My childish steps were surrounded by a species of vision or apparition so clear and distinct that I often found great difficulty in discriminating between the forms of real life and these shifting shapes, that had every appearance of reality, except that they dissolved at the touch. . . Particularly at night, after I had gone to bed and the candle was removed from my room, the whole atmosphere around my bed seemed like a palpitating crowd of faces and forms.”
These are the words of Horace Holyoke, the narrator of Oldtown Folks (1869), the fifth novel of the great American author Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose first novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (or, Life Among the Lowly) (1851-1852), probably did what few individual persons or books have ever done: changed the course of history.
Stowe drew details of the childhood paranormal experiences of Horace Holyoke from the lifelong encounters with the supernatural of her own husband, the eminent professor of theology Calvin Stowe. Professor Stowe was never quite able to dismiss these experiences as fantasy or delusion because, as he wrote in later years: “I cannot discover that I possess either taste or talent for fiction or poetry. I have barely imagination enough to enjoy . . .the works of others in this department of literature, but have never felt able or disposed to engage in that sort of writing myself. . . my style has always been remarkable for its dry, matter-of-fact plainness.”
Imagination or not, on almost every night, between the ages of three to five, as Calvin lay in bed trying to fall asleep, strange apparitions swam before him: fairies, demons, solicitous mortals—figures so bizarre there were no words to describe them. They came tumbling out of the closet or wardrobe; they marched or wafted in through the window; they emerged from pulsing holes that opened out before Calvin’s eyes. A small Indian-looking man in black, and a much larger Indian woman similarly dressed, wandered in with a huge bass-viol between them; they fought crossly for use of the bass-viol, the Indian man managing to pluck a few chords on the instrument (which, amazingly, Calvin could feel all through his body) before the two disappeared into the kitchen, seemed to chat with Calvin’s mother, then vanished into a pile of straw outside the door. A boy named Harvey often appeared; Calvin thought this was his soul mate and communed with him telepathically. Five demons appeared from hell and dragged a neighborhood bully named Brown down to eternal damnation; the demons didn’t look like devils but well-dressed nineteenth century gentlemen. Calvin woke up one bright moonlit night to find an ashy-blue human skeleton lying in bed beside him; he fled screaming to the bedroom of his parents, who didn’t believe him. Calvin Stowe’s lifelong visions were so pervasive that, one day much later in his life, when his wife Harriet returned home unexpectedly from having missed a train, Calvin twice wandered into her study but completely ignored her. When she asked him why, he replied: “Oh! I thought you were one of my visions!”
Calvin Stowe often told these stories to his wife and children. They became part of the atmosphere the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin lived and breathed every day. They nourished in her a lifelong belief in spiritualism, the doctrine whose central tenet is that we can communicate with the dead. They encouraged her to argue passionately on behalf of spiritualism in brilliant correspondence with authors like the novelist George Eliot (The Mill on the Floss, Middle-march) and the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Sonnets from the Portuguese). Her husband’s true tales of encounters with other realities, spun at the Stowe family fireside over many years, inspired Harriet to seek help from the spirit world when, in 1857, the couple’s son Henry drowned at the age of 19; the results of these searches were as beguiling as they were equivocal.
Harriet had been surrounded by powerful influences ever since the day—on June 14, 1811—when she was born into the Litchfield, Connecticut, household of the celebrated fire-and-brimstone preacher Lyman Beecher. A man of uncommon eloquence and power, Beecher was a Calvinist, believing that most of us are damned at birth and all of us are if we don’t unremittingly do good works. Lyman preached this dark doctrine, albeit with warmth and love, to both his parishioners and his children. Seven of his sons and four of his daughters survived to adulthood; Harriet was the seventh of thirteen children, two having died soon after birth. With gentle but powerful insistence, Lyman maneuvered all seven of his sons into the ministry; one, Henry Ward Beecher, became the outstanding American preacher of his day. Almost all of Beecher’s preacher-sons, and all his daughters, became involved with spiritualism. For them, this was a first, essential and abiding step away from the balefulness of Calvinism toward a more sun-filled version of Christianity.
