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The Beecher Sisters$

Barbara A. White

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9780300099270

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300099270.001.0001

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In the Wake of Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852–1859

In the Wake of Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852–1859

Chapter:
(p.53) 3 In the Wake of Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852–1859
Source:
The Beecher Sisters
Author(s):

Barbara A. White

Publisher:
Yale University Press
DOI:10.12987/yale/9780300099270.003.0003

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter elaborates the success and influence of the book Uncle Tom's Cabin. In Brunswick, with her sisters, Harriet Beecher Stowe seemed stunned by the reception of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Southerners did not react at first to Uncle Tom's Cabin, but when it became clear how influential the book was going to be, the novel was effectively banned in the South. Initially, the attacks on Uncle Tom's Cabin targeted the veracity of the portrayal of slavery. According to the Southern Quarterly Review, Stowe's “foul imagination had produced a book whose touch contaminates with its filth.” Harriet, who sometimes said more directly that God had written Uncle Tom's Cabin, was looked upon as the spokesperson of the anti-slavery movement, whether she wanted to be or not, and was invited to England by British abolitionists.

Keywords:   Uncle's Tom Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, slavery, anti-slavery movement, abolitionists

IN BRUNSWICK WITH HER sisters, Harriet Beecher Stowe seemed stunned by the reception of Uncle Tom's Cabin. She was no less equipped to handle sudden wealth and fame than the average person, but the situation would have been overwhelming for any fledgling author. The first printing of the novel sold out in a few days—and this without advance promotion. Before any reviews appeared, additional printings had sold. A Boston newspaper noted that the publisher kept three mills going to make the paper, three power presses running twenty-four hours a day, and a hundred bookbinders at work; yet the demand for the book exceeded the supply. By the end of the year three hundred thousand copies had been sold in the United States and a million in Great Britain.

The Stowes could have been economically fixed for life, but they made a bad business decision. The publisher, John P. Jewett, had offered a choice between sharing evenly in the costs and profits or taking a ten percent royalty on each copy sold. The Stowes chose the latter option. There were also few royalties on the British sales, as there was no international copyright. Still, Harriet received a check that summer for ten thousand dollars for three months' royalties. Her husband or father could not have earned that sum in years.

Southerners did not at first react to Uncle Tom's Cabin, but when it became clear how influential the book was going to be, the novel was effectively banned in the South (a British visitor noted that when he gave a copy to a young southerner he was threatened and run out of town). Initially the attacks on Uncle Tom's Cabin targeted the veracity of the portrayal of slavery—Harriet's portrait simply wasn't true. But the criticism quickly became more vitriolic and directed toward Harriet personally. She was not only a liar but also a “loathesome” person. According to the Southern Quarterly Review, Stowe's foul imagination had produced a book “whose touch contaminates with its filth.” Poor Harriet became a “vile wretch in petticoats.” The southern novelist (p.54) William Gilmore Simms even peeked underneath, claiming “Mrs. Stowe betrays a malignity so remarkable that the petticoat lifts of itself, and we see the hoof of the beast.” Strong stuff for a minister's mate, a housewife and mother who had always been treated like a “lady”!

But in some ways the blame was easier to take than the praise. As Forrest Wilson asks, “How could a plain Brunswick housewife, dicing potatoes and onions in her kitchen for a chowder, remain precisely calm when her husband brought from the post office such a letter as this:

I congratulate you most cordially upon the immense success and influence of Uncle Tom's Cabin. It is one of the greatest triumphs recorded in literary history, to say nothing of the higher triumph of its moral effect.

With great regard, and friendly remembrance to Mr. Stowe, I remain,

Yours most truly,

Henry W. Longfellow

More privately, the famous poet confided to his diary: “At one step she has reached the top of the staircase up which the rest of us climb on our knees year after year.” Longfellow's tribute was echoed by the great in every country—Prince Albert in England, George Sand in France, Heinrich Heine in Germany, Leo Tolstoy in Russia. Harriet was now an international celebrity.

Her brother Edward, for one, worried that all the adulation would go to Harriet's head and ruin her character. She, however, took refuge in her humble housewife persona. To the letter of a female author of children's books she replied, “So you want to know something about what sort of a woman I am!” Well, she was “a little bit of a woman—somewhat more than forty, about as thin and dry as a pinch of snuff; never very much to look at in my best days and looking like a used-up article now.” Harriet sometimes refused to take all the credit for writing the book. Her friend Susan Howard, one of Henry Ward Beecher's wealthy parishioners in Brooklyn, once shared a guest room with Harriet at Mary Beecher Perkins's house. Howard said that Harriet undressed at bedtime and sat down cross-legged on the floor. Going into one of the dreamy reveries she was known for, she started brushing her hair. Finally she talked about her brother Edward's fears: “She dropped her brush from her hand and exclaimed with earnestness, ‘Dear soul, he need not be troubled. He doesn't know that I did not write that book.’ ‘What!’ said I. ‘you did not write Uncle Tom?’ … ‘No,’ she said, ‘but it all came before me in visions, one after another, and I put them down in words.’” Harriet sometimes said more directly that God had written Uncle Tom's Cabin.

(p.55) While Harriet coped with her great success, the Beecher men sought their own limelight. According to one observer, the early 1850s “marked the climax of the family's achievement and fame.” Lyman's collected sermons appeared in the same year as Uncle Tom's Cabin. He was on the verge of senility and seemed unaware that he had passed from being the great Lyman Beecher to “Harriet Beecher Stowe's father.” Lyman's sons by his first wife were just reaching their stride. Henry was drawing phenomenal crowds to his Sunday sermons in Brooklyn, and even Charles gained an audience when his sermon attacking the Fugitive Slave Law lost him his pastorate. In 1853 appeared Edward Beecher's masterwork, The Conflict of Ages. In this book Edward, or Dr. Beecher since he had been awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree, developed his theory of the preexistence of souls. He defended Calvinism's central doctrine, original sin, against the protests of critics like his sister Catharine by postulating a time before birth when souls had an opportunity to choose right or wrong. Thus God was not arbitrary and people were responsible for their own damnation. Edward's book made a splash in theological circles, though some reviewers agreed with his father's assessment: “Edward, you've destroyed the Calvinistic barns, but I hope you don't delude yourself that the animals are going into your little theological hencoop.”

It is possible to read some envy into Edward's concern about Harriet's becoming vain. Henry was obviously jealous of his sister's accomplishment; he even wrote a novel (Norwood, 1867) that he hoped would equal hers. But for the most part the gulf between male and female was so great in Lyman Beecher ideology that the boys competed with the boys and the girls with the girls. The two Beechers most profoundly affected by Harriet's grand stroke were Catharine and Isabella (Mary had presumably adjusted to a solely domestic life). As the sisters gathered in Brunswick, Catharine was being meddlesome again in interfering with Harriet's publishing arrangements. She had originally tried to get her latest publisher to bring out Uncle Tom, but he had refused for fear of losing southern trade. Now Catharine burst into anger at John P. Jewett for reaping most of the profits from Harriet's book. She began waging a campaign against Jewett, threatening him and trying (unsuccessfully) to get him to alter the terms of his contract with the Stowes. Sister Mary wrote Lyman that the siblings feared Catharine would go public and write “another book after the manner of ‘Fact Stranger than Fiction’ [sic—she is referring to the Delia Bacon book].”

