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Happy birthday, Harriet Beecher Stowe!

June 14, 2011 |  1:49 pm

Harrietbeecherstowe Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born 200 years ago, on June 14, 1811, in Connecticut. At 24, the young author-to-be, whose family had moved to Ohio, married Calvin Stowe, a professor and abolitionist. The two helped fugitive slaves traveling north to find freedom.

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the iconic anti-slavery book "Uncle Tom's Cabin" for The National Era, an abolitionist paper. Its publisher had asked her to write something that would, in installments, "paint a word picture of slavery."

The first part of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was published June 5, 1851, just six days before Harriet Beecher Stowe's 40th birthday. The book begins:

Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of P——, in Kentucky. There were no servants present, and the gentlemen, with chairs closely approaching, seemed to be discussing some subject with great earnestness.

For convenience sake, we have said, hitherto, two gentlemen. One of the parties, however, when critically examined, did not seem, strictly speaking, to come under the species. He was a short, thick-set man, with coarse, commonplace features, and that swaggering air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world. He was much over-dressed, in a gaudy vest of many colors, a blue neckerchief, bedropped gayly with yellow spots, and arranged with a flaunting tie, quite in keeping with the general air of the man. His hands, large and coarse, were plentifully bedecked with rings; and he wore a heavy gold watch-chain, with a bundle of seals of portentous size, and a great variety of colors, attached to it,—which, in the ardor of conversation, he was in the habit of flourishing and jingling with evident satisfaction. His conversation was in free and easy defiance of Murray's Grammar, and was garnished at convenient intervals with various profane expressions, which not even the desire to be graphic in our account shall induce us to transcribe.

His companion, Mr. Shelby, had the appearance of a gentleman; and the arrangements of the house, and the general air of the housekeeping, indicated easy, and even opulent circumstances. As we before stated, the two were in the midst of an earnest conversation.

"That is the way I should arrange the matter," said Mr. Shelby.

"I can't make trade that way—I positively can't, Mr. Shelby," said the other, holding up a glass of wine between his eye and the light.

"Why, the fact is, Haley, Tom is an uncommon fellow; he is certainly worth that sum anywhere,—steady, honest, capable, manages my whole farm like a clock."

"You mean honest, as niggers go," said Haley, helping himself to a glass of brandy.

"No; I mean, really, Tom is a good, steady, sensible, pious fellow. He got religion at a camp-meeting, four years ago; and I believe he really did get it. I've trusted him, since then, with everything I have,—money, house, horses,—and let him come and go round the country; and I always found him true and square in everything."

"Some folks don't believe there is pious niggers Shelby," said Haley, with a candid flourish of his hand, "but I do. I had a fellow, now, in this yer last lot I took to Orleans—'t was as good as a meetin, now, really, to hear that critter pray; and he was quite gentle and quiet like. He fetched me a good sum, too, for I bought him cheap of a man that was 'bliged to sell out; so I realized six hundred on him. Yes, I consider religion a valeyable thing in a nigger, when it's the genuine article, and no mistake."

Published as a book in 1852, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" became an international bestseller, selling a whopping 300,000 copies in its first year. It had tremendous societal impact; according to legend, when President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862 he said, "So you're the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war."

Harriet Beecher Stowe moved with her husband to Maine, Massachusetts and, after the Civil War ended, spent time in Florida to try to enact change in the South. A museum, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, is at her family's final home in Hartford, Conn.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: An undated photo of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Credit: Associated Press