making any sound at all, or so he said. He had no reluctance about discussing the subject, and there is no indication that any of his circle thought the less of him for it.
Still, the marriage proved difficult soon enough. Hattie became pregnant almost immediately, and just about then Calvin was asked by the state of Ohio to go to Prussia to study educational systems there. Professing a profound fear of the salt sea, he told her he would never see her again in this life. She insisted that he go, and had twin daughters while he was away. There was a third child two years later, then another, and another, and two more later on. A professor’s wages were never enough, even when old Lyman could pay Calvin in full, which was seldom. Hattie’s health began to fail. “She lived overmuch in her emotions,” one son would explain years later.
“It is a dark, sloppy, rainy, muddy disagreeable day,” she wrote once to Calvin when he was in Detroit attending a church convention. “…I am 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; and altogether I feel as if I never wanted to eat again.”
She began going off on visits to relatives, leaving Calvin and the children behind. The visits grew longer. She went to the White Mountains, then to Brattleboro, Vermont, to try the water cure. The expenses were met by gifts from distant admirers of the family: the Stowes felt that the Lord had a hand in it. Hattie stayed on for nearly a year at Brattleboro, living on brown bread and milk, enduring the interminable sitz baths of one Dr. Wesselhoeft, and writing home exuberant letters about moonlight snowball fights. And no sooner did she return to the cluttered house in Cincinnati than the professor hauled himself off to Brattleboro, there to stay even longer than she had. When a cholera epidemic broke out in Cincinnati and more than a hundred people a day were dying, she wrote to tell him to stay right where he was. She would manage.
In all they were separated a total of three years and more, and their letters back and forth speak of strong, troubled feelings. The hulking, clumsy Stowe, bearded, nearsighted, complained that she never folded his newspaper properly and that her letters oflate were too uninteresting for him to read aloud to his friends. She in turn would run on about her own miseries. The house depressed her, she worried about money, she hated the climate in Cincinnati. She thought too much about death.
But she also told him, “There are a thousand favorite subjects on which I could talk with you better than anyone else. If you were not already my dearly loved husband I should certainly fall in love with you.”
And Calvin would write to her when she was visiting her sister in Hartford, “And now my dear wife, I want you to come home as quick as you can. The fact is I cannot live without you and if we were not so prodigious poor I would come for you at once. There is no woman like you in this wide world.”
In this same letter Calvin proclaimed to her—and apparently he was the first to do so—“My dear, you must be a literary woman. It is so written in the book of fate.” He advised her to make all her plans accordingly, as though she had little else to do. “Get a good stock of health and brush up your mind,” he declared. And he told her to drop her middle initial, E (for Elizabeth), from her name. “It only incumbers it and interferes with the flow and euphony.” Instead: “Write yourself fully and always Harriet Beecher Stowe, which is a name euphonious, flowing, and full of meaning.”