The Unexpected Mrs. Stowe


Calvin died peacefully enough, with Harriet at his bedside, on August 6, 1886. She lived on for another ten years, slipping off ever so gradually into a gentle senility.

In a letter to Oliver Wendell Holmes she wrote: “I make no mental effort of any sort; my brain is tired out. It was a woman’s brain and not a man’s, and finally from sheer fatigue and exhaustion in the march and strife of life it gave out before the end was reached. And now I rest me, like a moored boat, rising and falling on the water, with loosened cordage and flapping sail.”

She was eighty-two. She spent hours looking at picture books, bothering no one, or went out gathering flowers, “a tiny withered figure in a garden hat,” as one writer described her. On occasion she took long walks beside the river, an Irish nurse generally keeping her company. Sometimes, Mark Twain would recall, she “would slip up behind a person who was deep in dreams and musings and fetch a war whoop that would jump that person out of his clothes.”

And every now and then, during moments of astonishing clarity, she would talk again about Uncle Tom’s Cabin , the book that had just “come” to her in visions. Once, years earlier, when she was having trouble writing, she had said: “If there had been a grand preparatory blast of trumpets or had it been announced that Mrs. Stowe would do this or that, I think it likely I could not have written; but nobody expected anything…and so I wrote freely.”

She died near midnight on July 1, 1896.