Were she alive, today would have been the 202nd birthday of one of our nation’s most important cultural figures: Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe is best known for writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an incredibly popular novel that challenged the nation’s understanding of the effects of slavery and the importance of the abolitionist movement. Legend has it that even President Lincoln was affected by her novel. When he met her he’s said to have dubbed her the “little lady who started the big war.”
For her birthday, I decided to visit some of my favorite spots in the Library and see what of Stowe’s work I could track down.
In the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, I met with one of my favorite people in the Library, Americana Specialist and Curator Rosemary Plakas. Recently, in the Books That Shaped America exhibit, Rosemary wrote of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s widespread influence: “The first book edition appeared in March 1852 and sold more than 300,000 copies in the first year. This novel was extremely influential in fueling antislavery sentiment during the decade preceding the Civil War.”
Today, she showed me a famous addition to that novel from the Library’s John Davis Batchelder Collection, titled The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe (and above signed in her hand), the book is Stowe’s own guide to the resources she used when writing the novel.
Before I left, Rosemary showed me two more copies of Stowe’s most famous novel from the Susan B. Anthony Collection. These were Anthony’s personal copies donated to the Library, the first (above) a first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the second a later illustrated copy (below), which came to Anthony by way of fellow suffragette Lydia Mott (who herself received it from an African American man, a Mr. Tapp). The copy includes Anthony’s own notes and signatures from both Anthony and Mott; it is an amazing testament to the intertwined world of influence and the natural progression of American culture.
After I left the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room, I journeyed on to the Manuscript Division, where I saw Stowe’s writing up close. In the Harriet Beecher Stowe Correspondence collection, I found letter after letter written in her hand. Many included letters of encouragement, and a few spoke about her relationship with Lady Byron after the latter’s separation from the famous poet Lord Byron. As I worked through the letters, I became accustomed to the handwriting of Stowe—her lovely lilting letters swooped and curled. I even snagged a picture (below) of her signature.
Even I was surprised by the breadth and beauty of the materials, and while I chose to focus on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which seemed the easiest entry point to the Stowe materials, I hope others will pick up where I left off and leave some more great Stowe resources and quotes in the comments!