Kirkus Reviews QR Code


by Philip McFarland

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-8021-1845-5
Publisher: Grove

Portrait of the woman who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin and changed America.

The life of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–96) was unusual, especially for a woman of her era. Her father, Lyman Beecher, Boston’s thundering Abolitionist theologian, impressed upon young Harriet the importance of Calvinist family values. Henry Ward Beecher became America’s premier 19th-century preacher; Harriet, the conscience of its literature. McFarland (Hawthorne in Concord, 2004, etc.) mines Stowe’s correspondence to explain why she raised her quill: The salary of her husband, clergyman-academic Calvin Stowe, hardly supported their growing brood. Once writing—and later as family breadwinner—she drew upon various transformational experiences, first in light prose, then in more formidable work. Living in Cincinnati when Lyman founded Lane Theological Seminary, she absorbed that town’s abolitionist fervor—she was familiar with the Underground Railroad and researched slavery before writing her famous novel. McFarland’s detailing of the North-South political chasm over slavery, especially in 1852 as the serialization of Uncle Tom Cabin’s began, is not only scholarly, but stylishly dramatic. The author moves on to examine the immense popularity of Stowe’s work by showing how it rallied Northerners to Abolitionism while intensifying Southern rage. As the author of the first major American novel featuring a black hero, Stowe was a global celebrity, and McFarland rightly contextualizes Uncle Tom’s Cabin alongside her many other works. Stowe also lectured widely, and McFarland’s description of Stowe’s European travails offers a reflection on America’s anguished spirit. Among some of the “loves” to which McFarland alludes: Lord Byron’s widow, Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln (who may or may not have said, “So you’re the little lady who started the war”). As chapter titles indicate, there was Lyman, Henry Ward, other far-flung siblings, her husband and seven children, four of whom predeceased their mother. McFarland persuasively speculates that son Samuel’s untimely death clarified her take on Uncle Tom’s Cabin: If she could picture a slave mother sold away from her children—a heart-wrenching scene—she could picture it all.

Life and loves of a seminal figure in 19th-century American literature.