The Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe
Why bother with Harriet Beecher Stowe? Because she is immensely readable, and because her subject was slavery. The former cause probably does more than the latter to explain Mrs. Stowe’s excellent “press.” Since her death in 1896 many fine studies of her life and work have steadily appeared; there has never been a real need, though there have often been claims, to stimulate a revival of scholarly interest in her extraordinary career.
One after the other, each scholar seems to have approached Mrs. Stowe’s work with a grim sense of duty to its historical importance, and, one after the other, gone on to discover with a sense of happy surprise that it is not all duty after all. For almost everything she wrote—the potboilers and polemics, the romances and New England genre sketches, the journalism and the letters—is a pleasure to read, as is her single masterpiece. To take up Uncle Tom’s Cabin in maturity, Edmund Wilson has said, is “a startling experience,” for it is “a much more impressive work than one has ever been allowed to suspect.” Charles H. Foster, who discussed all the Stowe novels, struck the same note in justifying his enterprise: “I have written this book in the belief that others might wish to share my excitement in discovering an author everybody almost knows.”
The most recent study, The Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe by Alice C. Crozier, faces once again the two obvious tasks of Stowe criticism, perhaps of any literary criticism: first, to convey the pleasure and profit to be derived from individual works with sufficient force to make readers want to read them and publishers want to reprint them; and second, to place the works in their historical, literary, and intellectual context. Professor Crozier has some success with the first of these tasks, and it is not an easy one, for almost every Stowe novel lacks the sort of unifying sweep that makes for brief, interesting critical summaries: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with its great river structure, is an exception to this. Every Stowe novel (here including Uncle Tom’s Cabin) has its crudities, excesses, wads of padding—as well as vitality, passion, humor, fresh characterization, vigorous argumentation, and splashes of sheer good sense. Lengthy quotation, for which Mrs. Crozier wisely makes room, often does more than critical commentary to convey the quality of a novelist who was, before all, a gifted professional in the golden age of the form.
In the second of her tasks, the intelligent placing of Harriet Beecher Stowe as a novelist, Mrs. Crozier contributes little that is new and much that is irritatingly off the point. In this area we must still rely on Annie Fields, Charles Edward Stowe, Lyman Beecher Stowe, Constance Rourke, Forrest Wilson, C. H. Foster, Kenneth S. Lynn, and several others. I would particularly recommend John R. Adams’s life of Harriet Beecher Stowe for Twayne’s United States Authors Series (1963), which conveys efficiently and unemotionally …
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Nat Turner and “Dred” November 19, 1970