Isabella attributed Catharine's actions to her single status: she didn't have enough to do. In a statement that would have made her cringe if she recalled it a decade later, she wrote John, “The fact is all women do need a domestic circle of their own to manage—then [they] won't have to ‘go abroad.’” Amusingly, she inserted as an afterthought the words “& husband” (p.56) after “domestic circle.” But Catharine's behavior was more likely a way of dealing with Harriet's sudden fame. Catharine presented herself as the architect and protector of Harriet's career. There was some reason to this. She had, in fact, supported her sister's writing when she was better known than Harriet; she had even written an introduction to her first collection of stories. For the rest of her life Catharine would let no one forget that she had been her sister Harriet's mentor.

As for Isabella, she had never resigned herself to being solely a wife and mother. Forrest Wilson describes her thus in his biography of Stowe: “Harriet found an accumulation of mail so formidable that she brought up her half sister Isabella to help her with it as secretary. Isabella, a lush brunette, aged thirty, was married to John Hooker, who had been a law clerk in Thomas Perkins's office in Hartford.” Dealing with the mail was not easy; the next envelope in the pile might contain a letter of praise from European royalty or, as Calvin Stowe reportedly found, the severed ear of a slave. But Isabella was having the greatest difficulty handling her own emotions in view of Harriet's stunning achievement. Here she was thirty years old with nothing to keep the world from categorizing her in terms of physical appearance and husband's occupation.

Ordinarily Isabella was too gregarious to feel self-conscious, but with her family in Brunswick she experienced a new feeling, “forever conscious,” as though she were constantly watching herself. This behavior in turn made an unfortunate contrast with what Isabella saw as Harriet's selflessness, her great Christian charity. Isabella wrote John, “At first I was melancholy—on seeing the evidences of genius all around me here—my own bitterness fairly stared me in the face—but I am calming down considerably & begin to think my bump of order & housekeeping capacity are worth something in this working, matter of fact world.” John would have to be comforted for her lack of Harriet's brilliance, she went on, by realizing that if she had it, she wouldn't be half as good a wife and mother. On this trip Isabella gave up for good her idea of asking Harriet for childrearing advice. At Brunswick she found Georgie a “romp” and worried she was turning little Mary “wild.” For the time being she would concentrate on her own domain. She would bide her time managing her domestic circle, but Harriet's success could be considered the first move in her own quest for an identity beyond the home.

Harriet spent the 1850s adjusting to her new roles as anti-slavery leader and world-famous writer. First, the Stowes moved again, as Calvin accepted a better job as chair of sacred literature at Andover Theological Seminary in Andover, Massachusetts. This position came with a good salary and a free house on campus. Once the house was renovated, Harriet threw herself into completing her next book, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853).The (p.57) book was a compilation of documents her sisters had helped her collect at Brunswick. Harriet proposed to show, by means of laws, court records, newspaper articles, and accounts by ex-slaves, that she had not exaggerated the evils of slavery as the southern press accused her of doing. One of the stories in A Key concerned the Edmondson family of Virginia. The mother, Milly Edmondson, appealed to Harriet when her remaining slave children were about to be sold (Henry Ward Beecher had earlier persuaded his congregation to ransom two of Milly's daughters). Harriet started an “emancipation fund” and succeeded in raising enough money to buy the freedom of all the Edmondsons; later she paid for the sisters to study at Oberlin College.

Now that Harriet was looked upon as the spokesperson of the antislavery movement, whether she wanted to be or not, she was invited to England by British abolitionists (Uncle Tom's Cabin had sold even better there than in the United States). Before going abroad she duly acquainted herself with the American abolitionist leaders, such activists as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. Douglass had escaped from slavery to become an influential speaker, writer, and editor; Garrison had started his newspaper the Liberator in 1831 and painted Lyman Beecher as pro-slavery in the Lane Seminary controversy. Harriet tried to stay neutral amid the internal quarrels of the abolitionists, for instance, the quarrels between Garrison and Douglass and between Garrison and such men as Henry Stanton, who disagreed with his avoidance of political parties.

But inevitably her lack of knowledge of the movement and lack of interaction with African Americans got her into trouble. When she was finishing A Key in preparation for going to Europe, Harriet received a letter from Amy Post, an abolitionist and early women's rights advocate from western New York. Post wrote at the behest of her friend Harriet Jacobs, a former slave who was working as a nursemaid in the household of the journalist Nathaniel Willis and his wife. Jacobs wanted literary advice in telling the story of her life in slavery and eventual escape to the North; she also thought Stowe might let her daughter Louisa accompany her to England, for “Louisa would be a very good representative of a Southern Slave” for the English to meet.

The approach to Stowe was hard for Jacobs to make because Louisa's father was a married white man, an embarrassing fact Jacobs had not told even the Willises. As Jacobs said, “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women.” Stowe's response to Amy Post's letter was insensitive at best. She forwarded it to Mrs. Willis, asking whether the story were true and if she could use it in her Key to corroborate the character of Cassy as portrayed in Uncle Tom's Cabin. According to Jacobs, when Stowe learned that Jacobs planned to write her own story, she failed to answer her subsequent letters. Eventually Jacobs published her compelling narrative under the title Incidents (p.58) in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). As for Louisa, Stowe told Mrs. Willis that if the English discovered Louisa had once been a slave, she would be more “petted and patronized” than would be healthy for a young girl. Outraged, Jacobs complained to Amy Post that “Mrs. Stowe thinks petting is more than my race can bear[;] well what a pity we poor blacks cant [sic] have the firmness and stability of character that you white people have.”

Harriet was probably thinking of her own spoiled daughters instead of being racist, and she was also under pressure to finish A Key before leaving for Europe in spring 1853. But her experience in England and Scotland, where she was petted by the aristocracy and hailed by huge crowds, unfortunately confirmed the idea that she could “speak for” the slaves. The British seemed to expect it. Bizarrely, though, she could not as a woman speak out loud. Calvin and brother Charles, whom she brought along as secretary, had to read her speeches for her. In general, Harriet's trip was a success. She made valuable contacts, raised money for the anti-slavery cause, and felt broadened by her “grand tour” of Paris, the Swiss Alps, and Germany. She would make two more European trips in the 1850s, ostensibly to establish copyright for her books, but staying longer on each occasion. This time she was back in Andover by fall, organizing, along with Garrison, an anti-slavery lecture series.

Harriet's trip provided material for a travel book, Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands (1854). In 1856 she published Dred, her last anti-slavery novel. Dred, a fugitive, is a more aggressive character than Uncle Tom; Harriet makes him the son of Denmark Vesey, who led a slave rebellion in the 1820s. But the plot and style of the book suffer greatly from the haste with which it was composed. If the title character is more palatable than Tom to modern readers, the novel is practically unreadable today. It did sell. After reading an unfavorable review, Harriet wrote Calvin that one hundred thousand copies had sold in four weeks. “After that who cares what critics say?”

