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Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Jacobs: Discussing the moments our heroes fell short

Posted by Caitlin Tracey-...
19 November 2014 - 8:23pm

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was a remarkable woman. She used words, characters, and powerful storytelling to bring the horrors of slavery into the homes of many Americans in the years preceding the American Civil War. Her most famous work, Uncle Tom's Cabin, first produced in serial form for the National Era in 1851, and then as a best selling book, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It was popular in America, but also around the world, and Stowe became a celebrity in Europe as well as the United States.

Stowe was a prolific writer. Her work included newspaper articles, poems, hymns, and novels. She was often engaged through letters with Abolitionists, writers, and thinkers of her age. She gave birth to seven children and was a hard-working mother and homemaker. She lost a child, Samuel Charles, in Cincinnati's 1849 cholera epidemic. His death brought her tremendous suffering and increased her empathy for the plight of enslaved mothers in the South.  

When talking about impressive historical figures, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, it can become easy to think only of their great accomplishments and the ways in which they transcended the times in which they lived. It is easy to forget that these figures were imperfect people, and that they undeniably had their own shortcomings, prejudices, and internal struggles.

A place to talk about these human qualities can be found in the relationship between Harriet Beecher Stowe and the author of the now well-known slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs. Jacobs was an incredible person with an incredible story. She suffered under slavery, lived for seven years in a small crawl space, and finally secured her freedom. She went on to write her story, but when she was in the process of developing her narrative in 1853, she wrote to Harriet Beecher Stowe for literary advice.

Looking at it today, Stowe did not handle the request well.  She passed along the very personal content of Jacob's story to a friend in a letter, asking if the story could be true. She then asked Jacobs if she could use her story for her own work, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. The Key was a selection of real life examples justifying the fictional horrors portrayed in her novel. Jacobs explained that while Stowe could use some facts, she wanted to write a complete narrative herself. Harriet failed to answer any future letters from Jacobs.

Stowe's presumption and rudeness may be disappointing, but it is also a an opportunity to examine the question of which voices are heard and which are silenced. Why did Stowe make the choices she made when working with Jacobs ? How might similar mistakes continue to be made in the fight to end human rights abuses today?

Perhaps this incident should be seen not as an opportunity to bash Stowe, but as a way to look at Stowe within the power dynamics of her time. How might we all be better teachers of human rights? Are we willing to include a multiplicity of voices, and listen to voices on their own terms, not just on our own?



Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.

Harriet Jacobs.

Hendrick, Joan. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.


Photo credits: Wikipedia