Welcome to the conversation!

Welcome to the conversation!

Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811-1896) best-selling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), made her the most famous American woman of the 19th century and galvanized the abolition movement before the Civil War.

The Stowe Center is a 21st-century museum and program center using Stowe's story to inspire social justice and positive change.

The Salons at Stowe programs are a forum to connect the challenging issues (race, gender and class) that impelled Stowe to write and act with the contemporary face of those same issues. The Salon format is based on a robust level of audience participation, with the explicit goal of promoting civic engagement. Recent topics included: Teaching Acceptance; Is Prison the New Slavery; Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North; Creativity and Change; Race, Gender and Politics Today; How to be an Advocate

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Call for Freedom Heard Around the World

Featured Guest:
Katherine Kane, Executive Director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center

Opening Remarks:
Stowe began by writing to Gamaliel Bailey, originally intending to write 3-4 chapters of this story Uncle Tom's Cabin, but 44 chapters later she had her story. It came out first as a serial in the National Era newspaper in 1851 and eventually as a book in 1852.

Over 100 illustrations appeared in the Splendid Edition during the Christmas season of 1852.

The book was translated immediately into multiple languages. It is about 70 languages today.

A bit of a scandal broke out. Uncle Tom's Cabin was translated and published in German in Pennsylvania. The gentleman who did this did not get Stowe's permission to reproduce this. She sued for copyright infringement and lost.  She is told that this is public domain, she no longer had control over them. Copyright also didn't hold in European editions.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is actually two different stories:
The story of Tom and the story of Eliza and George Harris.

This is a book that was meant to be read aloud. A core of her argument about slavery is:
"Whoever visits some estates there, and witnesses the good-humored indulgence of some masters and mistresses, and the affectionate loyalty of some slaves, might be tempted to dream the oft-fabled poetic legend of a patriarchal institution, and all that; but over and above the scene there broods a portentous shadow—the shadow of law. So long as the law considers all these human beings, with beating hearts and living affections, only as so many things belonging to a master,—so long as the failure, or misfortune, or imprudence, or death of the kindest owner, may cause them any day to exchange a life of kind protection and indulgence for one of hopeless misery and toil,—so long it is impossible to make anything beautiful or desirable in the best regulated administration of slavery."

Why did she choose the title that she did?
The title changed a bit. The title was Uncle Tom's Cabin
juxtaposition of domestic life and how African American's lived
The space of UTC was well cared for. It is set up the way a multi-room house would be
The people who lived there cared as much about their house as you do about yours.
The cabin imagery was already entrenched in politics.
This gives the image of domesticity and home. This is the most simple form of home.

Did she ever talk about the reaction to the book?
She was surprise that it took on the life that it did.
She did not expect it to be so long. She had to rearrange her life to meet the deadlines for the newspaper edition of the story.
The sales surprise everybody.

How did this impact the Civil War?
In helped make anti-slavery less of a fringe movement. Especially when it moved to the stage in 1853, more people were exposed. Going to the theater was not respectable, but those who were going to the theater were being exposed to these abolitionist ideas.
Women become very interested in reading this book and Stowe's writing really galvanized the women.
Men and women were reading this book, everyone was reading it.

Favorite Parts of the Story
The Cassy story in Uncle Tom's Cabin shows how Stowe showed the sexual exploitation of women and children without using language that is too repulsive. Cassy's escape is what Tom will die for.

Stowe's fame and her trip to Europe
Stowe was invited to go to Great Britain. She started with anti-slavery groups in Scotland. When she landed in Liverpool there were 10 productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin on the stage.
She travels through Scotland, then the Midlands of England and onto London.
She would show up at a train station and 2,000 people would be there to see her. She was traveling with her husband, brother, sister-in-law and sister-in-law's son.
Everyone wanted to know what she looked like.
Her brother Thomas kept a diary of these travels, you can hear his excitement and his worries for his sister. This diary is here in the Stowe Center collections.

Did people expect anything from her?
2,000 to 5,000 people would show up, she would be on the stage, but as a respectable women in front of a mixed audience she did not speak. Her husband or brother would speak for her and she would not write what they spoke about. She was not speaking, she was on display. She doesn't speak in public as early as some others do. It is probably around the 1870s when she addresses a mixed crowd. When she eventually does her speaking tours she is very tired by it.
She gets used to this, but has to go back to regular life in the States. She had to be a mother and a wife.

