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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
But it would be mistaken to suggest that Harriet’s life became increasingly burdensome. Quite the contrary. As time passed she seems to have grown ever more liberated from her past. She drew further and further from the shadow of her harsh Calvinist heritage, eventually rejecting it altogether. She had long since discarded the doctrine of original sin. Neither man nor nature was necessarily corrupt, she now held. Hers was a faith of love and Christian charity. She had a seemingly limitless love for the whole human family. Years before, Catherine, her spinster sister, had been the first of the Beechers to rebel against the traditional faith when a young man she was engaged to marry, a gifted Yale professor of philosophy, was lost at sea and Catherine had had to face the terrible Calvinist conclusion that the young man was consigned to eternal damnation because he had never repented. In time all of Lyman Beecher’s offspring would desert the faith. Henry Ward would even go so far as to preach that there is no hell.
For Harriet, Calvinism was repugnant, a “glacial” doctrine, although she admired enormously the fervor it had given the Puritan colonists of her native New England and the solid purpose and coherence of the communities they established. Like many of her time she sorely lamented the decline of Christian faith in the land. It was the root of the breakdown of the old order, she believed. Mostly, it seems, she admired the backbone the old religion gave people. “They who had faced eternal ruin with an unflinching gaze,” she wrote, “were not likely to shrink before the comparatively trivial losses and gains of any mere earthly conflict.” If she herself could not accept the articles of the Puritan faith, she seemed to wish everybody else would. And once from Florida she wrote: “…never did we have a more delicious spring. I never knew such altogether perfect weather. It is enough to make a saint out of the toughest old Calvinist that ever set his face as a flint. How do you think New England theology would have fared, if our fathers had landed here instead of on Plymouth Rock?”
Like numerous other literary figures of the day she tried spiritualism and claimed that her son Henry had returned from somewhere beyond to pluck a guitar string for her. She became an Episcopalian, and she developed an open fondness for such things as Europe (Paris and Italy especially), Rubens, elegant society, and Florida, in particular Florida (“…this wild, wonderful, bright, and vivid growth, that is all new, strange and unknown by name to me…”). The theatre and dancing were no longer viewed as sinful. She rejected the idea that “there was something radically corrupt and wicked in the body and in the physical system.” She took a little claret now on occasion. An account of a visit to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, suggests that once at least she may have taken a little too much claret.
She was asked to give readings, to go on the lyceum, as the contemporary lecture circuit was called, like Robert Ingersoll, F. T. Barnum, and the feminists. She needed the money, so at age sixty-one, having never made a public speech before, she embarked on a new career with its endless train rides, bad food, and dreary hotels. She was very shy at first and not much good at it. But she got over that and in time became quite accomplished. “Her performance could hardly be called a reading, ” reported the Pittsburgh Gazette , “it was recitative and she seldom glanced at the book. Her voice betrayed the veritable Yankee twang.…Her voice is low, just tinged in the slightest with huskiness, but is quite musical. In manner she was vivacious and gave life to many of the pages, more by suggestive action than by utterances.…She seemed perfectly possessed on the stage, and read with easy grace.…”
She found she could move her audiences to great emotional heights, but to laughter especially. And she loved the life. Her health picked up. “I never sleep better than after a long day’s ride,” she wrote.
Her appearance never changed much. She put on no new airs. Nothing, in fact, good or bad, seemed capable of changing that plain, earnest, often whimsical manner. She acquired a number of new friendships that meant a great deal to her, with Oliver Wendell Holmes and Mark Twain particularly. Henry Drummond, the noted Scottish religious writer, wrote, after a visit to Hartford: “Next door to Twain I found Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, a wonderfully agile old lady, as fresh as a squirrel still, but with the face and air of a lion. “And he concluded: “I have not been so taken with any one on this side of the Atlantic. ”
Her affections for Calvin seem to have grown stronger, if anything. He had become absorbed in Semitic studies, let his beard grow, and took to wearing a skullcap. She began calling him “My Old Rabbi. ” His apparitions took up more and more of his time, and for a while he was having nightly encounters with the Devil, who came on horseback, Calvin said. But otherwise his mind stayed quick and clear until the end, and she found him exceedingly good company.
In their last years they seem also to have had few financial worries. Among other things a book of his, The Origin and History of the Books of the Bible , had a surprisingly large sale. And their affairs in general were being capably managed by their twin daughters, Eliza and Harriet, maiden ladies who apparently had considerable “faculty.”