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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 451

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This is the grave of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Born in 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut to one of the most important families in early American history–her father was the minister Lyman Beecher–she grew up in the intellectual ferment of the early 19th century. She was highly educated and moved with her father to Cincinnati in 1832 when he started Lane Theological Seminary. While that city was (and still is) quite racially conservative, including still recovering from 1829 race riots, Beecher met a whole lot of other abolitionists who had moved there, including Salmon Chase and her soon-to-be husband Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor who worked with her father. He would later serve as her literary agent. They helped people on the Underground Railroad. They moved around 1850 or so to Maine, where Calvin got a job teaching at Bowdoin. Horrified by the Fugitive Slave Act, Stowe began to write a novel about slavery. That was Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Let’s be honest–Uncle Tom’s Cabin is nearly unreadable today. The sentimentality is so over the top, the portrayals of some of the slaves condescending and simplistic. But of course she wasn’t writing it for me. She was writing it to build northern opposition to slavery. It was certainly effective at that goal, much more because it was turned into a play that featured the most heart-rendering parts of the book and which was a huge hit across the North and in Europe. The book was a huge best-seller, moving 300,000 copies, a gargantuan number of this period. Of course, the South banned it and responded with a series of really bad novels intended to highlight the positive aspects of slavery. It was a propaganda war after all. According to her son, when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe in 1862, he said, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

She continued to write a lot of novels, though nothing particularly major or that are read today. She bought property in Florida after the Civil War–many northerners did this, seeing business opportunities, often in cotton plantations worked by black people–but reported being completely shunned by her neighbors, which I suppose is not surprising. She edited journals dedicated to women readers and argued for the expansion of legal rights for married women, a hugely important issue since legally, married women held no property rights in most states. She spent quite a few years in Florida but moved to Connecticut as she aged. After her husband died, she came down with Alzheimer’s; in 1888, the Washington Post ran a story on how she had started rewriting Uncle Tom’s Cabin, thinking it was new. This squares pretty well with how one of my in-laws lived with dementia. It is no pretty picture. She died in 1896 at the age of 85.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, along with her husband Calvin, who deserves some mention for his work promoting universal public education, is buried at Phillips Academy Cemetery, Andover, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit more people involved in the abolitionist movement, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Harriet Tubman is in Auburn, New York and John Brown is in North Elba, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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