The novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) became one of the 19th century's literary superstars with the publication of her most famous work, Uncle Tom's Cabin. The book came into being first as a magazine serial and then as a 2-volume work published in 1852. Besides its status as one of the great anti-slavery polemics of its time, the extremely popular novel features a long cast of interesting characters, a wide geographical sweep, and extensive examples of the rhetorical debates that were common in the decade leading up to the Civil War.
Within a decade of publishing Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe met President Lincoln at the White House. The legend developed that he said to her, upon their first encounter in 1862, "Is this the little woman who made this great war?" Whether Lincoln uttered these specific words (or made any similar observation) is unknown. Yet the anecdote does reveal the extent to which Stowe had already become a famous cultural spokesperson, She championed the American civil religion, articulated a conservative message of women's rights and motherhood, and a envisioned a Christian America unified around a strong embrace of Scripture. In short, Stowe gradually became a recognized cultural heavyweight with wide ranging political influence—one of the first American women to achieve that stature.
As great as her reputation was during her lifetime, Uncle Tom's Cabin began taking some critical hits with the advent of a new century. There arose a more modern temperament in literature that grimaced at the book's appeals to sentiment and faith. As a consequence, Stowe's masterpiece was relegated to the ash heap of literary history. But Stowe has been making a comeback among literary critics for a long time now, at least since the 1970s. Ironically, much of the credit for this goes to certain feminist scholars, including Ann Douglas and Jane Tompkins, who often have disparaged older forms of evangelical Christianity.
Only recently, however, have we been given a full treatment of Stowe's spiritual adventuring during an era noted as one of America's friskiest periods of religious awakening. With Nancy Koester's new "spiritual biography," we have the first full-scale attempt to outline Stowe's career and writings as spiritual phenomena, which they surely were. Koester's volume places Stowe within the context of a rapidly emerging religious milieu, and surrounds her with many of the key shapers of that culture. It also frames Stowe as a significant and influential voice shaping America's religious history in profound new ways.
Deep Religious Thinker
Everyone knows about Stowe's anti-slavery emphasis. Often forgotten, however, are the deep spiritual currents at work beneath it. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, a variety of characters have mystical experiences, and Scripture is sprinkled throughout. Tom seems to hear Eva's voice at times after her death, as in a dream. By the time she wrote the novel, Stowe was confirmed in her conviction that faith has supernatural elements, including the dreams and visions mentioned throughout the Old Testament prophetic books, the Gospels, and the Book of Acts. She believed, moreover, that both sexes could experience these phenomena: "I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions" (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17). She had written in letters of yearning to be "baptized in the Spirit," and she took a keen interest in the many variations and quirks of American Christianity.
And so, despite her rather conservative and even stodgy reputation, Harriet Beecher Stowe was quite the spiritual adventurer. In the midst of antebellum America's vital and inventive religious landscape, she fit right in. Indeed, as Koester shows, Stowe can be viewed as a key contributor to that landscape: a deep religious thinker whose novels and voluminous spiritual writings both mirrored and shaped the thinking of American Christianity, for better or worse. Koester is at her best, and is most original, when she locates Stowe's writing in the context of this churning spirituality. She reveals Stowe's engagement with the religious questions of her day, and how her answers are manifested in her fiction.
Stowe's interest in religion should come as no surprise, given that she belonged to one of American history's legendary religious families. Her father Lyman Beecher, the famous antebellum minister, got the ball rolling on Harriet's spiritual development by taking his young family out to Ohio to help form a new seminary. Stowe's early experiences in 1830s Cincinnati exposed her to towering religious figures like Charles Finney and Theodore Weld. She also would have heard secondhand accounts of various other manifestations of the frontier faith of that period, such as camp meetings and slave religion. Her husband, Calvin Stowe, was a noted theologian who instructed his wife in the rising school of German biblical criticism. Calvin admired German thinkers like Friedrich Schleiermacher, who emphasized feeling over rational thought: an element at the center of Stowe's fiction.
Koester shows how Stowe participated in many controversies within the churches, not simply on slavery issues, but also on matters of doctrine. Her coverage of debates within Presbyterianism and Congregationalism is compelling, and her account of how the Beecher clan gained a reputation as "heretics" is a particular highlight. Koester's treatment of Stowe's travels in Europe, her reception there, and of her fascination with Italian art and Catholic thought are admirable. Finally, the book is excellent in describing Stowe's voluminous writings on spiritual topics: most notably as a grief counselor, but also as a writer of spiritual biography herself.
Unfortunately, Koester repeats a number of old chestnuts of Stowe scholarship. And there is a very lengthy plot summary of certain works, most notably Uncle Tom's Cabin (nine full pages!), which seems extreme for anyone already familiar with that story. But quibbles aside, this book features excellent storytelling, supported by illuminating and innovative use of primary documents.
Until now, we have had to consult Joan Hedrick's 1994 biography (commonly considered the "standard" account) and David Reynolds's excellent Mightier than the Sword (2012) for this kind of spiritual analysis and religious history. But Koester's biography should assume its rightful place as the best overall account of Stowe's spiritual interests and thought. Though written in part for serious scholars, ordinary readers should find it engaging as well. And that's a good thing: because, as many critics now agree, Stowe deserves recognition as one of the most influential spiritual writers in our nation's history.
Harold K. Bush is professor of English at Saint Louis University.