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Portraits of American women online

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times cultivated them; but it could trample on them,
when occasion demanded, and even forget them. Mrs.
Stowe was an excellent manager, careful of her house
hold, careful of her husband, careful of her children.
She could be up early and down late, sew, clean, and
cook, plan and provide. When moving had to be at-


tended to, she bore the burden. What that means,
every housekeeper knows.

She appreciated the importance of order and system in
a family : " I know that nothing can be done without it;
it is the keystone, the sine qua non, and in regard to my
children I place it next to piety." 4 She gives an amus
ing picture of her efforts to apply this principle in estab
lishing a new home : furniture men flying about, servants
calling, assistants suggesting, everything to be 3one,
and nobody ready to do it. 5 Nerves were evidently out
of place in such a scene as this, and she whipped them
into submission could even make fun when, in the
midst of it, she received from her husband a letter, sat
urated with gloom, warning her that he could not live
long, wondering what she could do as a widow, and
urging prudence, as she would not have much to live on.
Prudence ! With big freight-bills to pay and the children
clamoring for steak to sustain them through their labors !

When these whirlwinds of achievement are over, the
nerves revenge themselves. Nerves usually do. She has
times of depression so deep that she hardly seems to live:
" All I wanted was to get home and die. Die I was very
sure I should, at any rate, but I suppose I was never less
prepared to do so." 6 Again, "I let my plants die by inches
before my eyes, and do not water them, and I dread


everything I do, and wish it was not to be done." T Yet,
even in these depths, if there is a call from others in
greater misery, she can respond, sometimes with sooth
ing tenderness, sometimes with cheerful rallying. When
her husband writes to her in utter despair, the sympathy
of her answer is disguised in gentle mockery. "My
dear Soul, I received your most melancholy effusion, and
I am sorry to find it s just so. I entirely agree and sym
pathize. Why didn t you engage the two tombstones
one for you and one for me ? " 8

This gayety, which she could apply to her own
troubles, of course made her delightful to others, and
socially she was popular and much sought after. Like
most persons of sensitive temperament and nervous
organization, she at once liked society and shunned it.
The instinct of avoiding people, of remaining shut up
within herself, was strong in her, and she had to make
an effort to overcome it: "I am trying to cultivate a
general spirit of kindliness towards everybody. Instead
of shrinking into a corner to notice how other people
behave, I am holding out my hand to the right and to the
left, and forming casual or incidental acquaintances
with all who will be acquainted with me." 9 She culti
vates the habit of speaking to disagreeable people, to
nonentities, and finding the good that can surely be


found in them. Also, she feels the intense excitement
of social intercourse, with its consequent fatigue and
reaction: "I believe it would kill me dead to live long
in the way I have been doing since I have been here.
It is a sort of agreeable delirium." 10

In the main she likes people. Instead of saying, with
Madame de Staal-Delaunay, that she is always glad
to make new friends because she knows they cannot be
worse than the old, she declares that she leaves Bruns
wick with regret, because she shall never find friends
whom she likes better than those she has made there.

And men and women liked her, because she liked
them. She entered many circles and mingled with all
sorts of people, and everywhere she was received with
esteem and affection. She herself speaks of the singu
lar charm and fascination of her brother, Henry Ward
Beecher : " He has something magnetic about him that
makes everybody crave his society that makes men
follow and worship him/ 11 The magnetism in her
case was by no means so marked; but it was there, and
very many found it irresistible.

If she was popular in general society and was liked
by others because she liked them, much more had she
a tender and devoted affection in the most intimate re
lations of life. "There is a heaven," she says, "a


heaven a world of love, and love after all is the life-
blood, the existence, the all in all of mind." 12 And in a
simpler and even more penetrating phrase, she shows
how thoroughly she had experienced what she estimates
so highly : " Oh, Mary, we never know how we love till
we try to unlove/ 13

Her devotion to her father and to her brothers and
sisters was constant and unfailing. Perhaps the nearest
of them all to her was Henry Ward Beecher, and the
strength of her love for him appears strikingly in the
letters written in regard to his greatest trial. She not
only rejects all possible doubt as to his innocence and
purity, but rejects it with a whole-hearted conviction
which it is difficult to resist. He is herself, she says, and
she feels a blow at him more than she would feel it at

Her children she loved and tended an3 cared for, en
tering into all the interests of their lives and being pros
trated by their illness or death. It certainly could not
be said of her that she was a writer before she was a
mother : " My children I would not change for all the
ease, leisure, and pleasure that I could have without
them." 14 Like all persons of deep and sensitive natures,
she feels the utmost difficulty in expressing affection.
What are those strange, those insurmountable barriers


that make it impossible for the tenderness that fills our
hearts to overflow our lips, so that we meet our dearest
with a jest, or a quip, or a casual comment, instead of
the sincere outpouring of passionate devotion? How
many of us can echo Mrs. Stowe s words : " As for ex
pression of affection . . . the stronger the affection,
the less inclination have I to express it. Yet sometimes
I think myself the most frank, open, and communica
tive of beings, and at other times the most reserved." 15
How many of us, again, resolve, as she did, when a
friend mourned over not having told a lost child how
much she loved him, that we will not make the same
mistake, but will give our feelings full expression, while
there is yet time? The time passes, till it grows too
late, and all against our will our lips are sealed.