In terms of books published, Catharine kept pace in the 1850s with her now more famous sister. She published five books during the decade, the same number as Harriet, and her Letters to the People on Health and Happiness (1855) was very popular. Catharine spent much of her time in travel, moving back and forth from the East to the Midwest where she had founded her third school, the Milwaukee Normal Institute (later Milwaukee Female College and Milwaukee-Downer College). After visiting the Milwaukee school, the Swedish novelist and traveler Frederika Bremer wrote: “An important reformation in female schools is taking place in these Western States at the present time under the guidance of a Miss Beecher … who is a kind of lady-abbess in educational matters.”

(p.59) In the East the lady-abbess often stayed with her siblings as she lectured and raised funds for an endowment for the Milwaukee school and her new organization, the American Woman's Educational Association (AWEA). The purpose of the AWEA, as she later described it, was “to establish endowed professional schools, in connection with literary institutions, in which woman's profession should be honored and taught as are the professions of men, and where woman should be trained for some self-supporting business.” Catharine emphasized teaching as “woman's true profession.” Her idea was that women in the East, where paid work for middle-class women was lacking, should be trained to teach and sent to the West, where more teachers were desperately needed.

To Harriet this idea was a brilliant one. As she read Catharine's recent books, she realized that she hadn't properly appreciated her sister's goals and motives during the past several years. “I considered her strange, nervous, visionary and to a certain extent unstable,” she wrote her father and Henry. Now she finally saw that Catharine's work, far from being a series of individual failures (such as the failure of the Western Female Institute), formed a consistent whole unified by her idea of preparing women to educate the country. Harriet's recognition of her sister's aim was perceptive, and Catharine would eventually be credited for her achievements by historians of American education.

But recognition did not pay the rent. A key word in Catharine's statement of the AWEA's purpose was the one she emphasized: “endowed.” She did not succeed in getting an endowment for her Milwaukee school, any more than she had in Hartford and Cincinnati. Furthermore, the trustees of the Milwaukee Normal Institute did not go along with her plan to have a house built for her on the seminary grounds. She managed to raise half the cost, thinking the trustees would cover the rest, but they firmly refused to finance a home that would be used primarily by her. No doubt Catharine thought enviously of the free house provided by Andover Theological Seminary for the use of her brother-in-law Calvin Stowe. She was now back to square one—she still had no home of her own and no place to retire in her old age. Angrily, she ended her relationship with the Milwaukee college and withdrew from the AWEA.

For Isabella, the 1850s was a decade of preparation rather than public achievement. She moved her household from Farmington to Hartford, starting the Nook Farm community there, gave birth to her last child, began to educate herself regarding women's status, and dealt with her health problems in preparation for venturing into the public world. By 1850 Hartford had grown from the small town Catharine knew when she established the Hartford (p.60) Female Seminary. It was now a bustling and prosperous city of fourteen thousand; it was already known for its insurance industry and would soon expand economically with the advent of life insurance.

In 1851 John Hooker, with his brother-in-law, Francis Gillette, purchased a hundred-acre farm lying just outside the western limits of the city. The heavily wooded property was called Nook Farm because a river—originally the Hog or Meandering Swine River, renamed the Park—curved about the farm so as to leave thirty or forty acres within a nook. Kenneth Andrews, in his book Nook Farm: Mark Twain's Hartford Circle (1950), assumes that the Hookers moved because they found life in the village of Farmington too simple and rustic. But Isabella and John were always nostalgic about life in Farmington and often spent summers there. They moved because John's legal business took him increasingly to Hartford and it was inconvenient to travel back and forth, especially in the winter; the last few years before the move the Hookers boarded in Hartford during the winters.

The original Nook Farm had only one dwelling house, and that was occupied by the Gillettes, while the Hookers built a substantial brick house on a street they opened and called Forest Street. They settled in the new place in 1853, and a few years later the Gillettes built an even larger house nearby. As John notes in his autobiography, a “curious thread of relationship” soon ran through the neighborhood. In 1855 Mary and Thomas Perkins built a house around the corner on Hawthorn Street (in the twentieth century this would be the childhood home of actress Katharine Hepburn). Then in the 1860s the Stowes built Oakholm, an expensive white elephant of a house, on another part of the farm; ultimately they would sell it and buy a simpler house on Forest Street. John's widowed mother, Elizabeth Daggett Hooker, had a “cottage” built next to the Hookers. Then John's niece, Elizabeth “Lilly” Gillette, married George H. Warner, a businessman, and settled nearby. Warner attracted his sister-in-law, Susan Lee Warner, a talented musician, and his brother, Charles Dudley Warner, an editor and literary man who would be close to Mark Twain. Twain (Samuel Clemens) did not build his Nook Farm house until the 1870s; the thread of relationship here is that Isabella was an intimate friend of the Langdons of Elmira, New York, Clemens's in-laws.

The Nook Farm neighborhood was thus close-knit. As John explained, they lived “like a little society by ourselves—each of us making free of the others' houses, and each keeping open house, and all of us frequently gathering for a social evening or to welcome some friendly visitor, often some person distinguished in political, literary, or philanthropic life.” One innovation Isabella introduced, now that she had a large enough house, was dancing. Although dancing was looked down upon by strict Calvinists and Lyman Beecher had once chastised a dancing Cincinnati family, she had come to (p.61) consider it an acceptable amusement. After exchanging gifts at the Hookers' New Year's party in 1854 (holiday gift exchange being another non-Calvinist custom), the Perkins and Hooker families danced. There was plenty of cake and oysters, so Thomas and John invited some law students and lawyers from their office buildings. “Montgomery, the Irishman who works for us, came up in his shirt sleeves & played Irish jigs so fast on his violin we had to fly to keep any sort of step,” Isabella wrote. She and John had learned the Virginia Reel, she and Aunt Esther could play popular tunes on the piano, and Grandma Hooker would “stand up once in a while to complete the figure.”

A few years later the Calvinist prohibition against the theater fell away also. When Isabella was a teenager, Mr. Putnam, who would be John's best man, asked her opinion of attending the theater; she replied that it lowered the moral standards of the community (and added that Mr. Putnam was surely injuring himself by reading Bronson Alcott and other Transcendentalist philosophers). At the age of thirty-five Isabella went to the theater for the first time in her life. While visiting in Boston, she was taken to see Hamlet. The identical thing happened to Harriet, who was persuaded at about the same time to attend a performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin at the National Theatre in Boston. Previously Calvin had been so anti-theater that he would not let the twins go to the opera. From this point on, the Stowes and the Hookers not only attended the theater but also produced amateur theatricals and played charades at their parties at home. The Gillettes' son William, schoolmate of the Hookers' son, would become a celebrated actor and playwright.

