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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by George Spring Merriam (1843–1914)

By Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896)

HARRIET BEECHER STOWE shared the general conditions of inheritance and nurture which bred the strongest group of thinkers and authors that America has produced. It was the peculiarity of early New England to combine an intense interest in the supreme questions of human destiny, regarded as the basis of the personal life, with the closest application to industrial and practical affairs. Calvinism stimulated thought on religious problems; and austere conditions of soil and climate enforced on the sturdy English stock the practice of industry, thrift, and shrewdness. For two centuries the narrowness of the dogmatic creed, and the awfulness of its sanctions, checked any free or original exploit of the intellect. Then came in a great enlargement of conditions, and a fresh stimulus. With the birth of the nation, brains and hands began to stretch out from their provincial cradle toward continental expansion. The rise of national questions; the impulse from Europe, stirred to its foundation by the French Revolution, and giving birth to new literatures; the outburst of the protest against Calvinism, which had been secretly growing for generations; a new ardor in the churches for missions and reforms; an advance in material comfort which widened opportunity and did not yet enervate,—those were among the influences which enriched and mellowed the soil in which hardy shoots had been growing, and out of which now flowered a brilliant little company of thinkers, poets, and story-tellers.

Mrs. Stowe was the daughter of Lyman Beecher, the foremost orthodox minister of his time; a man of sturdy, aggressive, exuberant nature, the father of a notable family of sons and daughters. His biography is one of the richest portraitures of New England life in the first half of the nineteenth century. It shows how the sensitive and thoughtful child grew up in an atmosphere of theological discussion, which stimulated the mind and by turns satisfied and distressed the heart, while her observation and sense of humor found rich material. She was largely endowed with imagination, with sensibility, with the mystic’s temper. She became the wife of a theological professor with scanty means; and the tenderness of motherly experience was mixed with the pressing cares of the household. By a removal to the West she gained knowledge of more various society and institutions, and then came back to the quiet of a Maine village, to ponder in her heart all she had seen and heard and felt.

The interest of the North in the slave system of the South was especially due to a little company of strenuous agitators, who were instant in season and out of season in denouncing slavery as the sum of all villainies. The violence of tone which generally characterized the Abolitionists, and their readiness to denounce all men and all institutions that did not fully agree with them, limited the influence due to their purity and heroism. The conservatism of commerce, the timidity of politicians, above all, the remoteness of the whole matter from the personal knowledge of the Northern people, long restrained the mass of the community from any very wide or active interest in the subject. Mrs. Stowe’s sympathy had been profoundly touched by the tales of wrong and suffering that had come to her ears from escaped slaves while she lived in Cincinnati. She had pondered the whole question of slavery,—with a woman’s heart, a poet’s imagination, and a mind schooled by company with masculine and logical thinkers. Then the political interests of the whole country were focused upon the slavery question, by the great Congressional debate on the Compromise measures in 1850. Conspicuous in that legislation was the Fugitive Slave Act, making elaborate provision for the rendition of fugitive slaves from their Northern refuge. This law, and the scenes incident to its enforcement, brought the reality of slavery home to the Northern people closer than ever before, while it also implicated them more directly in the support of the system. But inertia and timidity still held back the mass of politicians, churches, and the general community, from effective action or energetic protest. Then this woman in her busy home in the quiet village, shedding tears at midnight over the sorrows of slave wives and mothers, found her imagination possessed by the scenes of a slave’s story. It was transferred to paper almost automatically. Then other scenes linked themselves together,—scenes of pathos, of humor, of racy conversation, of dramatic action, of anguish, and of rapture. The whole story was born and grew,—an inspiration, a creation, mysterious and beautiful as the growth of a human life. It was given to the public, and it took captive the heart of America and of the world. Its literary success, measured by an enumeration of editions, translations, copies sold, was vast almost beyond comparison. But it won a mightier success; for probably beyond any other single influence, it planted in the men and women of the North a deep and passionate hostility to human slavery. The whole course of events moved together: the political forces were marshaled on the question whether slavery should be extended or restricted; new parties rose; and finally the two principles—of the maintenance of the Union and the abolition of slavery—were established at the cost of a terrible war. It would hardly be a figure of speech to say that the Northern army in that war—or the force which made the heart of that army—had been nurtured in boyhood and youth on ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ and carried the book in their hearts.