When Harriet Beecher was growing up, women almost never became preachers, and almost never went to college. Lyman’s eldest daughter, Catharine, founded one of the first girls’ schools, in Hartford, Connecticut; the precocious Harriet, after attending as a pupil, became, while still in her teens, one of the teachers.
In 1832, Lyman Beecher decided to fight Roman Catholicism in the West and moved the family to Cincinnati, Ohio. Here Harriet co-founded a new girls’ school with her sister Catharine; began to have articles published; and, in 1836, married Calvin Stowe.
In the 1830s, Cincinnati was an uneasy free zone between the slavery abolition groups of the North and the slave owners of the South. Harriet saw fleeing slaves rounded up by their masters and taken back South. She witnessed the Underground Railway transporting escaped slaves to Canada. She was appalled to learn of black children torn away from their parents, sent South, and auctioned off, never to be heard of again. She heard with fierce indignation that black husbands and wives often suffered the same fate.
In 1850, Lyman Beecher, having utterly failed to vanquish Catholicism, took his family back East. Over the decade of the 1840s, race riots, minor slave rebellions, and growing animosity between North and South, had set America’s teeth on edge. Harriet had become increasingly outraged. In 1851, aged 40, with two previous books to her credit and several children underfoot, she sat down to write an anti-slavery novel.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (or, Life Among the Lowly) appeared in installments in the antislavery journal National Era in 1851-1852. It was published on March 20, 1852 in an edition of 5,000 sets of two volumes each. The first printing sold out in two days and fifty thousand sets followed in the next eight weeks. By the end of the year, 300,000 copies had been sold in the U.S. and a million-and-a-half copies in Great Britain and its colonies. No book of any kind, including the Bible, had ever sold so well.
“Uncle Tom” is a black slave of gravity, compassion, strength and Christian faith. He is torn away from his wife and children and sent South to be auctioned off in New Orleans. His first owner is a kindly man, who soon dies. Tom is auctioned off to a cruel owner, Simon Legree. Legree torments him and finally has him beaten to death by two black overseers. Through all this Tom has refused to betray the whereabouts of a runaway slave and has died forgiving his murderers. Other plot lines, including Eliza’s famous escape across the ice-floes of the Ohio River with her baby in her arms, radiate out from the central core of Tom’s story.
It’s easy today to speak disparagingly of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In fact, the black novelist James Baldwin said of it in 1949 that its emotions were “spurious and that of the three most admirable slaves, Eliza and George [Eliza’s husband] were simply disguised whites and Tom was esteemed only because he was robed in the white garment of salvation. In its use of ‘theological error,’ Baldwin asserted, the book breathed the spirit of witch-burners and lynch mobs.”
But, even today, 150 years later, the reader who approaches Uncle Tom’s Cabin with fresh eyes is stunned by the novel’s emotional impact. Stowe said the book came to her in pictures; her vivid portraits of the black slaves make us see and feel their suffering. Their humiliation when treated as pets; the agony they go through when separated instantly and permanently from loved ones—Stowe turns all of this into living reality. Her words had the power to make men and women act in the name of good. The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy praised Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a masterpiece “flowing from love of God and man.”
The novel brought howls of execration from the South. Imitation pro-slavery novels were rushed out, painting lyrical pictures of joyful blacks singing choruses in the fields. Perhaps the Civil War was inevitable; but Uncle Tom’s Cabin may have tilted the scales in that direction. When Stowe visited Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the great president called her—the story may be apocryphal—“the little woman who made the great war.”
All through the 1850s, as she continued to write both fiction and non-fiction, Uncle Tom’s Cabin opened doors for Harriet Beecher Stowe. She traveled to Europe three times and was acclaimed in England and France; and she became close friends with Queen Victoria, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and John Ruskin, among many others.