These changes in lifestyle have been viewed as signs that “Victorian aspirations were replacing Calvinist standards.” Whether it resulted from their interest in reform or the growing sophistication of their social circle, the Hookers' old Puritan sense of sin seemed dated. It was not that John and Isabella were no longer religious. In Farmington they worshipped under the Rev. Dr. Noah Porter, a distinguished minister who held his pastorate for over fifty years. When they moved to Hartford, they joined the Fourth Congregational Church under the Rev. William Patton and John became a deacon. (John had a second opportunity to change his occupation and again rejected it. As he left for Hartford, the Farmington church tried to persuade him to give up the law and become assistant pastor to Dr. Porter.) In his autobiography John notes that about the time he went to Hartford he began to have serious doubts about certain Calvinist doctrines, such as election (certain people being elected to be saved) and everlasting punishment. He started to think that people might be saved by good character.

Likewise, Isabella's injunctions to herself in the children's journal to provide an example of holiness gave way to Bible instruction; she read and discussed with the children the pictures and stories from a monthly magazine, (p.62) Scriptural History. In the 1870s, when looking over her journal of twenty-five years earlier, Isabella made some annotations. Most were corrections of sexist language—“he and she” substituted for “he”—but next to an entry lamenting the children's failure to be “holy” she wrote, “What a fool!” Both Isabella and John were more concerned with the children's moral character. Isabella had them visit a poor family, for instance: “I took them to see a family just come into town & lodged in a cellar—buying a loaf of bread on the way, with a five cts. of each [child]. They could not stay long—from the darkness & crowded state of the cellar—but they were much impressed & were more ready than ever to pray for the poor.” But although the Hooker children were baptized, sent to church and Sunday school, and given religious instruction at home, they were never expected to go through the conversion process that had scarred so many of their aunts and uncles.

The religious transformations of the Hooker family were paralleled in the Beechers at large and the country as a whole. By the time Lyman Beecher retired from Lane Seminary in 1850, most of his children, ministers or not, had strayed from his Calvinist faith. Edward had burned the Calvinist barns, in Lyman's view, as he tried to shore them up, and William and Charles followed Edward, Charles even being tried for heresy. Henry and Thomas became what Marie Caskey calls, in her religious classification of the Beechers, “christocentric liberals.” Completely uninterested in theological doctrines, they emphasized Christ's love for humanity. Lyman once said of Henry that he “had no business to tell sinners of the Love of God without telling them of the wrath of God.”

As for the Beecher sisters, Mary had long been a convert to Reverend Bushnell's liberal doctrine of “Christian nurture.” She first tried to resist it, out of loyalty to her father, but ultimately gave in. From the time she was a girl she had the same problem as Catharine with the wrathful God of the Calvinists. Although she managed to convert, she confided to brother Edward that religion seemed a joyless “task” to her—“if I ever go [to pray] with feelings of pleasure, I soon become wearied and cold.” Mary felt disappointed when her son Frederick turned out to be anti-religious. Still, like Isabella, she did not try to force conversion on her children. Mary's and Isabella's private falling away from Calvinism was nothing compared to the deliberate public attacks Catharine and Harriet made on the religion in the 1850s. The two had been critical in their writings before, but the fading of their father's mind in the middle of the decade allowed them to express their views without fear of hurting him.

Catharine directly confronted the religion of her childhood in two books, Common Sense Applied to Religion (1857)and An Appeal to the People on Behalf of Their Rights as Authorized Interpreters of the Bible (1860). Neither of these (p.63) titles would have made sense to the famous Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards—he who portrayed sinners as dangling over the pit in his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards thought only ministers were authorized to interpret the Bible. Catharine's attack was partly on Calvinist doctrine and partly on the authority of the ministry. She took apart the theories of predestination, original sin, and conversion. Most Americans no longer believed, she said, that their fate was predestined, that they were born horribly corrupt and had to seek God's grace in a conversion experience. These notions were perversions of Christianity introduced long ago by St. Augustine. They would no longer be influential if it were not for the power of the clerical establishment, what Catharine called the “vast array of wealth, position, influence, and ecclesiastical power” of institutionalized Protestantism.

Catharine would not, of course, replace Calvinist ideas with self-indulgence, as her nephew Frederick Perkins was inclined to do. She simply believed that moral leadership was passing to secular elements in American society. Social influence would now discourage vice and lead people to virtue. People would be motivated by what she considered the highest morality, the principle of self-sacrifice. In the early 1860s, before her father died but long after he was mentally incompetent, Catharine joined the Episcopal Church, the church of the Footes of Nutplains. She did not leave the symbolism of that act for her biographers to interpret. She wrote Delia Bacon's brother straightforwardly, “I have only stepped from my father[']s house into my mother[']s.”

Harriet also made the switch, and she too attacked the clerical establishment in her writings. A reviewer of Dred sighed over the number of characters who were unsympathetic Calvinist ministers and wished the author had put at least one good clergyman in the book. She did so but also aired her doubts in her next novel, The Minister's Wooing (1859), based on a tragic event in her personal life. In June 1857 Harriet returned from her second trip to Europe. The Hookers met her in Andover, having brought Georgie, who had stayed with them during her mother's absence. Harriet and Fred then went to Hartford to visit the Hookers and the Perkinses and consider moving to Nook Farm. In July the news came that Henry Stowe, who was nineteen and attending Dartmouth College, had drowned during a swimming party. Harriet told Isabella that “Henry was the only one of our children that we had begun not to feel anxious for & to hope to rely on him ourselves.” The Stowes had, however, worried about his relation to Christianity; even if they had not insisted on conversion, they wanted Henry to adopt a religious path. Whether he had so chosen was not certain, and Harriet found herself in an agony similar to Catharine's when her fiancé drowned thirty-five years before. Like (p.64) Catharine, she searched desperately for signs that her beloved had become a Christian before he died.

After Henry's death Harriet sank into a deep depression for two years. She wrote Georgie that she was like a leafless tree: “I am cold, weary, dead; everything is a burden to me…. I let my plants die by inches before my eyes, and do not water them.” As Harriet was a dedicated horticulturist, like her mother, this was a frightening admission. But she was also a professional author now and so made use of her situation to write The Minister's Wooing. The minister in the book is based on the real Puritan minister Dr. Samuel Hopkins (Aaron Burr appears in the novel also). Dr. Hopkins woos Mary Scudder, the Catharine Beecher character, who was in love with James Martyn, a young man lost at sea. The author says of Hopkins: “These hard old New England divines were the poets of metaphysical philosophy, who built systems in an artistic fervor, and felt self exhale from beneath them as they rose into the higher regions of thought. But where theorists and philosophers tread with sublime assurance, woman often follows with bleeding footsteps,—women are always turning from the abstract to the individual, and feeling where the philosopher only thinks.” Mary Scudder and Martyn's mother, the character based on Harriet herself, walk with bleeding footsteps because Martyn was unconverted when he died. In fiction, unlike life, there could be a happy ending to this situation, so Martyn did not drown after all and returns home a believer.

