Harriet Beecher Stowe had a profound effect on nineteenth-century culture and politics, not because her ideas were original, but because they were common. Somewhat paradoxically, she remains one of the most controversial writers America has produced. What makes Stowe so radical is that she insisted upon putting her ideas into action. As Jane Tompkins has written about Uncle Tom's Cabin, "Stowe's very conservatism-her reliance on established patterns of living and traditional beliefs -- is precisely what gives her novel its revolutionary potential." 1
Whether describing a trip by canal boat, the lawful brutalities of slavery, or the arrangements of a parlor, Stowe elevated the ordinary. Journalist, pamphleteer, novelist, preacher, domestic advice-giver, Stowe aimed to reach the broad mass of mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters who read. She spoke for motherhood and the flag and apple pie, but she made her readers uncomfortable eating that pie unless others were eating it too. She used the written word as a vehicle for religious, social, and political purposes -- often mixing these with entertainment. Had she been a theologian or philosopher -- occupations effectively denied her because of her sex -- she would have poured her ideas into different molds. As it is, she often clothed her ideas in narrative form.
The object of this reader is to present a sampling of Stowe's literary production suggesting her range, rhetorical strategies, and cultural designs on the world. Selected with an eye to what will be useful in the classroom, the readings are divided into three categories: Early Sketches, Antislavery Writings, and Domestic Culture and Politics. There is inevitably some overlap among these categories. Early Sketches include the best work of her literary apprenticeship, pieces that chart important future directions. In Antislavery Writings, Uncle Tom's Cabin is included entire. Its brilliance and popularity have overshadowed the considerable body of antislavery writing Stowe produced. The section on Antislavery Writings restores Uncle Tom's Cabin to that body, and includes a generous selection from A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, a companion volume to her novel. The section on Domestic Culture and Politics attempts to represent the range of her thinking on the Victorian home, for which she was a major propagandist. Both the complexity and political nature of this writing are suggested by the inclusion here of "The True Story of Lady Byron's Life." Stowe's expose of male debauchery and incest at the heart of the nineteenth-century home illustrates her willingness to take on the most challenging of social and political issues of her time.