She traveled with an entourage. She was exhausted by this type of lifestyle.

She received many public presentations which included coins, sterling silver pieces, and cash.

One of the groups that asked her to come visit was the Earl and Duchess of Sutherland. They organized a petition of the women of Great Britain. A common way for women to bring influence was through petitions. This was from the women of Great Britain (The Affectionate and Christian Address) and it was a petition to end slavery in the United States. The pages include the women's name, occupation of husband or father, and residence (Volume 5 includes the women of Downton-a small village in Southern England.) 1855 Commercial directory from Downton, England. We were able to cross reference some of these women with the people in the Commercial directory including a women that was a shoemaker's wife. These were not all noble women, these were common women too.
563,000 women signed the 27 volumes of this petition.

Going through these 27 volumes would make for a great graduate thesis project. They are still somewhat unknown to us. There is a lot still to be discovered in them. Where did the women sign it? Who signed it? Why did they sign it?

How did these volumes of the petition come to the Stowe Center.
They were originally in the Stowe's home on Forest Street in Hartford.
After her death in 1896, her son Charles and twin daughters Hattie and Eliza. Charles presented them to the Connecticut Historical Society. He knew they were important and a burden.
In 1970, the CT Historical Society placed them on long term loan at the Stowe Center.
In 2011, the Historical Society presented them to the Stowe Center as a gift on Stowe's 200th birthday.

Stowe made two other trips to Europe.
She was exposed to others forms of art. Her sister Mary wrote home about all of the "naked" people in Europe, talking about the art they saw.
Stowe wrote about her 1853 trip in Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands
Lady Byron Vindicated and Agnes of Sorrento were both books that came out of her travels as well.

Did Stowe keep a journal?
She did not keep a journal. She was too busy to keep a journal.

While she is in Italy she hears about the death of her son Henry. She comes home and begins to write The Minister's Wooing

Did Stowe travel in a likewise fashion in the States?
In her 60s she traveled around the country on a reading trip. She read from her works. Her trip is reviewed by local newspapers.

Since she had such a huge influence, why don't people know Stowe as a household name?
Could it be that she is a women?
Could it be that her books aren't taught in schools? Because they are too sentimental, too controversial, or not considered relevant.
Abolitionists fell into repute after the 1870s. It took until the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement.
We live in an era of post-racialism and we forget that the message after the Civil War in many areas was similar to that of Gone With the Wind.
Stowe's biographer Joan Hedrick argues that the development of the literary canon was done by men which impacted Stowe's popularity. This defined the "greats".

What about the term of "Uncle Tom"?
So many versions of the book came out in the plays. The pejorative term came very quickly.
The slur "Uncle Tom" impacted how the book lived on.
A new exhibit just opened in the Stowe Center Visitor Center addressing the racial pejorative.

Was the book read in the South early on? Did she receive death threats?
It was illegal to read in many parts of the South, but it was read. There is a case where someone went to jail. It was widely slammed. There were many anti-Tom story's like Aunt Phyllis' Cabin.
She was physically threatened in print. We underestimate how brave it was for her to write this. Violence was a common way to keep people in line. One day the household opened the mail and found severed ears in a package. She had family in the South that did not want her to put her name on the outside of letters because it would bring their family great trouble.

She lived in Florida after the war. She loved living there even though people would disagree with her.

How does she answer her critics?
She writes a book called A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin to answer them. She publishes her research for the book here.
She used newspaper articles, her family, personal experiences, individuals she knew and met, wrote Fredrick Douglass for information, court cases, and advertisements. She was challenged because she did not live in the South, but she also claimed that if she wrote about slavery as it was then no one would read it.

There is a lot of emotion that comes with this book. All the references to the Bible and a lot of it is not cited. 
At the time people would have known what references she was making, but today there are annotated versions. These references added to the argument she was making. People really connected to the book and there was a lot of merchandise made around Uncle Tom's Cabin. The musical references that we miss were very important to the people reading it at the time.

Why was it so important to be read aloud?
Stowe certainly tested it by reading it aloud to her family and there is writing about the story being read aloud. It really brings the power of the words alive. When you read it aloud you get a real sense of the power of the words.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Is Prison the New Slavery? April 26 Salon

Michelle Alexander's new book is a must-read! Right on point for the April 26, 2012 Salon. Read what the New York Times reports here : http://nyti.ms/wtOnsB