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Harriet Beecher Stowe

(1811—1896) American novelist

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(1811–1896), novelist and abolitionist.

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the widely popular antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was published in 1852 and went on to sell three hundred thousand copies the first year. Credited with mobilizing antislavery sentiment in the North, Stowe was praised, honored, and respected among African Americans both during her lifetime and in the years following.

Uncle Tom's Cabin was based on various slave narratives, including those of Lewis Clarke, Frederick Douglass, and Josiah Henson. Legend has it that Henson was the model for Uncle Tom, and Henson capitalized on this legend by writing two more narratives after Uncle Tom's Cabin was published.

The years following the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin saw African American authors publish a number of narratives, novels, plays, and poems inspired by Stowe's work, including William Wells Brown's Clotel (1853), Martin R. Delany's Blake (1859), and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Iola Leroy (1892). In addition, Harper published three known poems inspired by Stowe. “Eva's Farewell” and “Eliza Harris” are based on incidents in Uncle Tom's Cabin, and “Harriet Beecher Stowe” extols Stowe as a savior to African Americans. Other poets who paid tribute to Stowe in verse include Henrietta Cordelia Ray and Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose 1898 sonnet praises Stowe as a “prophet and priestess” whose voice “spoke to consciences that long had slept.”

With a new century came a more critical look at Stowe. Sterling A. Brown in his literary history The Negro in American Fiction (1937) suggested that Stowe's sentimentalized representations of African Americans paved the way for the more pernicious stereotypes that characterized the works of racist writers such as Thomas Dixon. Richard Wright indirectly referred to Stowe's most famous work in the names of both his short story collection, Uncle Tom's Children (1940), and the main character of Native Son (1940), Bigger Thomas. For Wright, Stowe's novel signified the racist past that continued to influence the present aspirations of young African Americans. Similarly, in “Everybody's Protest Novel” (1955), James Baldwin called Uncle Tom's Cabin a “bad novel” characterized by a “self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality” motivated less by sincere empathy for African Americans oppressed by slavery and more by Stowe's desire for moral salvation and the assimilation of African Americans into her own moral and cultural purview.

Stowe's moral and theological views and domestic discourse were accepted as progressive, indeed radical, in the nineteenth century. It is ironic that in the twentieth century, she has come to exemplify both impotent white liberalism and the source of racist preconceptions about African Americans.

Jean Ashton, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Reference Guide, 1977.Joan D. Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1994.

—Wendy Wagner

Subjects: Literature

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