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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.
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.”
She had already written quite a little—temperance tracts, articles on keeping the Sabbath, New England “sketches,” for which she drew heavily on Calvin’s seemingly inexhaustible fund of childhood reminiscences. Once she had done an article about a slave. She had been selling these pieces to Godey’s Lady’s Book and one or two other magazines. She got two dollars a page on the average, which was more profitable than taking in boarders, she decided. But no one in the family, other than Calvin, had taken her writing very seriously.
She worked at the kitchen table, confusion all around, a baby in a clothes basket at her feet. She couldn’t spell very well, and her punctuation would always be a puzzle for her publishers. She dreamed, she said in a letter to Calvin, of a place to work without “the constant falling of soot and coal dust on everything in the room. ”
Then in July of 1849 she was writing to tell him that their infant son Charley was dead of cholera. The summer before she had nearly died of it herself, with her father praying over her all through one terrible, sweltering night, the room alive with mosquitoes. She had been unable to do a thing for the child, she told Calvin. For almost a week she watched him die, with no way to help, she said, no way even to ease his suffering.
Calvin returned to her very soon after that, determined to leave Cincinnati for good. He had accepted a professorship at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine, and before he could settle up his affairs in Cincinnati, he characteristically sent Harriet and three of the children off to Maine ahead of him.
She left Cincinnati in the early spring of 1850, a shabby little figure, perfectly erect, perhaps no more than five feet tall, nearly forty, and pregnant once again. She boarded a riverboat at the foot of town, saying farewell with no misgivings. She was going home, she felt.
She was also heading for a sudden and colossal notoriety of a kind never known by any American woman before, and very few since; but ofthat she had no notion whatever. Nor did she or anyone else alive have any idea how important those seventeen years in Cincinnati had been to her and, as things turned out, to the whole course of American history.
She sailed up the Ohio to Pittsburgh, where she changed to a canalboat. Already she was feeling so good she got out and walked the towpath between locks. At Johnstown the boat and all its passengers were hoisted up and over the Allegheny Mountains by that thrilling mechanical contrivance of the nineteenth century, the Portage Railroad. East of the mountains she went by rail to New York and there crossed by ferry to Brooklyn to see her younger brother, Henry Ward, pastor of Plymouth Church. As children they had sometimes been taken for twins, only Henry Ward had been thick of speech and considered the slow one. Now she took note of his obvious success, and they went out for a drive in a spotless six-hundred-dollar car- riage, a recent gift from his parishioners.
In a few days she went on to Hartford, still looking after the children and all their baggage. Her spirits were soaring. At Hartford she stayed with her sisters Mary and I sabella ; in Boston with her brother Edward, who was growing ever more militant over the slavery issue. All the Beechers were growing more militant over one thing or another. For Isabella it was women’s rights; for the brilliant Catherine, education; for Charles, freedom from theological authority. From Boston, Harriet took the Bath Steamer to Maine, sailing headlong into a northeaster.
On the day they were scheduled to arrive at Brunswick, one story goes, the president of Bowdoin sent a professor named Smith down to greet the new faculty wife, but Smith returned disappointed, saying she must have been delayed. Nobody got off the boat, he said, except an old Irish woman and her brats.
Brunswick offered precious few of the eastern civilities Mrs. Stowe had longed for, and the house Calvin had taken in advance turned out to be deserted, dreary, and damp, to use her words. She went straight to work, refinishing floors, putting up wallpaper—the pioneer again. WhenCalvin wrote from Cincinnati to say he was sick and plainly dying and that she and theirs would soon be plunged into everlasting debt, she read the letter with humor and stuffed it into the stove.
Calvin showed up before summer, her baby was born, she rested two weeks. When winter came, there were holes in her shoes, and the house was so cold during one long storm that the children had trouble sitting still long enough to eat their meals. They were living on $1,700 a year. It was during the following spring that she began Uncle Tom’s Cabin .