The Minister's Wooing introduces Candace, the Martyns' black slave (whom they free in the course of the book), to represent a Christianity more benign than Calvinism. Described as “a powerfully built, majestic black woman,” Candace was also modeled after a real person—Sojourner Truth, the great abolitionist and women's rights advocate, whom Harriet had recently met. Candace refuses to believe in original sin, arguing that she never ate the apple. She is the only person who can comfort Mrs. Martyn when Jim is reported missing. She cradles her in her arms and says, “̒Why, de Lord a'n't like what ye tink,—He loves ye, honey!… He died for Mass'r Jim,—loved him and died for him.” For Harriet, a true religion had to be based on love. At about the same time that Catharine Beecher joined the Episcopal Church, Harriet gave permission for her three daughters to be confirmed as Episcopalians; once Calvin had retired from Andover Theological Seminary she quietly followed. The Hookers thought the Stowe girls became “absorbed in crosses” but were just as disapproving when their minister started preaching Calvinist sermons during the next decade.

As Harriet lost a son, Isabella gave birth to one—her last child, Edward. Harriet visited shortly before his birth; this assumption of a mother's role had become a tradition. Eddie was born prematurely on the 26th of (p.65)

In the Wake of Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852–1859

Harriet Beecher Stowe and twin daughters, Harriet and Eliza Stowe, c. 1850. Courtesy Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Conn.

(p.66) February 1855, while his sisters slept in the next room. Isabella noted that she was “so stupefied by the morphine taken to prevent the premature birth that I did not hear the children's first expressions of delight—or know much about what they said & did for two or three days. Indeed the baby was so puny & feeble, we had but little hope that he would live.” He weighed three and a half pounds, only half of what Alice had weighed, and looked like a “poor little unfledged bird.” Yet he lived, and finally began to nurse, until at eight months he weighed as much as Alice at the same age.

Isabella did not recover as quickly from childbirth as she had earlier. She experienced a general prostration and suffered from severe headaches and problems with her eyesight. She had trouble breast-feeding now. After nursing Eddie her breasts felt tired and were pierced by sharp pains. She wrote that “my health is so feeble it seems as if the milk must be poor—yet he grows more & more fond of nursing & will not now be denied. He is even refusing to be fed from a spoon—which he enjoyed from his birth till now—so what can we do?” Aunty Smith, who came to help with the baby, recalled that Alice too had evinced a passion for nursing. As they were walking one day they saw a little colt nursing its mother. “Alice was perfectly delighted & called out ‘Oh Aunty, see the little baby horse, sucking his mother horse & so happy!’”

“Aunty” Anna Smith was a middle-class woman in her forties who coincidentally had the same name as the Stowes' governess in Cincinnati. Harriet's Anna was an English immigrant slightly younger than Harriet and very devoted to her. Isabella's was an older woman with children of her own. She spent about three months at the Hookers after the birth of each baby; she would get up after the middle-of-the-night feeding and take the baby from Isabella into her bed. When the children were older Aunty Smith would occasionally come simply to visit or to care for the children when they were ill. In the fifties the Hookers usually had a full complement of domestics. In addition to a nursemaid, they had a cook/maid, a part-time chauffeur, and occasional tutors for the children. Montgomery, the Irishman who played at the Hookers' dances, divided his time evenly between Isabella and John and the Perkinses as chauffeur and gardener. Many of the household workers in Hartford were Irish, as was typical in the antebellum North; in New York City at midcentury almost two-thirds of domestic servants were Irish. It is common to find anti-Irish sentiment in letters and diaries of women of the time, along with complaints about their service and the difficulties in general of finding and keeping domestic workers. One of the worst offenders in published writing was Catharine, who referred to “the influx into our kitchens of the uncleanly and ignorant.” She considered foreign domestic help to be thriftless and frequently dishonest as well.

(p.67) Isabella, however, had excellent relationships with her workers. She tended to keep them a long time and to praise, rather than criticize, when she referred to them in letters. There was undoubtedly an element of the Lady Bountiful in some of her traditions, such as lining up the servants formally to receive their Christmas presents, but she showed real concern for their lives. Her letters to John when she was away from home often contained personal messages to the servants and hints for improving their health. When Eddie came down with whooping cough when she was absent, she instructed John to hire someone to sleep with him at night “but not Bridget,” their cook and maid, because it might harm her health and “her good constitution is all the wealth she has.” Isabella treated Bridget Doran kindly many years later when she was seduced and impregnated by William, a short-lived Hooker chauffeur, against whom Isabella had warned her. In the mid-fifties, when another maid, Clara, left to get married, Isabella hosted her wedding at Nook Farm, including a reception for forty guests.

The Hookers were financially well off during the 1850s and could afford such gestures. Isabella tended to feel guilty about their relative wealth. She compared herself to brother Charles, who had been driven from his pastorate and had five little children and no income. The Hookers, of course, joined the Stowes in helping Charles financially, but Isabella still wondered to Harriet whether it was right for them to spend so much money when others were poor. Harriet advised her to accept her prosperity as sent by God, and if Isabella could have seen into the future, when the Hookers would have to rent out their house because they couldn't afford to live in it, she might have taken this characteristic Puritan advice. As it was, her attempts to get her children to remember the poor show a continuing uneasiness.

In the children's journal Isabella frequently analyzed her offspring's characters and personalities. Each was very different from the others. Mary tended to be quiet and reserved, Isabella noting that she was already exhibiting “her father's & Grandma's caution as to personal exposures of any kind.” Her willfulness had been subdued, and her mother thought she had a capacity for spirituality. Although Mary was intelligent, she was slower in her studies than Alice; she had a good sense of humor and, as she grew older, would emulate her father in being a wit and jokester. Isabella felt that “if she lives” she would make a lovely, pious woman. The worried “if she lives” reflected her deep fears for Mary's health. Because Mary coughed at night throughout her childhood, Isabella thought she might not live past it: “Sometimes I fear her lungs may become irritable & early consumption her fate.”

Alice Hooker was more lively and affectionate than her sister. Isabella likened her to Pearl, the daughter of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850). But Alice showed a weaker will than Pearl (p.68) (or Mary); she was gregarious and anxious to please and thus presented less of a discipline problem. In a lengthy journal entry in 1852 Isabella compares her daughters and her own reactions to them. The entry begins with her worries about Mary's dying:

[M]y soul seems to rest on hers so much that I know not how to sustain myself alone—she seems a part of myself—& to lose her, would be to find myself dis-membered—

Towards Alice I feel differently in this—that I desire to live myself to take care of her—to guide, & guard—without expecting so much in return—not but that she is generous—& more affectionately demonstrative than Mary—but somehow I do not rely upon her & cannot yet feel that I ever shall—She seems to me more a fancy piece to amuse & please than a solid article for daily use & comfort.

Isabella thought Alice more like herself and thus easier to predict, but she identified more closely with Mary. She seemed to feel and understand every emotion Mary had before it was expressed in words; “every thing she says & does, finds an echo in my own bosom.” This strong identification would make it hard for Isabella to let Mary separate from her in later years.

