Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)
Harriet Beecher Stowe was a sister of the clergyman Henry Ward Beecher who achieved her own notoriety. The wife of a college professor in Maine and the mother of seven children, besides working as a teacher, she was a novelist and poet, a writer of travelogues, biographical sketches and even children’s books. But nothing attained the same level of fame as her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was written in 1851 when its author was forty years old.
The VV recalls being a little girl, and seeing the 1928 film adaptation -where the central character is a black slave who suffers great cruelties in his life whilst remaining heroic and Christ-like - and during which she was deeply moved and yet with no comprehension of the profound political affect that the story once had in America. Being the first abolitionist work of fiction, the story provided huge motivation for the anti-slavery movement, so much so that when speaking about the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln went so far as to address Harriet Beecher Stowe as “the little lady" who caused it!”
As with many novels at the time Uncle Tom’s Cabin began its life in serial form when printed in an anti-slavery weekly known as the National Era. Following publication in book form over 10,000 copies were sold in one week, 300,000 in its first year, and millions internationally.
Poster for Uncle Tom's Cabin at the London Adelphi Theatre
When dramatised in 1852, the play became an instant hit, also opening up in London at the Adelphi Theatre. But, owing to lax copyright laws many other versions were being performed, several of which diluted the original message, with stereotypical roles for blacks in what were essentially minstrel shows.
A poster for Stetson’s 1886 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
When it was technically possible, films of the story were also made and, in 1903, Uncle Tom was one of the very first ‘full length’ movies – though full length might mean anything between ten and fifteen minutes long! It was directed by Edwin S Porter who used white actors in ‘blackface’ make up, with characters breaking into song and dance at the most inappropriate moments.
A still from the 1903 film of Uncle Tom's Cabin, directed by Edwin S Porter
If you would like to hear more about this story, you can listen to an episode of the radio programme In Our Time, in which Melvin Bragg and his guests discuss the novel’s influence.
And, as a final note on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work, the VV could not resist making another reference to the infamous Victoria Woodhull. Being a woman of moral sensibilities, Harriet strongly disapproved of a predatory ex prostitute making a bid for the presidency – and drawing her beloved brother through the mud of the adultery courts. She wrote a serialised satire published in The Christian Union which depicted a shameless adulteress who had founded her very own newspaper - just like Victoria. It was called Audacia Dangyreyes, and the following is an extract:
“I have just come from the Police Court, where there’s a precious row. Our friend, Audacia Dangyreyes is up...and there’s a terrible wash of dirty linen going on.”
“How horribly disagreeable,” said Eva, “to have such a woman around. It makes one ashamed of ones’ sex.
The VV cannot help but wonder if Harriet would have been more ashamed at some of the later ways in which Uncle Tom's Cabin was interpreted.