People are still trying to interpret the book and to explain just how and why she came to write it. At first she said she really didn’t write it at all. She said the book came to her in visions and all she did was write down what she saw. When someone reproached her for letting Little Eva die, she answered, “Why, I could not help it. I felt as badly as anyone could! It was like a death in my own family and it affected me so deeply that I could not write a word for two weeks after her death.”.Years later she stated categorically, “God wrote it. ” And a great many of her readers were quite willing to let it go at that.
The truth is, the subject of the book had been all around her for a very long time. Old Lyman had been able to make Litchfield farmers weep when he preached on slavery. In Cincinnati she had opened her own Sunday school to black children, and the Lane Seminary had been a hotbed of abolitionist fervor. The Underground Railroad, she later claimed, went directly through her Cincinnati house, which was a bit of an exaggeration; but on one occasion Calvin and her brother Charles did indeed help a black woman and her child elude a slave hunter. The only time she was in an actual slave state, during a visit across the Ohio River in Kentucky, she made no show of emotion about it. But stories she heard from the Negro women she knew in Cincinnati moved her enormously, particularly those told by a gentle person named Eliza Buck, who helped her with housework and whose children, Harriet Stowe discovered with incredulity, had all been fathered by the woman’s former master in Kentucky. “You know, Mrs. Stowe,” she had said, “slave women cannot help themselves.”
Eliza Buck told her of lashings and of Negro families split up and “sold down the river.” Once on an Ohio River wharf Mrs. Stowe had seen with her own eyes a husband and wife torn apart by a slave trader.
By the time she came east to Maine, Henry Ward was using his Brooklyn pulpit to raise money to buy children out of slavery. In Boston she and Edward had talked long and emotionally about the Fugitive Slave Bill, then being debated in Congress, which made it a federal crime to harbor or assist the escaped “property” of a slave master. Her duty was plain. There was, she said, a standard higher than an act of Congress.
She did some research in Boston and corresponded with Frederick Douglass on certain details. But for all that, the book would be written more out of something within her, something she knew herself about bondage and the craving for liberation, than from any documentary sources or personal investigation of Negro slavery in the South. Indeed she really knew very little about Negro slavery in the South. Her critics would be vicious with her for this, of course, and she would go so far as to write a whole second book in defense of her sources. But Uncle Tom’s Cabin could never be accounted for that way.
There is probably something to the story that she began the book as a result of a letter from Edward’s wife. “Hattie,” wrote her sister-in-law from Boston, “if I could use the pen as you can, I would write something that will make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.” To which Hattie answered, “As long as the baby sleeps with me nights, I can’t do much at anything, but I will do it at last. I will write that thing if I live.”
The story appeared first as a serial in the National Era , an antislavery paper, beginning in June, 1851. It took her a year to write it all, and apparently she did Uncle Tom’s death scene first and at a single sitting, writing on brown wrapping paper when her writing paper ran out. The finished story was brought out in book form by the publisher, John P. Jewett, in two volumes on March 2O, 1852, a month before the serialized version ended.
Calvin thought the book had little importance. He wept over it, but he wept over most of the things she wrote. Her publisher warned that her subject was unpopular and said she took too long to tell her story. On the advice of a friend who had not read the manuscript, she decided to take a 10 per cent royalty on every copy sold instead of a fifty-fifty division of profit or losses, as had also been offered to her.
She herself expected to make no money from it; she thought it inadequate and was sure her friends would be disappointed with her. Within a week after publication ten thousand copies had been sold. The publisher had three power presses running twenty-four hours a day. In a year sales in the United States came to more than three hundred thousand. The book made publishing history right from the start. In England, where Mrs. Stowe had no copyright and therefore received no royalties, sales were even more stupendous. A million and a half copies were sold in about a year’s time. The book appeared in thirty-seven different languages. “It is no longer permissible to those who can read not to have read it,” wrote George Sand from France, who said Mrs. Stowe had no talent, only genius, and called her a saint.