There is less in the children's journal about Eddie, as he was the youngest child, born eight years after Alice and ten after Mary. What his mother does say about him makes him appear that rarity, the “easy child.” He seemed to be naturally loving, obedient, unselfish, and smart. His only problems in childhood were his tendency to catch every possible childhood disease, including scarlet fever, and to be timid and whiny around other boys. One day when Eddie was nine and looking sad, Isabella questioned him. It was “the same old story” of big boys teasing littler ones—they had made fun of his short hair and small nose. Isabella and John suggested some retaliatory actions, but Willie Gillette, his slightly older cousin and best friend, had told him he would never be as good as the big boys, and Eddie believed it. “The little darling—so pure—& honest & lovely as he is—so generous, high minded & obliging—I just smothered him with kisses & told him it would take all the good in ten common boys to make one so dear & lovely as he.” The high points of Eddie's childhood were the large and elaborate birthday parties his mother orchestrated, with fifteen to thirty children as guests. There would be outdoor games and, as the years progressed, dancing. At one party Isabella served biscuits and dried beef, macaroons, lemon ice, birthday cake, and over three pounds of candy.

The education of the Hooker children was rather haphazard. Typically, they began district school in Farmington or Hartford at age five or six (p.69) and attended only in the mornings, even as they grew older. But the girls' attendance would quickly become occasional as they were plagued by headaches and colds. In December 1854, for instance, Mary and Alice were enrolled half days in a Miss Richmond's school in Hartford, yet by the next February they had stopped going because of illness and the difficulty of travel through the snow. The Hookers did supplement the children's education at home. They would occasionally hire a governess, Mary Doyle, to tutor the children in various subjects, and Isabella herself read Isaac Taylor's Home Education and other works on education. When the girls were not in school, she built study time into their daily routine. In 1854, before attending Miss Richmond's school, they would take a sponge bath upon rising, eat breakfast, make their beds and straighten their rooms, and at 9:30 go outside for an hour. Sometimes their Uncle Francis (Gillette) would take them into the woods on a horse sled so they could slide on the river while he gathered wood. At 11:00 Isabella listened to the girls read and spell, and after midday dinner they practiced writing and sewing.

There is nothing unusual for the time about this desultory education. It was much the same as that received by Mary's and Harriet's daughters. The Perkins girls were quite openly educated for marriage. The Stowe girls attended some good schools, such as Abbot Academy in Andover and a boarding school in Paris, but they were never urged to work very hard; Mary Perkins wrote her husband of the twins that “I never saw girls who were so bright & intelligent who so hated to study & apply themselves.” Mary and Harriet simply followed Beecher family tradition in paying more attention to the education of their sons, who went to college. Isabella's similar attitude toward her daughters' schooling is puzzling, though, given her conscious resentment of her own lack of formal education. Her assertion in the 1859 letter to her neighbor that she had never been to school for two years together in her life could also apply to her daughters. Isabella explains in the children's journal that neither girl could obtain an education “in the regular way.” Because of their delicate health they could study only one or two subjects at a time. She states her priorities directly when she notes that she has found just the school for Mary and Alice, featuring “a very kind, indulgent teacher—who regards health & ventilation as the first thing to be looked after—& study secondary.”

In her ambitions for her daughters Isabella differed markedly from other women's rights advocates in the nineteenth century. Leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Ida Wells-Barnett all pushed their daughters beyond their own educational attainment: Harriot Stanton Blatch received a master's degree from Vassar, Alice Stone Blackwell attended top schools before graduating from Boston University, and Ida Wells-Barnett's daughter Alfreda Duster earned her bachelor's degree at the University of (p.70) Chicago. Later in life Isabella wrote her daughter Alice wistfully of Harriot Stanton Blatch's continuation of her mother's work, but she never prepared her own girls for this eventuality.

All the women's rights leaders mentioned above were “strong-minded,” to use the nineteenth-century word for “feminist,” before they had children. Their greater knowledge no doubt explains the discrepancies in Isabella's behavior. Although she clearly had feminist tendencies in her youth when she complained about the institution of marriage, she did not start reading and thinking about women's rights and applying the insights of movement leaders until the 1860s. In 1859 when Isabella read Thomas Wentworth Higginson's “Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?” Mary was already fourteen and Alice twelve.

Several events occurred in the 1850s that were crucial in leading Isabella to her eventual public career. The first, of course, was the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin and Isabella's feelings of inferiority when she compared herself to Harriet and other achieving family members. The second was her husband's six-month trip to Europe in 1857. John, whom she considered her “Siamese twin,” had wanted to tour Europe ever since the Stowes went in 1853. When Isabella refused to go with him, having no desire to travel, he set off by himself, planning to meet Mary Beecher Perkins, who was accompanying the Stowes on their second trip. Isabella surprised herself by feeling devastated at John's departure. She had long been regretting her increased dependence on him, describing the funicular effect that F. Scott Fitzgerald would make the central metaphor of his Tender Is the Night (1934); as one spouse went up, the other came down. Isabella had written John in 1853 that “I do believe that I have less self-reliance, in its best sense too, than I had six or eight years ago [before the birth of the children]. You have more[;] as I seem to lose you gain.”

Interestingly, the metaphor of the funicular applied also to the marital experience of Harriet and Calvin Stowe. When the two were separated, as they were about a third of the time during her childbearing years, Harriet often felt an influx of strength. For example, her health improved both physically and psychologically when she spent a whole year away from home at a Vermont sanitarium. Calvin acknowledged that Harriet had been dangerously weak before she left, but when he visited he was furious at being made to sleep in a separate bed. He informed her that their separation had put him in “a sad state physically and mentally.” The only solution for him was “if your health were so far restored that you could take me again to your bed and board.” If, however, Harriet took him to her bed she risked another pregnancy, and she had already borne seven children and suffered at least two miscarriages. As Mary Kelley concludes, “In the end, they could not help each (p.71) other: one's needs clashed with the other's; one's cure brought the other's illness.”

After John left for Europe, Isabella cried frequently and felt herself drained of energy. Eventually she began to think of a cure and pulled herself together enough to visit her friends Hattie Putnam and Charlotte Hull in the Boston area. She seems to have devised a long-range plan to become more independent and stronger by improving her health. In Boston she consulted a Mrs. Binney about her tipped uterus, which she thought was causing her backaches. She may also have had, after years of childbirth, a prolapsed uterus (in which the muscles and ligaments that hold the uterus in place become stretched, causing the vagina to bulge and sag). Mrs. Binney found, as Isabella reported to John, “severe inclination of the neck of the uterus and the same old displacement.” Her treatment consisted of applications of silver nitrate. During her stay in Boston, Isabella considered studying with Mrs. Binney and then practicing the treatment of “female complaints” in Hartford. Her son Eddie, however, was only two years old at the time.

