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Harriet Beecher Stowe

2011 is an excellent year for literary anniversaries.  One to mark in the month of June is the 200th birthday of American novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, best known for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” on 14 June.  Stowe was the daughter of a minister and her family was very active in education and social and religious causes.  All seven of her brothers became ministers; her oldest sister was an educator and reformer and another sister was a founder of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association.

Harriet began to write at an early age.  She received a formal education  at Hartford Female Seminary, founded by her sister Catherine, studying subjects typically reserved for males like the classics and mathematics.  At 21, she moved to Cincinnati, where her father was president of Lane Theological Seminary.  Here she met and married Calvin Stowe, a theology professor.  Her writing career began before she married; Harriet authored a number of children’s textbooks, short stories, and journal articles.

The Stowes were abolitionists, and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was written partly in response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  The novel was published serially in the abolitionist newspaper “The National Era,” and ran for 40 weeks starting June 5, 1851.  “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published in book form in March 1852 and sold some 300,000 copies in its first year in print.  The sentimental novel moved many readers and won acclaim from the abolitionists, but Stowe was heavily criticized by Southern readers and supporters of slavery.  In adding fuel to the debate over slavery, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was highly influential in the decade before the Civil War and eventually became an international best-seller.  According to legend,  Abraham Lincoln greeted Stowe in 1862 with the comment, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”  The success of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” brought the Stowes financial comfort and afforded Harriet the opportunity to write for pleasure.  She authored novels for adults and children as well as poems and stories until her death in 1896.  Special Collections owns a number of first and rare editions of Stowe’s works, including American, British, and Spanish editions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” – even an edition for British travelers printed in Italy!

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