Harriet Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, one of nine children of the distinguished Congregational minister and stern Calvinist, Lyman Beecher. Of her six brothers, five became ministers, one of whom, Henry Ward Beecher, was considered the finest pulpit orator of his day. In 1832 Harriet Beecher went with her family to Cincinnati, Ohio. There she taught in her sister's school and began publishing sketches and stories. In 1836 she married the Reverend Calvin E. Stowe, one of her father's assistants at the Lane Theological Seminary and a strong antislavery advocate. They lived in Cincinnati for 18 years, and six of her children were born there. The Stowes moved to Brunswick, Maine, in 1850, when Calvin Stowe became a professor at Bowdoin College. Long active in abolition causes and knowledgeable about the atrocities of slavery both from her reading and her years in Cincinnati, with its close proximity to the South, Stowe was finally impelled to take action with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. By her own account, the idea of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) first came to her in a vision while she was sitting in church. Returning home, she sat down and wrote out the scene describing the death of Uncle Tom and was so inspired that she continued to write on scraps of grocer's brown paper after her own supply of writing paper gave out. She then wrote the book's earlier chapters. Serialized first in the National Era (1851--52), an important abolitionist journal with national circulation, Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in book form in March 1852. It was an immediate international bestseller; 10,000 copies were sold in less than a week, 300,000 within a year, and 3 million before the start of the Civil War. Family legend tells of President Abraham Lincoln (see Vol. 3) saying to Stowe when he met her in 1862: "So this is the little lady who made this big war?" Whether he did say it or not, we will never know, since Stowe left no written record of her interview with the president. But he would have been justified in saying it. Certainly, no other single book, apart from the Bible, has ever had any greater social impact on the United States, and for many years its enormous historical interest prevented many from seeing the book's genuine, if not always consistent, literary merit. The fame of the novel has also unfortunately overshadowed the fiction that Stowe wrote about her native New England: The Minister's Wooing (1859), Oldtown Folks (1869), Poganuc People (1878), and The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862), the novel that, according to Sarah Orne Jewett, began the local-color movement in New England. Here Stowe was writing about the world and its people closest and dearest to her, recording their customs, their legends, and their speech. As she said of one of these novels, "It is more to me than a story. It is my resume of the whole spirit and body of New England.
‘One thing is certain, - that there is a mustering among the masses, the world over; and there is a dis irae coming on, sooner or later.’
Viewed by many as fuelling the abolitionist movement of the 1850s and laying the groundwork for the Civil War, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sentimental and moral tale of slaves attempting to secure their freedom was one of the most popular books of the nineteenth century. Centred round the long-suffering Uncle Tom, a devout Christian slave who endures cruelty and abuse from his owners, Tom is often celebrated as the first black hero in American fiction who refuses to obey his white masters. With other strong protagonists such as Eliza, a courageous slave who flees to the North with her son when she learns that he is to be sold, Beecher Stowe highlighted the plight of southern slaves and the breaking up of black families. Not without its controversy, more recent criticism has suggested that the novel contributed negatively to the stereotyping of the black community.