The idea of making money became increasingly important to Isabella. In January 1860 she wailed to John, “Oh my soul—if you could only teach me how to earn money—but there's no use in hoping—I can't write a book—nor draw pictures—nor do any other productive work—I have always told you, that you overestimated your wife.” At the time of this letter she was staying with brother Henry in Brooklyn, and the immediate occasion was her inability to afford a painting by a protégé of Henry's. As the Hookers' financial situation worsened during the 1860s and John felt nervous and overworked, Isabella wished more and more to help.

That she also connected earning money with independence of action is shown in her essay “Shall Woman Vote? A Matrimonial Dialogue,” which she wrote in February 1860. In this dialogue Mrs. Smith tells Mr. Smith that if she found him on the wrong side of any political issue, she would subscribe to a newspaper that took the right position and would read it to him nightly. Instead of answering her argument directly, Mr. Smith takes a detour: “You mentioned, I think, that you should pay for your charming paper—permit me to inquire, if you please, where you would procure the necessary funds?” Mrs. Smith replies that she would give a lecture—“fifty dollars for one night.” That would pay for several papers and leave something over for his birthday present.

In another decade Isabella would indeed be lecturing for pay, but in 1860 she was far from that point. She was just becoming interested in women's rights, the catalyst being the article she read in the February 1859 Atlantic Monthly, “Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?” This was the essay that prompted her to think about the past and write bitterly about the contrast (p.72) between her brothers being pushed to attend college and her own truncated education. Isabella was right in guessing that the anonymous author of the essay was a man—she could tell “alas! by his learning.” The article was (and still is) a brilliant summary of historical attitudes toward women's education and argument for allowing women the alphabet. It is full of wit and erudition, including both ancient and modern languages and an impressive knowledge of women's history. No wonder Isabella envied the author his ability to expose the twisted logic of conventional ideas about women, for instance, “that it is right to admit girls to common schools, and equally right to exclude them from colleges,—that it is proper for a woman to sing in public, but indelicate for her to speak in public,—that a post-office box is an unexceptionable place to drop a bit of paper into, but a ballot-box terribly dangerous.”

When Isabella discovered the author was Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a Boston abolitionist, she wrote him a fan letter. The letter has been lost, but Higginson remembered it forty years later as a great compliment. He responded to Isabella's letter with comments that would prove prophetic regarding her eventual involvement in women's rights. It made him indignant, he wrote, to be thanked by women for telling the truth when those same people often rejected “the women who, at infinitely greater cost, have said the same things. It costs a man nothing to defend woman,—a few sneers, a few jokes, that is all; but for women to defend themselves, has in times past cost almost everything.” He cited the bravery of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton's mentor, and Lucy Stone, the first female graduate of Oberlin College. Then he exhorted Isabella to rise above the mass of women who revile their own defenders and seek a “mean safety” by sacrificing those who have made a heroic start. Isabella was not yet ready to risk seeking out the pioneers of women's rights, but when she did she would follow Higginson's prescription.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson was one of the founders of the Atlantic Monthly and thus acquainted with Harriet, who had published The Minister's Wooing in the new journal. The soon-to-be prestigious magazine was established in 1857 by such New England literary lights as Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Russell Lowell with the conscious purpose of bringing culture to the masses. In fact, the twentieth-century split between “high” and “low,” or “popular,” culture has often been traced to the time of the founding of the Atlantic. Harriet was at first a highly desirable contributor. As Calvin wrote her, all the founders and editors were saying that she should give them a serial to start the first year and then Hawthorne would follow in the second. The Minister's Wooing was the perfect serial, for it contributed, in Joan Hedrick's words, to “the mythification of New England so central to the Atlantic's mission.” But soon women's books, especially those having social and political (p.73) agendas as Harriet's did, were demoted to the lower categories of literature; works by women were too “sentimental” and “melodramatic,” to use the Atlantic's code words.

Even at the beginning women were not fully integrated into the Atlantic circle. The men conducted literary business during dinners at Boston taverns and hotels, and no women were present at the founding dinner. Hedrick notes that although Harriet “should have been included in these social business meetings,” she was invited to only one, which turned out to be uncomfortable. In July 1859 Harriet and a number of other female contributors to the Atlantic were invited to a farewell dinner at the Revere House (the Stowes were about to embark on their third trip to Europe). Harriet asked whether wine would be served and was assured it would not. She was no teetotaler and had drunk wine with meals in Europe, but apparently she had heard rumors of the heavy drinking that sometimes took place at the Atlantic dinners.

The Stowes appeared at the event anticipating some memorable conversation because Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes were known to be witty. According to Higginson, Harriet was “quietly dressed in a Quakerish silk, but with a peculiar sort of artificial grape-leaf garland round her head” (the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his diary that this wreath was very becoming). Only one other woman showed up, the shy young Harriet Prescott (later Spofford), and the women were left to languish in a separate parlor while the men socialized in another room. When dinner was finally announced, the two Harriets were placed at opposite ends of the table, with Emerson, Lowell, Holmes, Higginson, Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and the other men scattered between. There was “a visible awkwardness,” Higginson recalled, as the women remained silent and the men whispered to each other jokes and complaints about the lack of wine. Finally, the men's water glasses were handed to the waiter and came back “suffused with a rosy hue.” The discourse reached the level of Holmes's arguing that all swearing originated in the pulpit and Lowell's claiming that Tom Jones was the greatest novel ever written. Calvin and Harriet later confessed to Whittier that the conversation hadn't quite met their expectations.

Were women really unfit for public life, as the Boston Brahmins seemed to think? Henry Ward Beecher argued in a speech entitled “Woman's Influence in Politics” that women's participation would reform public affairs. It was an attack on this idea by the editor of the Independent that pushed Isabella to write “Shall Women Vote? A Matrimonial Dialogue.” She has Mr. Smith argue the editor's position, that women should stay out of public affairs. Mrs. Smith agrees in the case of mothers who are rearing a family but uses as the crux of her argument her sister Martha, whose children are married (p.74) and gone, leaving her with nothing to do. Isabella now introduces an argument that would become central to her women's rights theory—that mothers have had life experience qualifying them for public work, if not actually making them superior to men. Mrs. Smith notes of Martha “what maturity of thought, real wisdom there is in her—gained in this most motherly way of discriminating between her own children—adapting influence & government according to character & bringing out a harmonious whole, from so many discordant or at least different elements.” The phrasing here sounds much like the children's journal—and like Catharine Beecher. Though Isabella's argument was rather obviously self-serving, providing her with a ready-made résumé and justification for entering the public sphere, it also owed something to Catharine's conception of the female teacher. As Harriet once summarized this conception, men might have more knowledge than women but “they have less talent at communicating it, nor have they the patience, the long-suffering, and gentleness necessary to superintend the formation of character.”

