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Ohio Women of Note

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Harriet Beecher Stowe
by Elizabeth R. Martin

She told the story, and the whole world wept
At wrongs and cruelties it had not known.

These opening phrases of Paul Laurence Dunbar's sonnet to Harriet Beecher Stowe appeared in Century Magazine, November 1898, two years after her death and almost a half century after the publication of her best-know novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly, in 1852. First serialized in 1851 in the anti-slavery "National Era," the novel achieved phenomenal success with a world-wide audience. Translated into 20 languages, it was acclaimed at home and abroad as "the great American novel." Uncle's Tom Cabin aroused widespread public opinion for the abolition cause but did not bring about a repeal of the infamous Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which its story dramatizes in a simple humanization of the indignities and tragedies of that "peculiar institution" of American soil.

Uncle Tom's Cabin was the world's best seller of the nineteenth century other than the Bible. Its popularity was swiftly followed in America by a flood of vituperation from the South and pro-slavery adherents in the North. Mrs. Stowe, shocked by this turn of the tide, documented the incidents of her novel in A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1853, and identified the real life prototypes of Uncle Tom, Eliza and George Harris, Topsy, Little Eva, and others. Years later, she averred the novel was conceived in a vision and dictated to her by the Lord in Brunswick, Maine.

During the 18 years of her life spent in Cincinnati, Ohio, she met the anti-slavery leaders, James G. Birney, Gamaliel Bailey, Salmon P. Chase, John Rankin, and Theodore Dwight Weld, witnessed the anti-abolition riots of 1836, and saw the cruel operations of the federal law and the grief of families torn asunder.

Best remembered for Uncle Tom's Cabin, she was a prodigious writer and in great demand. Many of her 37 novels appeared first in serial form in the Atlantic Monthly, Christian Union, and the New York Independent. Born in Connecticut, Harriet Beecher Stowe is claimed by Connecticut, Florida, Maine, and Massachusetts for her years of residence and her stories of local character; and by Ohio for the significant 18 years which provided background for her great American novel.

This article was first published in the 1974 Ohioana Year Book. At the time, Elizabeth R. Martin was the librarian at The Ohio Historical Society.


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