The book had a strange power L over almost everyone who read it then, and for all its Victorian mannerisms and frequent patches of sentimentality much of still does. Its characters have a vitality of a kind comparable to the most memorable figures in literature. There is sweep and power to the narrative, and there are scenes that once read are not forgotten. The book is also rather different from what most people imagine, largely because it was eventually eclipsed by the stage version, which Mrs. Stowe had nothing to do with (and from which she never received a cent) and which was probably performed more often than any play in the language, evolving after a fewyears into something between circus and minstrel show. (One successful road company advertised“…a pack of genuine bloodhounds; two Toppsies; Two Marks, Eva and her Pony ‘Prince’; African Mandolin Players; ‘Tinker’the famous Trick Donkey.”) In the book, for example, no bloodhounds chase Eliza and her baby across the ice.
What the book did at the time was to bring slavery out into the open and show it for what it was, in human terms. No writer had done that before. Slavery had been argued over in the abstract, preached against as a moral issue, its evils whispered about in polite company. But the book made people at that time feel what slavery was about. (“The soul of eloquence is feeling,” old Lyman had written.)
Moreover, Harriet Stowe had made a black man her hero, and she took his race seriously, and no American writer had done that before.
The fundamental fault, she fervently held, was with the system. Every white American was guilty, the Northerner no less than the slaveholder, especially the church-going kind, her kind. Simon Eegree, it should perhaps always be remembered, was a Vermonter.
That Uncle Tom would one day be used as a term of derision (“A Negro who is held to be humiliatingly subservient or deferential to whites,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary ) she would have found impossible to fathom, and heartbreaking. For her he was something very close to a black Christ. He is the one character in all her book who lives, quite literally, by the Christian ideal. And if one has doubts that she could see black as beautiful or that she saw emancipation for the black man as a chance for full manhood and dignity, there is her description of Eliza’s husband, George Harris, as straight-backed, confident, “his face settled and resolute.” When George and his family, having escaped into Ohio, are cornered by slave hunters, Mrs. Stowe writes a scene in which George is fully prepared to kill his tormentors and to die himself rather than permit his wife and son to be taken back into slavery. “…I am a free man, standing on God’s free soil,” George yells from the rock ledge to which he has retreated, “and my wife and my child I claim as mine.…We have arms to defend ourselves and we mean to do it. You can come up if you like; but the first one of you that comes within the range of our bullets is a dead man, and the next, and the next, and so on till the last.”
She seems to have been everywhere at once after the book was published— Hartford, New Haven, Brooklyn, Boston. Almost immediately the South began boiling with indignation. She was a radical, it was said. All the Beechers were radicals. She began receiving threatening letters from the South, and once Calvin unwrapped a small parcel addressed to her to find a human ear that had been severed from the head of a black slave. Calvin grew more and more distraught. They decided it was time to move again, now to Andover, Massachusetts, to take up a previously offered teaching job at the seminary there.
Then they were sailing to England, where huge crowds waited for her at railroad stations, hymns were composed in her honor, children came up to her carriage with flowers. She went about in a gray cloak carrying a paint box. She was a tireless tourist. And she worried. “The power of fictitious writing, for good as well as evil is a thing which ought most seriously to be reflected on. No one can fail to see that in our day it is becoming a very great agency.”
When war came, everyone told her it was her war, and she thought so too. In South Carolina, as the war commenced, the wife of a plantation owner wrote in her diary that naturally slavery had to go, but added, “Yes, how I envy those saintly Yankee women, in their clean cool New England homes, writing to make their fortunes and to shame us. ”
Harriet Stowe never saw the Civil War as anything but a war to end slavery, and all her old Beecher pacifist principles went right out the window. “Better, a thousand times better, open, manly, energetic war, than cowardly and treacherous peace,” she proclaimed. Her oldest son, Frederick, put on a uniform and went off to fight. Impatient with Lincoln for not announcing emancipation right away, she went down to Washington when he finally proclaimed that the slaves would be free, and was received privately in the White House. The scene is part of our folklore. “So this is the little woman who made this big war,” Lincoln is supposed to have said as he shook her hand.
She was sitting in the gallery at the Boston Music Hall, attending a concert, on January 1, 1863, the day the Emancipation Proclamation became effective. When an announcement of the historic event was made from the stage, somebody called out that she was in the gallery. In an instant the audience was on its feet cheering while she stood and bowed, her bonnet awry.
