Thursday, June 30, 2011
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)
The half-decade of 1850-55 has been called "the American Renaissance," since the most important American literary masterpieces were produced in this "one extraordinarily concentrated moment of expression" (F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman [New York: Oxford University Press, 1941], vii). "You might search all the rest of American literature without being able to collect a group of books equal" to Representative Men, The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, Moby-Dick, Pierre, Walden, and Leaves of Grass.
Missing in that list and mentioned by Matthiessen only once in nearly 700 pages is Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, whose 160th anniversary will be celebrated next year. (This past month has marked the 200th anniversary of Stowe's birth.) Matthiessen limited his analysis to the works of the two authors named in his subtitle and to the writings of three others: Hawthorne, Melville, and Thoreau. That Stowe was left unexamined is difficult to fathom, especially when one considers that her novel became the most politically significant literary creation in nineteenth-century America. Did Matthiessen share the judgment of Sinclair Lewis, who once described Stowe's novel as "the first evidence to America that no hurricane can be so disastrous to a country as a ruthlessly humanitarian woman"? Perhaps. One could also argue that Uncle Tom's Cabin doesn't quite reach the level of literary beauty and aesthetic form that one detects in the best fiction of the others. Nevertheless, that novel's moral vision and persuasive power put it on the same level as the best that Americans have produced. Certainly President Lincoln thought so when, during the height of the Civil War, he famously said to its author, "So is this the little woman who made this great war?" No other work was as instrumental in changing people's minds about the evils of slavery. Many have concluded that without that novel there might not have been a Civil War.
At a time when people like the first president of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, C. F. W. Walther, who was born in the same year as Stowe, argued that slavery was ordained by God and a positive, biblically-grounded good, Stowe set forth a minority position that was also biblically-grounded: slavery is contradicted by the Bible's teachings about human equality and dignity, about human freedom and responsibility, about Christ's love for "the lowliest members of society." The full title of the novel is Uncle Tom's Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly. (I highly recommend the second edition of the Norton Critical Edition [New York: Norton, 2010], which contains copious background materials and scholarly essays and criticism.) What she did through that novel was to shift public opinion in favor of her biblical vision, despite the fact that many were using the same Bible that she read to support a pro-slavery position.
The Beecher family into which Harriet was born on June 14, 1811, had already become well-known in American public life for its progressive views against slavery, intemperance, and other social ills. Her father, Lyman, was an articulate and well-known, if somewhat dull Calvinist preacher (and later president of Lane Theological Seminary), and her younger brother by two years, Henry Ward, was from early adulthood until his death in 1887 the leading figure in American liberal Protestantism. Harriet was the seventh of nine children. After her mother's death, her father married another woman and had four more children with her.
Already as a young woman, Harriet was judged to be an intellectual cut above the rest of her siblings. Because the pastoral office was off-limits to her because of her gender (both she and her father wished that she had been born a male, since she had the intellectual and physical gifts to be a pastor), she channeled her creaturely gifts in the one public direction that was then open to women: writing. She described her calling as a "vocation to preach on paper." The mother of seven children, Harriet always found time to write, in between her responsibilities as mother and home-maker.
Later, she told those who would listen that her most famous novel came to her as a series of heavenly "visions," not unlike the fulfillment of Joel's famous prophecy, quoted by St. Peter in Acts chapter two. Such "revelations" have long been a feminine experience within the Christian tradition. One thinks immediately of Julian of Norwich's Showings, but there have been many others. The recent work by historian David S. Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the Battle for America (New York: Norton, 2011), which received a very favorable review in last week's New Yorker, explains that Stowe's visions began in 1851. While she was taking Holy Communion, she "saw four figures: an old slave being whipped to death by two fellow slaves, who were goaded on by a brutal white man." Uncle Tom was the beaten slave and Simon Legree the white man.
So this month I have been giving thanks to God for this woman story-teller/preacher who was called "to preach on paper."