The 3epth and the varying phases of Mrs. Stowe s
love of her husband are naturally not fully seen in her
published letters. That she did love him, both before
marriage and after, is evident enough. With the
writer s instinct of analysis, she makes a curious dis
section of her feelings to a friend, half an hour before
her wedding : " Well, my dear, I have been dreading and
"dreading the time, and lying awake wondering how I
should live through this overwhelming crisis, and lo ! it
has come, and I feel nothing at all." 19 But neither the


dread nor the indifference indicates any doubt or coldness
as to Professor Stowe. When she writes of him to others,
it is with a warm efflorescence of praise. His tenderness
enwraps her, his enthusiasm upholds her, his confidence
sustains her. When she writes to him directly, their
mutual understanding and intimate affection are obvious
in every line. Amusing stories are told of his occasional
assertion of being something more than Mrs. Stowe s
husband; but these never imply any jealousy or undue
sensitiveness in one who was well qualifie3 to play his
part in life without being the husband of anybody.


LIKE many writers, and some who have been among
the most successful, Mrs. Stowe was neither a great
scholar nor a great reader of the writings of others.
She speaks of her enjoyment in early childhood of the
poetry of Scott. Later, after looking in dismay at the
appalling collection of theology in her father s library,
she was able to divert herself with the odd agglomera
tion of fact and fancy in Mather s "Magnalia." As
her education went on, she of course became familiar
with the standard books which, as names at any rate,
are known to intelligent people. She also read curi-


ously such writings of contemporaries as appealed to
her quick and eager spirit. But she createcl her own
work from what she saw in life, not from what she
found in books. She had neither the vast zest for
knowledge as such which is so evident in Margaret Ful
ler and Sarah Ripley, nor the enthusiasm for education
as a moral agent which animated Mary Lyon. Quota
tions and literary references are not frequent in her
letters or in her formal writings. It is the same with
artistic matters generally. In later years European
travel trained her to a good deal of interest in pictures
and architecture. But her temperament was not natu
rally aesthetic, nor was it especially susceptible to
emotional stimulus from painting or music.

The great activity, the really vital and vivid manifes
tation of her spiritual life, was in religion. When she
was twelve years old, she wrote a composition entitled,
"Can the Immortality of the Soul be proved by the
Light of Nature?" It is a truly appalling production
for a child of that age not in itself, but when one
thinks of all it meant in the way of wearing, haunting,
morbid spiritual discipline and suggestion.

The young person of to-day cannot realize what tfiese
religious problems were to the young person of one hun
dred years ago. The atmosphere which was breathed


from morning to night was loaded with discussion and
controversy. Nobody understood this better than Mrs.
Stowe, or has depicted it more powerfully. " On some
natures," she says, " theology operates as a subtle
poison; and the New England theology in particular,
with its intense clearness, its sharp-cut crystalline edges
and needles of thought, has had in a peculiar degree the
power of lacerating the nerves of the soul, and produc
ing strange states of morbid horror and repulsion." 17
Elsewhere she puts this influence even more forcibly:
"With many New England women at this particular
period, when life was so retired and so cut off from out
ward sources of excitement, thinking grew to be a
disease." 18

If such statements were true in general, even of girls
who had the ordinary surroundings of this world and
were not especially bound to the atmosphere of the sanc
tuary, they were far more applicable to Mrs. Stowe her
self. Her family was essentially Levitical, and the
quintessence of theological excitement was distilled about
her dreaming childhood. Her father, Lyman Beecher,
was a giant of the faith. He was a robust, active, natu
rally healthy spirit, a dynamic creature, who used to
shovel sand from one corner of the cellar to another to
tone his bodily muscles, and toned the muscles of his


spirit by shoveling sinners to heaven or to hell. He was
born too normal to suffer, himself, the extreme agonies
of a tormented conscience, though his curious " Autobi
ography " shows that even the normal had their struggles
to go through.

When it came to a sensitive nervous organization like
his daughter s, the spiritual tumult that he spread around
him had a far different effect. No doubt she was only
one of many; but we have the advantage of a keener
insight into her sufferings than into those of others. No
doubt there was a certain strange pleasure in the suffer
ings themselves, an intense, thrilling appreciation of
being at any rate alive, such as is quaintly indicated in
the brief sentence of Anatole France, "It is sweet to
believe, even in hell." Yet, as we read the story of Mrs.
Stowe s experiences from our modern point of view, we
rebel a little, with the feeling that there is enough una
voidable misery in the world without adding the dis
tresses of the imagination.

