She was the daughter of a Congregational preacher, the sister of five preachers, and the husband of another. She was raised in a family that devoted themselves to Christian purpose, “a kind of moral heaven, replete with moral oxygen — fully charged and with intellectual electricity.” Several members of her family were also famous in their own right. Her brother, , became an evangelist for reform. Her great-niece was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose grandmother, Mary, was one of Harriet’s sisters. Her sister Catherine was an educator who founded the Hartford Female Seminary.
When Harriet was young, the family moved to Cincinnati, where they found themselves at the border of the North and South, East and West, and at the center of an increasing antislavery sentiment. Here she began to write for literary and evangelical periodicals.
When she was twenty-five she married one of her father’s colleagues at a theological seminary in Ohio, Calvin Stowe; and when he was appointed to the faculty at in Brunswick, Maine, she returned to New England. It was during services at the Brunswick Congregational Church that she was inspired to write her most famous book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which she penned at her kitchen table.
She married the Reverend Calvin Ellis Stowe — they had seven children. She wrote to help support their family and was drawn to the moral, political, and ethical issues surrounding the slavery question. She was neither by nature nor by influence of her upbringing content to sit on the sidelines as her country marched toward civil war.
She felt moral revulsion at the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law (1850), which required residents of free states to return fugitive slaves to their rightful owners. Her plans to write a “moral epic of negro bondage” came to her in a vision in a church in Brunswick, Maine. Eventually she came to believe that she was simply God’s instrument for writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Like many literary ladies of the nineteenth century, she turned to writing as a means to make money. She struggled to write, raise her children, and help her husband, who suffered from depression. The income she made from her writing was used to hire the domestic help she needed to avoid being “a mere domestic slave.” Yet she succeeded in shaping the history of and standards of her age. Her antislavery writing helped bring about the Civil War, and the morality of her fiction helped break down nineteenth-century barriers to novel-reading and theater going — an affirmation of her husband’s observation: “God has written it in His book that you must be a literary woman, and who are we that we should contend against God?”
First published serially in the antislavery periodical the National Era, the novel was published in book format in 1852. It was an historic event in publishing: it sold 10,000 copies the first week, over three hundred thousand the first year, and by the outbreak of the Civil War, that number had soared to beyond three million. The book was translated into thirty-seven languages. Several years later, when the petite Stowe met the tall President Lincoln, he reportedly said, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.” Lincoln was expressing the view of many that her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), as an antislavery manifesto, moved the North to embark on a military crusade against the slave-holding South.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not typical of her work. A second antislavery novel, Dred, a Tale of the Dismal Swamp (1856) was highly praised, but much of her best work has nothing to do with slavery at all. New England village life is the subject she began with and returned to often throughout her career.
The historical significance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin caused it to obscure the significance of her other literary works: The Mayflower (1843), The Minister’s Wooing (1859), The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862), and Oldtown Folks (1869), a book of sketches which she considered her masterpiece — “my resume of the whole spirit and body of New England.”
Her work eventually totaled sixteen volumes, but little of what she wrote ever surpassed the quality of her descriptions of the humble lives of New Englanders, in which she presented the descendents of the Puritans as willful, self-righteous, and content to live lives of aesthetic and emotional starvation.
Whether writing bestsellers or polemic essays, sketches of New England or letters to friends, Stowe wrote readable prose. Her local-color fiction, according to the literary critic Edmund Wilson, constitutes “a kind of encyclopedia of old New England institutions, characters, customs and points of view.” She wrote at least one book a year between 1862 and 1884. In many respects, her novels anticipated the local-color realism of Mary Wilkins Freeman and Sarah Orne Jewett, who acknowledged her indebtedness to Stowe.
Sadly, her later years did not turn out well.” One of her children died from alcoholism, another from drug addiction, a third from drowning, a fourth from cholera. She received none of the foreign royalties due her from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, one of America’s most famous preachers in the nineteenth century, was caught up in an adultery scandal. And her friendship with Lady Byron — and her exposé in the Atlantic of Lord Byron’s widely rumored but unspeakable affair with his half sister — almost caused the magazine to fold, and cast her in the eyes of many as a spiteful gossip. She died in 1896 after years of senility. Her coffin was draped in a wreath from a group of Boston African-Americans, which read, “The Children of Uncle Tom.”