Harriet Beecher Stowe: Freeing Slaves, Promoting Change

The renowned author of the pro-abolishment novel Uncle Tom's Cabin would have turned 200 this month. Host Michel Martin discusses the life and legacy of Harriet Beecher Stowe with Katherine Kane, director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

Next, when you hear the name or the term Uncle Tom, what comes to mind? It comes, of course, from that seminal antislavery work "Uncle Tom's Cabin." But for many people, probably African-Americans in particular, it's a slur that evokes images of a sell-out or a black man who betrays his race.

The author of the book, if she were alive today, would probably beg to differ. That author, of course, was Harriet Beecher Stowe, and last month marked 200 years since her birth. And as we meditate on freedom and what it means on this July 4th, we thought it was a good time to think anew about Harriet Beecher Stowe and the work for which she is famous. So we've called upon Katherine Kane, executive director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut.

We caught up with her today, though, at member station WMEA in Portland, Maine. Katherine Kane, thanks for joining us.

KATHERINE KANE: I'm happy to be with you.

MARTIN: Could you just tell us a little bit about Harriet Beecher Stowe? If I have my church history correct, I think she came from a famous family of preachers.

KANE: She did. She was the daughter of Lyman Beecher, the last great Puritan minister. And she had seven brothers who were all ministers. She married a professor of theology. And she had a son who was a minister.

MARTIN: How did she get the idea for "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which, just to remind people, was published in 1852.

KANE: Yeah, so it's 160 years since "Uncle Tom's Cabin" first came out. Stowe was a 40-year-old wife and mother and she had a reputation already as a writer. And she was angry, as many of the Beechers were, about the political situation in the United States where people were treated and held as property. And Stowe got the idea to write a few chapters about it.

In an abolitionist newspaper out of Washington, D.C., The National Era. And she began one chapter at time, week after week and it became 45 chapters. The 19th century's biggest bestseller. And, of course, its biggest impact in the - in the 1850s was it changed American attitudes about people as property, about the economic system of slavery in the United States.

And historians argue that that meant it possible for Abraham Lincoln to be elected. And then for the country to split into the Civil War.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, legend has it that Harriet Beecher Stowe's son once said that when she met Abraham Lincoln, he said, so you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war. Did that really happen?

KANE: Well, they did meet, absolutely, in 1862. She went to Washington to use her fame and reputation to lobby Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. There were a number of people there at that meeting. Nobody wrote down that, that wonderful sentence that Lincoln may have said. But it kind of carries the whole weight of the experience.

MARTIN: So, talk a little bit about the character of Uncle Tom, if you would. Now, presumably the Beechers and then the Beecher Stowe family did not own slaves.

KANE: No, they didn't.

MARTIN: So, how did Uncle Tom - where did he come from?

KANE: How Stowe developed the character of Uncle Tom, I think, was - I think in many ways he was a composite character. But, certainly, she was familiar with people who had escaped slavery and gotten themselves into freedom and then written their narratives about that.

And one of the best known is a man named Josiah Henson, who ended up in Canada and wrote his narrative. And she used it as part of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and her inspiration for "Uncle Tom's Cabin." And she later that he was part of the inspiration.

MARTIN: I'm not sure how widely taught "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is now. So I'm not sure a lot of people know who the character of Uncle Tom is apart from the slur. So would you just describe the character for people who perhaps don't remember it or perhaps read it and have forgotten about exactly who he was in the book?

KANE: Sure. I think you're absolutely right. A lot of people haven't read "Uncle Tom's Cabin." So their only familiarity is with the cultural icons that they may pick up, including the racial slur or Simon Legree, the meanest slave owner ever. Tom himself was a man Stowe describes as having young children and a wife. He is physically strong and apparently has financial value.

He is partly motivated by his Christian faith and that carried him as he was literally sold down the river. Down to end up in Simon Legree's plantation in Louisiana where he was ultimately beaten to death because he would not tell where the two other escaped people were hiding.

MARTIN: Which is, again, one of the reasons I wanted you to tell that story is how did it become a person who was so brave as to be beaten to death in order to protect fellow escaped slaves, then become somebody who is the opposite of that and kind of a lackey, a tool of white people, you know. How did that happen?

KANE: I think it may be very difficult for all of us today to put ourselves in his position and imagine what it might be like to have your whole family owned by somebody and at their mercy. And that the decisions you make in those circumstances might be different than the decisions you make as a person who can be free to make those decisions and how Tom became an Uncle Tom is a very, to me, a very American story.

I think it starts with that character that Stowe describes and his - what some people read as passivity. But it also is affected by "Uncle Tom's Cabin" on the stage. It was so popular, it went right onto the stage dramatized. And so the characters quickly became stereotypes, particularly Tom. So he turned into an old humpbacked, white-haired man quite passive and go-along. So I think that's part of how it happened.

But I also think that from Stowe's point of view, it was all part of her moral argument about the wrongness of the institution of slavery.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, it's obviously - it's the Fourth of July and we're thinking about freedom today. You know, Harriet Beecher Stowe was writing at a time when, you know, millions of Americans were so very un-free. And, I don't know, if you just have some thoughts about that today.

KANE: 1860, when the Civil War started, there were 20 million Americans and four million of them were enslaved. So there were many people held in bondage. And I think that's an obviously a huge blur on our history as Americans. To be an American in 1800, to be a citizen, to vote, you had to be a man-holding property.

And it took us until past Civil War that brought freedom and franchise to most of the emancipated people. But we didn't really implement that until the 1960s and '70s with the civil rights movement. So it seems like if we take the long horizon on American history as Martin Luther King said. The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.

On the Fourth of July, it seems like we should all be remembering that. And "Uncle Tom's Cabin" can help us have a discussion that continue to aim us towards justice and equity and freedom for everybody.

MARTIN: Katherine Kane is the executive director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. Harriet Beecher Stowe's 200th birthday was observed just last month.

Ms. Kane, thanks so much for joining us.

KANE: Thank you very much for asking me to be with you.

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