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Book Review

Nation's history is embedded in portrait of a famous writer

Harriet Beecher Stowe's influence is not limited to writing 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' Harriet Beecher Stowe's influence is not limited to writing "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia R. Hill
January 9, 2008

In the midst of the Civil War, the Rev. Dr. Leonard Bacon of Yale quipped that the country was inhabited by "saints, sinners and Beechers." Lyman Beecher's many children made their presence felt in the 19th century, none with greater effect than the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Their collective significance as shapers and exemplars of Victorian culture in America has been ratified by a raft of new books in recent decades, including two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies, Joan Hedrick's "Harriet Beecher Stowe" (1994) and Debby Applegate's "The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher" (2006). Why, one might reasonably wonder, do we need yet another book about the most famous Beecher of them all?

In "Loves of Harriet Beecher Stowe," Philip McFarland, a wonderful storyteller, relates the adventures and misadventures of Stowe and selected members of her remarkable family. McFarland's narrative draws on materials familiar to scholars and crafts them into a tale calculated to engage a wider readership. It is spiced with choice selections from the voluminous family correspondence that offer an almost voyeuristic pleasure. Ostensibly the story of one woman, the narrative paints, with broad strokes and graphic details, a history of the United States in the 19th century.

McFarland's gift for narrating intersecting lives enables him to animate a large cast of characters. What makes his life of Stowe differ from previous biographies is the individuals he chooses to emphasize. He lavishes attention on husband Calvin Stowe, Lord Byron, Victoria Woodhull, and Henry Ward Beecher. Stowe's other siblings, especially the sisters who have figured so prominently in feminist scholarship, and her children, especially her daughters, play only minor roles. The friends, fellow writers, and reformers who constituted her social milieu remain shadowy figures who occasionally make cameo appearances.

McFarland divides his narrative into three sections. The first follows Harriet Beecher's career from age 21 through her marriage to Calvin Stowe and the birth of her first six children; it culminates with the writing and publication of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," in 1852. The second section covers Stowe's emergence as an international celebrity and charts the trajectory of her career through the war years. The third section focuses on her society novels of the 1870s in relation to questions of women's rights, divorce reform, and free love and on Stowe's undeviating devotion to her brother Henry Ward Beecher as his adultery trials rocked the nation. A brief concluding chapter quickly sketches Stowe's decline into senility and her death, in 1896.

Nowhere is the book's provocative title explained, though the labels of these three sections - "Calvin," "Lyman," and "Henry" - might be construed as identifying Stowe's predominant emotional ties. Yet McFarland's text does not make that argument explicitly. Implicitly, in his portrait of the Stowe marriage, he demonstrates the depth and power of the love that sustained this union. Judicious quotations from the remarkably frank letters Calvin and Stowe wrote to each other reveal an unwavering if often tempestuous affinity that endured for 50 years. And Stowe's infatuation with Henry Ward is evident in the letters she wrote before and during the adultery scandal. It was an infatuation shared with members of his congregation, female and male, and a large segment of the public. There is less evidence that Stowe's relationship to her father was either especially close or central to her adult world. In the section of the narrative named for him, while his biography is rehearsed, he plays no active role, belying McFarland's suggestive title.

The author offers a conventional analysis of Stowe's fiction. He repeats familiar charges of racism in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and accepts the dubious assumption that Stowe wrote for a female audience. His assessment of "Dred," Stowe's second antislavery novel, echoes the revised estimate of its worth now current among critics. Like too many other historians, he presents Stowe's historical fictions, her New England novels, as accurate accounts, rather than appreciating the role she played in developing what remains a durable myth of the New England origins of the nation.

Harriet Beecher Stowe emerges in these pages as a fascinating woman who wielded enormous power with her pen. Yet the originality of her work and the force of her genius, her influence on her contemporaries, are less fully explored in McFarland's account than the familial and cultural dynamics that influenced her. "Loves of Harriet Beecher Stowe" may not advance Stowe scholarship, but it distills that bulky literature into an engrossing story about a woman who changed her world by writing the most effective polemic of her age against slavery. Philip McFarland provides a stimulating if somewhat quirky introduction to that woman, her family, her culture, and her legacy.

Patricia R. Hill is professor of history and American studies at Wesleyan University.

Philip McFarland will read from "Loves of Harriet Beecher Stowe" Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Concord Bookshop, 65 Main St., Concord.

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