The book was written as a protest against an institution; and now that the institution is gone the book remains with a deep permanent interest. It is an intensely human story. The temporary and local color is but the incident of a portrayal of human joys and sorrows, sufferings and victories, which appealed to readers in far-away lands, and can hardly fail to appeal in far-away years.

One of the most admirable and effective qualities of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ is its wholly generous and sympathetic spirit toward the master class. The condemnation is all for the system, and for the opportunities and incitements it affords to the baser elements which exist in mankind at large. The master and mistress supply some of the most charming characters of the book, as the noble Mrs. Shelby and the fascinating St. Clare.

The key-note of the book is humanity. Its sub-title is ‘Life among the Lowly.’ It is in close accord with the great philanthropic movement of the age. Further, it is deeply religious. Its appeal is not to creed or authority, but to the spirit of Christ. It is the Christian faith that brings master and slave together: it is the figure of the Crucified One that to poor Tom’s darkest hour brings a peace and strength in which he can calmly face torture and death. It was largely to this religious quality that the book owed its effectiveness. It rebuked that Pharisaic Christianity which had justified slavery with Biblical precedent, or had passed by the slave on the other side, while absorbed in ecclesiastical trifles; while its essential piety won multitudes of churchmen who had resented the fierce assaults of the Abolitionists on the churches and the prevalent forms of Christianity.

‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ went on its way and did its work; and Mrs. Stowe, raised to sudden fame and to easier circumstances, but no whit spoiled or unsteadied, produced as her next serious work another antislavery novel, ‘Dred.’ It was less an inspiration than its predecessor, and more a deliberate construction; and was judged to be inferior in power. Yet it was a very strong book, both in human interest and in effective attack upon the slave system. In logical sequence to the simple story of the earlier book, it went on to portray the treatment of slavery on its own ground by the church, the law, and the would-be reformer. It showed how its essential evils were supported by statute and by judicial interpretation. It pictured the ways of the clerical politician. It depicted the attempt of a high-minded slaveholder to elevate his servants and purify the system, and his defeat by mob violence and by statute law. These were trenchant attacks on the system they were aimed at. But the more abiding charm of the book is in its lifelike picturing of men and women; and especially in “life among the lowly.” Best of all, perhaps, are “Old Tiff,” a counterpart of the “Uncle Remus” whom the present generation knows and loves; and Milly, the slave “mammy,”—the type which of all the negroes Mrs. Stowe portrays best, and perhaps the finest type of character which slavery produced. The Dred who gives name to the book is a negro runaway and insurgent,—half insane, half inspired,—pouring upon his oppressors the denunciations and threatenings of Hebrew prophecy. The effect upon the reader is fantastic and unreal. But the strain of terror and foreboding seems in the retrospect like a vague, awful prophecy of the war-cloud which was so soon to break.

Now, in the prime of her power, Mrs. Stowe turned back to the field which she knew best; which indeed was the very home of her heart and experience, and which she had essayed in her first slight sketches. ‘The Minister’s Wooing’ is a prose idyl and epic of New England, in that phase of its history which was richest and most attractive for the literary artist. It is a somewhat romantic and idealized picture, for Mrs. Stowe was a poet at heart; but the groundlines are truthful, both the heroic and the homely figures are genuine and unmistakable in their reality, and the book throughout is racy of the soil from which it sprung. It gives us Yankeeland in its prime and at its best. A later phase and a grimmer aspect are described by Rose Terry Cooke; while Miss Wilkins’s sketches are taken from a period of dismal decadence.