After the war she kept on writing. In fact, as is sometimes overlooked, that is what Harriet Beecher Stowe was, a writer, and one of the most industrious we have ever had. Unwittingly she had written the abolitionist manifesto, although she did not consider herself an abolitionist. She agreed with her father that abolitionists “were like men who would burn down their houses to get rid of the rats.” She was not a crusader pure and simple. She never considered herself an extremist, and she seldom took an extreme position on any issue. She was a reformer, and there was an evangelical undercurrent to just about everything she wrote. But writing was her work, her way to make herself useful.
Her life was about half over when she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but for thirty years more she wrote almost a book a year on the average, plus innumerable essays, poems, children’s stories, and magazine articles, many of which she did under the pseudonym Christopher Crowfield. Perhaps her most artful novel, The Minister’s Wooing , ran to fifty printings, and a magazine article, “The True Story of Lady Byron’s Life,” which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1869, caused more furor than anything published in America since Uncle Tom’s Cabin .
During a second visit to England she had become fast friends with the widow of Lord Byron, who confided the terrible secret that the great Byron had committed incest with his half sister and that a child had been born as a result. Mrs. Stowe kept the secret for thirteen years, but when Byron’s former mistress, Countess Guiccioli, published her memoirs and portrayed Lady Byron as a selfrighteous tyrant who would drive any mortal male to excesses, Harriet Stowe decided it was time to strike a blow in her friend’s behalf, Lady Byron by this time having been dead for nearly a decade. So she told the whole story.
All kinds of accusations were hurled at her, some quite unpleasant. She rode out the storm, however, and again, as with Uncle Tom , she wrote a book to justify what she had written. But her standing with the American public would never be the same.
She could write in all kinds of places, under every kind of condition. She was always bothered by deadlines, and it seems she was always in need of money. The royalties poured in, but the more she had the more she spent —on a huge Gothic villa in Hartford that was all gables and turrets and was never fi nished completely; on a cotton plantation in Florida where she intended to provide Negroes with a program of work and education; and later, when that failed, on an orange and lemon grove at Mandarin, Florida, “where the world is not, ” she said, and where she hoped her unfortunate son Frederick might find himself.
Frederick had trouble staying sober. His problem had started before the war, but at Gettysburg he had been hit in the head by a shell fragment, and, his mother would always believe, he had never been himself again. “After that,” one of her grandsons would write, “he not only was made drunk by the slightest amount of alcohol but he could not resist taking it.”
Calvin grew enormously fat, ever ^ more distant, and of even less use than before when it came to the everyday details of life. Moreover, Harriet found fame increasingly difficult. She had become a national institution. Her correspondence alone would have drained a less vigorous spirit.
Tragedy struck repeatedly. In 1857, upon returning from Europe, she learned that her son Henry, a student at Dartmouth, had drowned while swimming in the Connecticut River. In 1870 Frederick, unable to endure his mother’s Florida experiment any longer, wrote her a touching apology and went to sea, shipping around the Horn. It is known that he got as far as San Francisco, but after that he disappeared and was never heard from again. She would go to her grave with every confidence that he would return one day.
But it was the Brooklyn scandal that hurt her worst of all, she said. In November of 1872 a New York paper reported that her beloved brother Henry Ward, by then the most popular preacher in America, had been carrying on an adulterous affair with one of his parishioners. His enemies swept in for the kill. For all the Beechers the gossip was agonizing. A sensational trial resulted, the husband bringing suit against Beecher for alienation of his wife’s affections. It dragged on for six months and was the talk of the country. Whether Beecher was guilty or innocent was never proved one way or the other. He denied everything, the jury was unable to agree on a verdict, and as far as his sister was concerned his character was never even in question.
The whole story was a slanderous fabrication, she said, and she stood by him through the entire grisly, drawn-out business, as did all the Beechers except Isabella Beecher Hooker, who was only a half sister, it was noted, and was regarded by many as just a little unbalanced. (Isabella, who called herself “ the inspired one,” wanted to take charge of a service at Plymouth Church herself and “as one commissioned from on high” declare her brother’s guilt from his own pulpit. Years later, when he was dying, she even tried to force her way into his house to get a deathbed confession.)
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.”
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.