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Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life

Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life
Author: Joan D. Hedrick
ISBN 13: 9780195096392
ISBN 10: 195096398
Edition: Revised ed.
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 1995-06-01
Format: Paperback
Pages: 544
List Price: $44.99

"Up to this year I have always felt that I had no particular call to meddle with this subject....But I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak." Thus did Harriet Beecher Stowe announce her decision to begin work on what would become one of the most influential novels ever written. The subject she had hesitated to "meddle with" was slavery, and the novel, of course, was Uncle Tom's Cabin. Still debated today for its portrayal of African Americans and its unresolved place in the literary canon, Stowe's best-known work was first published in weekly installments from June 5, 1851 to April 1, 1852. It caused such a stir in both the North and South, and even in Great Britain, that when Stowe met President Lincoln in 1862 he is said to have greeted her with the words, "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that created this great war!"
In this landmark book, the first full-scale biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe in over fifty years, Joan D. Hedrick tells the absorbing story of this gifted, complex, and contradictory woman. Hedrick takes readers into the multilayered world of nineteenth century morals and mores, exploring the influence of then-popular ideas of "true womanhood" on Stowe's upbringing as a member of the outspoken Beecher clan, and her eventful life as a writer and shaper of public opinion who was also a mother of seven. It offers a lively record of the flourishing parlor societies that launched and sustained Stowe throughout the 44 years of her career, and the harsh physical realities that governed so many women's lives. The epidemics, high infant mortality, and often disastrous medical practices of the day are portrayed in moving detail, against the backdrop of western expansion, and the great social upheaval accompanying the abolitionist movement and the entry of women into public life.
Here are Stowe's public triumphs, both before and after the Civil War, and the private tragedies that included the death of her adored eighteen month old son, the drowning of another son, and the alcohol and morphine addictions of two of her other children. The daughter, sister, and wife of prominent ministers, Stowe channeled her anguish and her ambition into a socially acceptable anger on behalf of others, transforming her private experience into powerful narratives that moved a nation.
Magisterial in its breadth and rich in detail, this definitive portrait explores the full measure of Harriet Beecher Stowe's life, and her contribution to American literature. Perceptive and engaging, it illuminates the career of a major writer during the transition of literature from an amateur pastime to a profession, and offers a fascinating look at the pains, pleasures, and accomplishments of women's lives in the last century.

Kirkus Reviews

In this definitive biography, Hedrick (History/Trinity; the scholarly Solitary Comrade, 1982—not reviewed) applies a feminine perspective to the fascinating life and tumultuous times of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96), author of what's arguably the most influential novel in history and someone who only 50 years ago was described as "A Crusader in Crinoline" (by Robert F. Wilson in the last full-length Stowe bio, published in 1941). Stowe's life included the common difficulties of 19th-century women—dependency, mismanaged health, exclusion from public life—difficulties shared with the poor and with blacks, creating a natural identity of interests that, Hedrick explains, overcame barriers of race, class, and gender. The author also sees in Stowe the unfolding of literature in 19th-century America, from the instructive and entertaining "parlour literature," written by women for domestic reading aloud, to literature's professionalization after 1860 in journals and universities—a transformation dominated by men. But in 1850-51, when Stowe serialized Uncle Tom's Cabin (no publisher would accept it as a book), women were still creating the new American culture—and this novel captured it, inspiring, by 1893, translations into 42 languages, as well as numerous songs, plays, toys, games, and even wallpaper patterns. Despite her success, though, tragedy plagued Stowe: Her baby son died, an adult son drowned, and two other children became addicts, afflictions for which her Calvanist religion offered no comfort. In The Minister's Wooing, Stowe continued her attack on the abstract world of male clergy and legislators that she'd begun in Uncle Tom's Cabin, affirming thecomfort she derived from poor black women rather than from theology. Writing mostly for the male-dominated Atlantic, she was supporting her entire family by the end of her career—an end created, she believed, by a mental exhaustion known only to women. A splendid, balanced representation of an author in her many roles, and of the way she changed her world.