But ‘The Minister’s Wooing’ has its deepest interest not in its local character, but in the working of the human heart and mind hard beset by the problems of the universe. The motive of her antislavery novels is to depict a social institution; but in this book Mrs. Stowe has revealed from within the drama of a human soul in its supreme exigency. It is individual and yet typical. The Calvinistic theology—which is only an intensified form of the theology inherited by all the Protestant churches from the Middle Ages—was brought closely home to the lives and thoughts of the people, in a society of which the Sunday and the sermon were the central and dominating feature. The creed thus realized and applied bore strangely mingled fruit, according to the individual nature and development,—of heroism, rapture, exasperation, or despair. In the early century, Unitarianism broke out in open revolt; while Orthodoxy rallied to the defense, yet at the same time modified its own theories with a rapidity of which it was unconscious. Lyman Beecher was a foremost champion against the Unitarians, yet he was counted among his brethren an innovator and sometimes a heretic. In his biography and in the lives of his children—notably in Henry Ward and in Harriet—may be traced the transformation, which without open break has replaced a harsh by a mild religion; a change which is worldwide, but is shown with especial clearness in the land which the Puritan founded.

In the scanty and grim yet heroic chronicles of John Winthrop there is occasionally a brief, terrible mention of some woman driven by religious broodings to distraction, sometimes to murder and suicide. How widespread the tragedy of which this was the extreme phase, we can but surmise. It first found full articulate expression in Mrs. Stowe,—but issuing in escape, by resource drawn from the same creed which had crushed it. The story is that of a mother, believing and thoughtful, whose unconverted son comes to a sudden death. Her thought of the fate she believes he has incurred, and of the Divine rule which decrees such a fate, and which she dares not disown,—the seeming contradiction between God and right which drives her almost to madness,—this description is as terrible as the most lurid passage in Dante. That which at last controls and calms is the same that sustains the slave in his extremity,—the vision of that Savior whose very nature is love, and who is the revelation of a God who must in some unguessed way supply the need of the creatures he has made. Around this fiery core the story stands—like a mountain with volcanic heart—in strong and graceful lines, and with rich vesture of beauty and humor. Its heroic figure is the minister and theologian, Dr. Hopkins; his absorption in theological speculation set off by his self-sacrifice in espousing the unpopular antislavery cause, and his magnanimous surrender of the woman he loves to the sailor who had won her heart.

‘The Minister’s Wooing’ marks the culmination of Mrs. Stowe’s writing. Of her later works, the best have their scene in New England. ‘The Pearl of Orr’s Island’ has much of quiet beauty; and ‘Oldtown Folks,’ while unequal and disappointing, furnishes some admirable scenes, and one of her raciest characters, and worthiest of long life,—the kindly ne’er-do-weel, Sam Lawson. In ‘Agnes of Sorrento’ there is little creative power of character or story to match the beauty of landscape and atmosphere. The latest stories, with their scenes in modern American life, are slight in texture. It is chiefly by her first three books that she will live.

Mrs. Stowe’s best work was done by a sort of spontaneous inspiration. She was not strong in deliberate and conscious art. An early letter gives a graphic description of the labor of authorship under constant intrusion from troublesome babies and incompetent servants. One can fancy some such distracting influence as occasionally marring her work in its details. It has not the finish of the student who writes in the guarded privacy of the library. Yet to the free, rough, wholesome contact with everyday life which forbade such seclusion, we perhaps owe much of the fresh and homely nature in her books, which charms us beyond mere artistic polish.

