White, the Beecher Sisters

Article excerpt

Barbara A. White. The Beecher Sisters. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003, ISBN: 0-300-09927-4.399 pages.

While a title like The Beecher Sisters may sound like just another dry academic biography, nothing could be further from the case in Barbara A. White's depiction of the large and famous family of Puritan minister Lyman Beecher. The book is meticulously researched and eminently scholarly, but the story of these larger-than-life characters is so skillfully and engagingly rendered that it reads like a novel. Admittedly, White received a great deal of help from the Beechers themselves. Not only were they one of the United States' most influential families of the nineteenth century, but Lyman Beecher and most of his four daughters and seven sons were embroiled in many of the public controversies that rocked the nation. In forums, books, and newspapers they wrangled over doctrine, abolitionism, women's rights, and immigration, contending with religious leaders, statesmen, the literati, and frequently, one another. In private, and sometimes in embarrassingly public ways, the siblings debated one another's beliefs, integrity, and on occasion, sanity.

Catharine Beecher, the oldest of the Beecher siblings, was referred to by Lyman Beecher as "the best of my boys." Departing from her Calvinist upbringing, Catharine lamented women's exclusion from the ministry, the profession which all of her seven brothers entered. Catharine poured her energies into women's education, founding three academies for girls, and arguing through her many books, articles, and frequent speaking tours that "women's ministry" was found in teaching, homemaking, and nursing. Catharine herself performed none of these roles, since she never married or kept a home, and preferred educational administration over teaching. This irony was not lost on her detractors, particularly the men in her own family. Catharine's success as an author also thrust her into the limelight as a commentator on national affairs, but her socially conservative views often set her in direct opposition to her sisters and other family members.

Catharine Beecher's confident public persona found expression within her family as a much-loved, but exasperating, meddler. She often arrived unexpectedly at family members' homes for extended visits, and once, without consulting the niece with whom Catharine was staying, fired the entire household staff. Occasionally Catharine promised financial help to one sibling, but then billed each family member for his/her share. Although well-intentioned, Catharine's single-mindedness and self-assurance made her a dreaded houseguest and constant disruption to family harmony.

Of the four Beecher sisters, only Mary Beecher Perkins, the second of Lyman Beecher's daughters, lived predominantly out of the public eye. Mary seemed content in the traditional role of homemaker and mother. That said, her more famous sisters sought her advice and counsel throughout their lives.

The third Beecher daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, turned her early interest in literature into a prolific publishing career, often serving as the primary breadwinner for her husband and children. Harriet, like many of the Beechers, initially opposed abolitionism, but the passage of the infamous Fugitive Slave Law outraged even conservative northerners. At the suggestion of a sister-in-law, Harriet agreed to write a book showing the wrongs of slavery. The result was Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852. The uproar the book caused was immediate and the fledgling author was completely unprepared for both the praise and denunciations. …