American Literature Harriet Beecher Stowe
Martha Schoolman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0083


Harriet Beecher Stowe (b. 1811–d. 1896) was born in Litchfield, Connecticut in 1811, the seventh child of the famous Congregationalist Minister Lyman Beecher. An intellectual among intellectual siblings, she was, most prominently, sister to the writer and educator Catharine Beecher (1800–1878) and the minister-reformer Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887). She married the biblical scholar Calvin Ellis Stowe (1802–1886), a colleague of her father’s, in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1836. A school teacher and then a sought-after writer of didactic tales and local color sketches in the 1830s and 1840s, her career was transformed by the blockbuster success of the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), the work for which she remains best known today. Both Stowe and her novel remained important cultural and political touchstones throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. However, her writing career outlasted that novel by more than twenty-five years, including significant works of literary fiction, poetry, and travel writing, as well as works of domestic advice and religious reflection. Since her death in 1896, her literary reputation has been characterized by pronounced highs and lows at those particular junctures in the 20th century during which her sentimental aesthetics and Christian reform politics seemed most and least in tune with both modernist aesthetics and arguments about the relationship between racial representation and progressive politics. In the 21st century, as the phrase “Uncle Tom” as a shorthand for race betrayal has faded from regular use, and public and academic literary tastes have once again become more tolerant of the seeming excesses of Stowe’s style of religiously motivated realism, a number of her works, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin, have regained a greater degree of public and academic favor.

Biographical Treatments

Because of Stowe’s literary significance and prominent family connections, she has been the subject of regular biographical treatments since the late 19th century. The two most significant scholarly biographies of Stowe are those written over fifty years apart, Wilson 1941 and Hedrick 1994. Johnston 1963 and McFarland 2007 are both geared toward a popular audience, but are perceptive and well-researched nonetheless. Also useful to students and researchers are the series of works building on the 19th-century “life-in-letters” tradition that combine critical/biographical commentary and primary texts, most significantly Fields 1897; Stowe and Stowe 1911; Boydston, et al. 1988; and Belasco 2009.

  • Belasco, Susan, ed. Stowe in Her Time: A Biographical Chronicle of Her life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2009.

    A useful compendium of commentaries about Stowe from people who knew her, famous and obscure, published and unpublished. Commenters include her siblings, fellow literary abolitionists Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, as well as writers such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Mark Twain, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

  • Boydston, Jeanne, Mary Kelly, and Anne Margolis. The Limits of Sisterhood: The Beecher Sisters on Women’s Rights and Women’s Sphere. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

    An intriguing variation on the life-in-letters formula that examines the contributions to white middle-class feminist thought of Stowe and her sisters Catharine Beecher and Isabella Beecher Hooker. Structured around scholarly analysis alternating with primary texts, provides a useful starting point for understanding the sisters’ varying positions on domesticity, reform and suffrage.

  • Fields, Annie. The Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1897.

    Published shortly after Stowe’s death, by the writer and spouse of the famous publisher James T. Fields and intimate of the writer Sarah Orne Jewett. Remains an important source of information about Stowe in her own words, and will likely remain so until Stowe’s letters are published in another form. (See Hedrick 1994 for details on Stowe’s letters.)

  • Hedrick, Joan D. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    The new standard in Stowe biography and winner of a Pulitzer Prize. Written by a feminist historian who paid careful attention to Stowe’s yet-uncollected private letters held at the Stowe-Day Collection in Hartford and elsewhere.

  • Johnston, Johanna. Runaway to Heaven: The Story of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963.

    The most significant reinterpretation of Stowe’s life between Wilson and Hedrick, this study is especially strong in its attention to the influence of Stowe’s Cincinnati years on her later career.

  • McFarland, Philip. Loves of Harriet Beecher Stowe. New York: Grove, 2007.

    The most recent full-length biography of Stowe. Based largely on published sources, it is less scholarly and more readable than Hedrick 1994. Working implicitly against Hedrick’s feminist imperative, it organizes Stowe’s life loosely around her three great male “loves”: her husband, Calvin Stowe; her father, Lyman Beecher; and her brother Henry Ward Beecher.

  • Stowe, Charles Edward, and Lyman Beecher Stowe. Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Story of Her Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911.

    A memoir of their mother and grandmother that endeavors to narrate key events of Stowe’s life from Stowe’s own perspective, drawing on the letters collected by Fields, the correspondence of Lyman Beecher, and the writers’ own recollections.

  • Wilson, Forrest. Crusader in Crinoline: The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1941.

    The first full-length scholarly biography of Stowe. Remains an important resource, though it is in some respects superseded by Hedrick 1994.

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