She has in a high degree the faculty of the greatest artists, of creating as it were their characters: so that the reader recognizes and recalls them as real people. She has a free, strong touch, not unlike Walter Scott’s. But the critic feels diffidence in assigning definite literary rank to one who has been so closely a part of the still present age, and thus stands in a sort of personal relation to her contemporaries which perhaps bars them from the judgment seat. Yet it is hardly rash to express the opinion that measured by her best work, Mrs. Stowe stands as distinctly first among American novel-writers as do the others of her group in their respective fields: Hawthorne, in pure romance; Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier, Bryant, and Holmes, in poetry. No doubt she has been surpassed in various particulars; but judged by the test of power to win and to impress, and looking both at the number and the quality of the audience, it seems a moderate judgment that no American novelist has equaled her. Safer than any attempt to assign her rank in the world’s literature is a characterization of the central quality of her mind and work. That, we may say, was the transfer of the essential spirit of Puritanism from the field of speculative theology and mystic experience to human duty and to social institutions. The austere, heroic spirit, which in the seventeenth century tried to build a Church-State in America; which, baffled in that attempt, fell back with renewed energy on universe-schemes,—that spirit has in the nineteenth century found outlet and fruition in a new passion of service to humanity, while the conception of man’s relation to God has passed from the idea of subject and monarch to that of child and father. In many lives has the change been exemplified, but in Mrs. Stowe we see it as wrought in a woman of strong brain and tender heart. In many respects she is a feminine counterpart of Whittier; he of Quaker, she of Puritan lineage; both serving in the antislavery cause; both passing on to a more personal interpretation of life; and both sublimating a dogmatic Christianity into a simple religion of love and trust, in which Christ is still the central figure, but a Christ of the heart and not of the creed.

Such comparison may contribute a little toward an appreciation of this large-natured woman and fine genius. But she is to be really known through her books, in which she expressed her best self.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE.—Harriet Elizabeth Beecher was born at Litchfield, Connecticut, June 14th, 1811. When thirteen years of age she went to Hartford, Connecticut, to attend the school of her sister Catherine. After studying for some years she assisted as a teacher in that institution. In 1832 the Beecher family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio; and four years later Harriet was married to Professor Calvin E. Stowe, of the Lane Theological Seminary in that city.

Her first book was ‘The Mayflower, or Sketches of the Descendants of the Pilgrims,’ published in 1849. The next year the Stowes went to Brunswick, Maine, Professor Stowe having taken a chair in Bowdoin College. ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ which was written at Brunswick, began to run as a serial in the Washington National Era in 1851, and appeared in book form in 1852. Its success was immediate and phenomenal, half a million copies being printed within ten years, and the translations into foreign tongues numbering about thirty.

In the same year (1852) Professor Stowe was called to Andover Theological Seminary at Andover, Massachusetts. In 1853 the author published a ‘Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ giving facts to substantiate her slave story. She made at this time the first of several European trips, during which she was received abroad with marked respect and honor. In 1864 the Stowes removed to Hartford, Connecticut, where Mrs. Stowe resided until her death, July 1st, 1896. For a long term of years she spent the summer months at her home in Florida.

Of the many editions of Mrs. Stowe’s works, it is sufficient to direct the reader to the final, authoritative, and complete Riverside edition, 1896, issued by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. of Boston, in sixteen volumes, with a biographical sketch, notes, portraits, and views. The titles of the books, as they appear in this edition, are as follows: ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and the ‘Key’ (two volumes), ‘Dred and Other Anti-Slavery Tales and Papers’ (two volumes), ‘The Minister’s Wooing,’ ‘The Pearl of Orr’s Island,’ ‘Agnes of Sorrento,’ ‘Household Papers and Stories,’ ‘My Wife and I,’ ‘Oldtown Folks’ and ‘Sam Lawson’s Fireside Stories’ (two volumes), ‘Poganuc People’ and ‘Pink and White Tyranny,’ ‘We and Our Neighbors,’ ‘Stories, Sketches, and Studies,’ ‘Religious Studies,’ ‘Sketches and Poems,’ ‘Stories and Sketches for the Young.’ A full sympathetic account of Mrs. Stowe will be found in her ‘Life,’ written by her son, the Rev. Charles E. Stowe, which Houghton, Mifflin & Co. also publish.