Austen, Beecher & Stowe

October 16, 2014

In the years leading up to the Civil War, Catharine Beecher’s influence was eclipsed when her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin ignited a movement to abolish slavery. In 1869, Beecher and Stowe collaborated on combining Treatise on Domestic Economy and Domestic Receipt-Book into the American Woman’s Home. However, Beecher’s legacy was established in her arguments that women’s roles in the domestic and educational sphere were the foundations for social advancement and the cornerstone of American democracy. Whereas the Grimké sisters used Christian rhetoric to fight for the abolition of slavery, Beecher used the same rhetoric to wrap women in a new schema for creating professionalism domestic work. She sought to illustrate how rationalism and utilitarianism could give women the opportunity to turn ordinary female activities into a means to achieve success that echoed masculine models for success

The literary landscape dramatically expanded when American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) – who was born the year Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was first published – reached into the American consciousness to engage its sentimentality for the abolitionist cause. Stowe picked up the threads from female authors of the early Republic when she wrote “A New England Sketch” for Western Monthly Magazine in April 1834. Stowe’s collection of stories and sketches called The Mayflower (1843), modeled after Addison and Steele’s The Spectator, utilized Enlightenment rhetoric to inculcate moral lessons, and launched her career as a leading abolitionist writer. However, Stowe is best remembered for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, Life among the lowly (1852), which introduced American readers to a new genre of “family novels” featuring short chapters that were read aloud with the entire family present, similar as to when families gathered around their radios for entertainment during the early-twentieth century.

Utilizing contacts with the abolitionist newspaper the National Era, Stowe had her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, Life Among the Lowly (1852), published in installments over a forty-week period. Family stories were often published in serial form so they could be read aloud by at least a dozen people, thus serials crossed economic regions that expensive books might not reach. This aspect of popular culture often occurred in connection to women’s communal activities including sewing or quilting bees and similar to today’s book club where people shared an experience and discussed its implications.

Austen’s work never carried the label “bestseller” during her lifetime; she was not widely read even in England. Relevant to American history, this nineteenth century American bestseller (still second only to the Bible) evangelized against slavery as the cornerstone of the Southern plantation system. After borrowing a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from her neighborhood “Reading Circle” a young Vermont mother named Chastina Rix wrote in her diary: I hate slavery and always did. This Work although a fiction, is calculated well to touch the feelings & enlist ones sympathies for this unfortunate race, a curse upon our country will surely come if men will persist in keeping these poor creatures in such a degraded condition aye & hold there [sic] children in bondage too! It makes my blood burn when I think on it. (Bonfield and Morrison 1995, 70).” Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the Civil War, and credited her with laying the moral groundwork for the conflict over the abolition of slavery, “So this is the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war (Stowe & Smiley 2001: xxii).” Today most Americans are more familiar with the plotlines of Austen’s British classics. The semantics of conversation presented in Austen’s novels must have seemed to innocent, quaint, and guileless to later generations as middle-class affluence increased with the industrial revolution. The two cousins once-separated by a family dispute no longer felt any animosity as Victoria of England grew as a national and international icon for feminine morality.

Bibliography

Beecher, Catharine. Miss Beecher’s Domestic Reciept-Book: Designed as a Supplement to Her Treatise on Domestic Economy. New York: Harper, 1850.

Bonfield, Lynn A., and Mary C. Morrison. Roxana’s Children: The Niography of a nineteenth-century Vermont Family. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher, and Jane Smiley. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, Life among the Lowly. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

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