Spiritualism was an urgent subject of discussion between her and her new friends. Calvin Stowe joined in the debate with George Eliot, writing her that, “[the famous psychic Daniel Dunglas] Hume spent his boyhood in my father’s native town [Currie, near Edinburgh, in Scotland], among my relatives and acquaintances, and he was a disagreeable, nasty boy. But he certainly has qualities which science has not yet explained, and some of his doings are as real as they are strange. My interest in the subject of spiritualism arises from the fact of my own experience, more than sixty years ago, in my early childhood. I then never thought of questioning the objective reality of all I saw and supposed that everybody else had the same experience . . . I have noticed that people who have remarkable and minute answers to prayer, such as Stilling, Franke, Lavater, are, for the most part, of this peculiar temperament. Is it absurd to suppose that some peculiarity in the nervous system, in the connecting link between soul and body, may bring some, more than others, into an almost abnormal contact with the spirit-world (for example, Jacob Boehme and Swedenborg), and that, too, without correcting their faults, or making them morally better than others?”
But Eliot was highly equivocal about spiritualism. She asserted, “I would not willingly place any barriers between my mind and any possible channel of truth affecting the human lot.” But it soon emerged that she doubted mankind’s ability to make mature use of any religion. She told the Stowes: “A religion more perfect than any yet prevalent must express less care of personal consolation, and the more deeply awing sense of responsibility to man springing from sympathy with that which of all things is most certainly known to us—the difficulty of the human lot.”
Harriet encountered no such resistance to spiritualism in her correspondence with Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In fact, the wife of the poet Robert Browning was an avid believer, who had attended many productive séances with Daniel Dunglas Hume and even (to the dismay of her non-believing husband) been smitten romantically with Hume. She wrote to Harriet: “I don’t know how people can keep up their prejudices against spiritualism with tears in their eyes, how they are not at least thrown on the wish that it might be true. . . . My tendency is to break up against it like a crying child.” She told Stowe that only serious appreciation of spiritualism could “keep it from the desecration of charlatans and fanatics.” In reply, Harriet told Elizabeth she had been in contact with the spirit of Charlotte Bronte— though no details of this encounter survive in her letters and journals.
On January 1, 1857, Harriet and Calvin’s son Henry drowned swimming in the Connecticut River while a freshman at Andover College. The devastated couple tried to contact his spirit at séances. In January 1860, when Harriet was in Florence, Italy, Calvin wrote her that he thought he might have received a communication from Henry in the form of a guitar, hanging on the wall in the room in which they sometimes conducted séances, that suddenly, briefly, played chords.
In reply, Harriet told Calvin she had “become acquainted with a friend through whom I receive consoling impressions of these things—a Mrs. E., of Boston, a very pious, accomplished, and interesting woman, who has had a history much like yours in relation to spiritual manifestations. Without doubt she is what the spiritualists would regard as a very powerful medium, but being a very earnest Christian, and afraid of getting led astray, she has kept carefully aloof from all circles and things of that nature.”
Harriet’s advice to Mrs. E., she told Calvin, was to “keep close to the Bible and prayer” when contacting the spirit world, and then “accept whatever came.” Stowe told Calvin that, “when I am with her I receive very strong impressions from the spiritual world, so that I feel often sustained and comforted, as if I had been near to my Henry and other departed friends. . . Today I went down to sit with Mrs. E. in her quiet parlor. We read in Revelation together, and talked of the saints and spirits of the just made perfect, till it seemed, as it always does when with her, as if Henry were close by me. Then a curious thing happened. She has a little Florentine guitar which hangs in her parlor, quite out of reach. She and I were talking, and her sister, a very matter-of-fact, practical body, who attends to temporals [practical concerns] for her, was arranging a little lunch for us, when suddenly the bass string of the guitar was struck loudly and distinctly. ‘Who struck that guitar?’ said the sister. We both looked up and saw that no body or thing was on that side of the room. After the sister had gone out, Mrs. E. said, ‘Now, that is strange! I asked last night that if any spirit was present with us after you came today, that it would try to touch that guitar.’ A little while after her husband came in, and as we were talking, we were all stopped by a peculiar sound, as if somebody had drawn a hand across all the strings at once. We marveled, and I remembered the guitar at home.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe died in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 1, 1896, aged 85. She was an artist of genius and great moral power, who produced a novel not only of greatness but of decisive usefulness for humanity as it pursues its long and painful trek toward fulfillment. The author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin came close to demonstrating the ancient Cabbalist dictum that, “One good man [or woman] can change the universe.”