But if Catharine had been asked, “Shall Women Vote?” she would have answered an emphatic no rather than Isabella's qualified yes. She had published early in the decade The True Remedy for the Wrongs of Woman (1851), in which she acknowledged that women had indeed endured wrongs but rejected suffrage as a solution. Women had been wronged because they were neither educated for nor honored and appreciated in their profession as “the conservators of the domestic state, the nurses of the sick, … and the educators of the human mind.” The true remedy was, of course, Catharine's educational scheme. Women in general should receive more education, including instruction in the domestic arts and the principles of good health, and many women should be educated as teachers. As Catharine pointed out, her goal had always been “to secure a liberal education and remunerative employ to our own sex.” Certainly this aim was not opposed to woman's rights; it was not in today's parlance an “anti-feminist” goal. Unlike many of the nineteenth-century “antis” (that is, anti-suffrage women), Catharine kept her focus squarely on women and consistently aimed to raise their status. She never approved, for instance, when wealthy women gave money to benefit men. In A True Remedy she scolds women for financially supporting men's educational institutions and providing scholarships for male students only.

Catharine also fought the numerous prejudices against unmarried women. Why did every woman have to marry? Why was it unthinkable that a single woman could have a home of her own? Many of her beliefs are held by women who call themselves feminists today—for instance, that women should be economically independent, that “posts of honor and emolument” should be open to them, that the work of housewives and mothers is terribly (p.75) underrated. Catharine's grandnephew Lyman Beecher Stowe once told a revealing anecdote about her. In her later years she spent an evening with Nook Farm neighbors of her sisters'. The company was singing hymns and someone suggested one with the chorus “I am nothing, Lord.” Catharine immediately objected, declaring “I am not nothing!” Maybe this assertion reflected her large ego and personal vanity, as Lyman Beecher Stowe seemed to think; or perhaps it was instead a protest that had become second nature for Catharine, an objection to women's being treated like “nothing” and erased from history.

But if Catharine sometimes sounded like a feminist, she also insisted that women remain in their own “sphere” of action. They were limited to their one “profession” (Catharine always uses the singular) as domestic guardians, nurses, and teachers. While her definition was in one way expansive, broadening the actual roles of women at the time, it was also restrictive. Women should not try to poach on “masculine employments,” which consisted of everything outside woman's profession. In particular, women should stay out of the public arena, leaving politics and civic responsibilities solely to men. It was not that women weren't competent to vote or undertake public duties, but participation in politics might corrupt them, weakening their special qualities. Even worse, men might start to view them as competitors. Catharine had a strong fear of men's power. Whether her fear stemmed from growing up with a domineering father and seven brothers or from losing the Delia Bacon battle, she always kept in mind the fact that men ruled the world. Her main objection to the women who fought for women's rights was that their methods were unsafe—that is to say, they directly confronted men instead of trying to influence them from the sidelines.

Surprisingly, Catharine had a much greater knowledge of the emerging movement for women's rights than did Isabella. At this point neither Isabella nor Harriet had heard of the gathering at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 in which women issued a declaration of their rights. Catharine, however, had obviously read this “Declaration of Sentiments” because she responds point by point in The True Remedy. She writes, for instance: “Is it claimed that there are civil laws which are unjust and unequal, and contrary to the Bible rights of our sex? Let every intelligent woman use her influence with the lawmakers, and in an acceptable manner, and these laws would speedily be changed. Is it claimed that, in social customs, the guilty woman is treated with overbearing cruelty, and the guilty man with shameful leniency [the double standard]? Let all virtuous women decide that they will treat both sexes alike, and the unjust custom will speedily pass away.” If it were claimed that women were deprived of “remunerative employ,” as the declaration does, Catharine's answer was to raise the status of woman's profession instead of “rushing into the political arena to join in the scramble for office.”

(p.76) Isabella did not agree that women should stay out of politics. She has Mrs. Smith say that if you take middle-aged mothers like Martha who have already reared their children, and then take all the widows and childless women, and all the single women, and all the women who would be single if they did not fear boredom—“taking all these, there is material enough I am sure, for a very respectable Congress—respectable in point of character & ability too, as well as numbers.” It may be this vision of an all-female Congress that prompted Thomas Wentworth Higginson to label Isabella's article “radical” when she sent it to him for comment. She actually comes to a conservative conclusion, having Mrs. Smith declare that if she had absolute power, she would not open the polls to women until public opinion demanded it.

From a modern standpoint the most radical part of the essay is Isabella's contention that women should serve on juries; although women won the vote in 1920, they did not routinely become jurors until the 1970s. Higginson wrote Isabella that it would be practically impossible to get paid for an article so radical. “To do great good & make money at the same time was the lot of Uncle Tom's Cabin [sic], but a rare one.” He agreed to forward “Shall Women Vote?” to the Atlantic Monthly but made clear his expectation that it would be rejected. Isabella should not be discouraged from further writing, because she would have failed only in making her very first article palatable to conservative editors.

In a long essay on Isabella Beecher Hooker, Anne Throne Margolis says that Higginson's assessment of the dialogue could only have had a demoralizing effect on her. His reference to her sister's success could not have helped, nor his joking promise not to print her praise of his article as “the opinion of an anonymous lady, of distinguished family.” As Margolis notes, “Ironically, it was precisely when she measured herself against the accomplishments of her distinguished family that Isabella felt herself to be most anonymous.” Yet she was not completely demoralized, and she had already faced her lowest point when John went to Europe. Since then Isabella had proved she could express her thoughts in a competent, if not distinguished, essay; she had also made the firm decision to try anything available to improve her health. The ghost of Harriet Porter Beecher seemed always at her heels, and Isabella could not allow herself to sink into illness or depression. She dreaded becoming a “useless” and bedridden invalid, she told John, “a trial to my husband—& children—a nervous, fidgetty [sic] old woman causing gloom in the house instead of sunshine.” Thus, a month after receiving Higginson's letter Isabella checked in to the Gleasons' water cure establishment in Elmira, New York, to try a course of treatment recommended by her sisters.

Notes:

(53) “loathesome,” “whose touch”: LIMITS, p. 159.

(54) “Mrs. Stowe betrays”: [William Gilmore Simms], review of A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, p. 226.

(55) “Edward, you've”: Lyman Beecher Stowe, Saints, Sinners and Beechers, p. 149.

(59) “to establish endowed”: LIMITS, p. 250.

(60) “like a little society”: Ibid. For a useful map of Nook Farm, see Joseph S. Van Why, Nook Farm, p. 5.

(61) “Victorian aspirations”: Rugoff, The Beechers, p. 285.

(62) “I took”: IBH, Journal, Jan. 10, 1852 (Fiche 91).

(62) “had no business”: Quoted in Stuart C. Henry, Unvanquished Puritan, p. 279.

(67) “Sometimes I”: IBH Journal, Apr. 11, 1851 (Fiche 89).

(70) “Siamese”: IBH to JH, May 16, 1857 (Fiche 14).

(71) “severe”: IBH to JH, Apr. 18, 1857 (Fiche 13).

(72) “alas!”: LIMITS, p. 100.

(76) “radical”: Thomas Wentworth Higginson to IBH, Mar. 4, 1860 (Fiche 133).

(76) “Ironically”: Anne Throne Margolis, “A Tempest Tossed Spirit,” in IBHP-Guide, p. 16.

(76) “useless”: IBH to JH, June 19, 1860 (Fiche 20).