The Limits of Sisterhood: The Beecher Sisters on Women's Rights and Woman's Sphere

By Jeanne Boydston; Mary Kelley et al. | Go to book overview

3.
Harriet Beecher Stowe: "Changing to Nobody Knows Who"

IN the year 1850 Harriet Beecher Stowe was astonished to discover that the world had begun to notice her existence. Asked by Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey's Lady's Book, to provide an autobiographical sketch for inclusion in a volume entitled Woman's Record, Stowe declined, "wholly innocent as I am of any pretensions to rank among 'distinguished women.'" Rather, she suggested that her eldest sister would be a more appropriate selection. Catharine, she insisted, had "lived much more of a life--and done more that can be told of than I whose course and employments have always been retired and domestic." However, in shielding herself, Stowe inadvertently opened a window to her life, telling Hale that she had read her letter "to my tribe of little folks assembled around the evening centre table to let them know what an unexpected honour had befallen their Mama." Hale's request for a daguerreotype had provided the wife and mother with an amusing diversion as she imagined the response "of the children should the well known visage of their mother loom out of the pages of a book before their astonished eyes." Stowe's self-portrait barely mentioned the fiction she had been contributing to magazines including Godey's for the past fifteen years. Instead, she described herself as engaged in "the necessary but unpoetic duties of the family." And noting that which she considered obvious, Stowe concluded that such a life had been "so thoroughly uneventful and uninteresting that I do not see how anything can be done for me in the way of a sketch."1

Less than two years later, the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin changed that life irrevocably. Initially serialized in Gamaliel Bailey's antislavery weekly, the National Era, beginning in early June 1851, Uncle Tom's Cabin made both the relatively obscure weekly and the author famous before the final installment was published ten months later. Issued in two volumes on March 20, 1852, and purchased by 3,000 read-

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