The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XI. The Later Novel: Howells
§ 8. Her Novels of New England Life
After Dred Mrs. Stowe wrote no more anti-slavery novels, although during the Civil War she sent to the women of England land an open letter reminding them that they, so many of whom now sympathized with the defenders of slavery, had less than ten years ago hailed Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a mighty stroke for justice and freedom. A considerable part of her later life (she died 1 July, 1896) was spent in Florida, where she had taken a plantation on the St. John’s River for the double purpose of establishing there as a planter one of her sons who had been wounded at Gettysburg and of assisting the freedmen, about whom and their relation to the former masters she had more enlightened views than were then generally current in the North. Now an international figure, she let her pen respond too facilely to the many demands made upon it: she wrote numerous didactic and religious essays and tales, particularly attentive to the follies of fashionable New York society, in which she had had little experience; she was chosen by Lady Byron to publish the most serious charges ever brought against the poet. In another department of her work, however, Mrs. Stowe stood on surer ground, and her novels of New England life—particularly The Minister’s Wooing(1859), The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862), Oldtown Folks (1869), Poganuc People (1878)—cannot go unmentioned.
Weak in structure and sentimental she remained. Her heroines wrestle with problems of conscience happily alien to all but a few New England and Noncomformist British bosoms; her bold seducers, like Ellery Davenport in Oldtown Folks and Aaron Burr in The Minister’s Wooing, are villains to frighten schoolgirls; she writes always as from the pulpit, or at least the parsonage. But where no abstract idea governs her she can be direct, accurate, and convincing. The earlier chapters of The Pearl of Orr’s Island must be counted, as Whittier thought, among the purest, truest idyls of New England. It is harder now to agree with Lowell in placing The Minister’s Wooing first among her novels, and yet no other imaginative treatment so well sets forth the strange, dusky old Puritan world of the later eighteenth century, when Newport was the centre at once of Hopkinsian divinity and the African slave trade. Mrs. Stowe wisely did not put on the airs of an historical romancer but wrote like a contemporary of the earlier Newport with an added flavour from her own youthful recollections. This flavour was indispensable to her. When her memory of the New England she had known in her girlhood and had loved so truly that Cotton Mather’s Magnolia had seemed “wonderful stories … that made me feel the very ground I trod on to be consecrated by some special dealing of God’s providence,”—when this memory worked freely and humorously upon materials which it was enough merely to remember and set down, she was at her later best. These conditions she most fully realized in Poganuc People, crisp, sweet, spare (for her), never quite sufficiently praised, and in Oldtown Folks, like the other a series of sketches rather than a novel, but—perhaps all the more because of that—still outstanding, for fidelity and point, among the innumerable stories dealing with New England.