What these distresses were in Mrs. Stowe s case we
gather from many passages in her letters. That her
sensitiveness, her response to influences of joy and de
pression, to every suggestion from others, was extreme,
is everywhere evident. " I believe that there never was
a person more dependent on the good and evil opinions


of those around than I am." 19 That she took all her
spiritual experiences with passion, is evident also.
"Thought, intense emotional thought, has been my
disease/ 20

The weight of original sin upon such a temperament,
the horror of it, with all its fearful consequences, may
easily be imagined. An ideal of perfection was before
her always, and it seemed as if she never attained it,
and of course she never did. She could do nothing right.
Temptations daily beset her and she daily yielded. Back
of all her sins was pride, fierce, devilishly prompting
pride, the old, stubborn, willful, unconquerable self.
She went hourly into battle with it. Sometimes she
triumphed for a moment; but it rose again, in hydra
variety, forever.

All this was forced in upon her soul, beaten in upon
it. You are irretrievably wicked, said her best friends ;
there is no escape but one: believe you must believe.
So she believed, or said she did, and tried to tried by
day and by night to find her way through the complex
maze of doctrine which believing meant in those clays.
At moments she felt that she had succeeded. Rest came,
a wide peace settled down upon her ; it seemed that she
could never again be troubled any more. "My whole
soul was illumined with joy, and as I left the church


to walk home, it seemed to me as if Nature herself were
hushing her breath to hear the music of heaven." 21
She said to her father, in ecstasy, " Father, I have given
myself to Jesus, and He has taken me." And her father
answered, as much rejoiced as she, "Then has a new
flower blossomed in the kingdom this day."

But the ecstasies did not endure. Do they ever, did
they ever, even in the calmest and most saintly heart?
Doubts come, difficulties, sometimes a flush of rebellion.
She hears preachers say that we have no plea to offer for
our sins and no excuse. Have we not ? she says. Why
were we put into the world with the fierce thirst for
sin and so helpless to resist it? "I have never known
the time when I have not had a temptation within me
so strong that it was certain I should not overcome it." 22

Worse than the doubts is the dead feeling of exhaus
tion and emptiness that follows enthusiasm. You are in
heaven for an hour. An hour afterwards you do not
care whether you are in heaven or in hell. The terrible
struggle of these experiences has dried her mind and
withered her soul. "Though young, I have no sym
pathy with the feelings of youth." 23 So her spirit
flutters in an endless turmoil, exalted and depressed all
the more because of the quiet and tranquillity of her life


It is needless to say that she fought through the
storm, that with the passage of years she retained the
essence of her faith, at the same time dropping or ob
scuring the struggles and terrors of it. The world was
broadening about her and she broadened fully with it.
Love came to be the great stronghold of her religion,
love and hope and sunshine. She grew more and more
willing to leave the mysteries and the problems to take
care of themselves.


BUT whatever religion she had, it was a primary in
stinct to preach it. She was not essentially a mystic,
content to enjoy her spiritual ecstasies in solitude, to
brood over them without any effort to extend them to
others. She was born to be active, to be energetic, to
make the world feel her existence. When she was a
little child, she heard somebody read the Declaration of
Independence and it made her " long to do something, I
knew not what: to fight for my country, or to make
some declaration on my own account/ 24 She was like
the young college graduate just engaged, who was
found in tears and explained that she "wanted to do
something for the world and for Wellesley and for


In the New England of those days the desire to do
something generally meant to communicate one s reli
gious experiences. This of course involved making
others extremely wretched; but as it was to save their
souls, what did it matter ? Had not one been extremely
wretched one s self? So many of these quiet, earnest,
simple women had fought through a passionate spiritual
struggle to a hardly earned and hardly sustained vic
tory! The great impulse of their lives was to fight
the battle and win the victory for those they loved,
for an even wider world, for every one. Each new
battle in a new soul made their own triumphs more
confirmed and sure. If this was the case with women
in general, how much more so was it with one who had
grown up in an atmosphere of preaching and teaching;
whose father had spent his life wrestling with the devil
in the pulpit and in the study and had worsted him glori
ously; whose brothers had followed the same career
with like energy and success ! She speaks of one of these
brothers as "peppering the land with moral influence." 25
Was it not certain that, with her temperament and her
experiences, she would want, in some shape or other, to
hold the pepper-pot herself?

She 8id. It must not be understood from this that in
daily life she was pedantic, or inclined to moralize and


sermonize. On the contrary, she was gay and sym
pathetic. She had a wide appreciation of human nature,
a wide comprehension of it ; and this led her to bear with
others whose point of view was entirely different from
hers. " Tolerance/ she says in one of her books, " tol
erance for individual character is about the last Chris
tian grace that comes to flower in family or church." 26
It had come to flower with her. Men and women
might differ vastly in beliefs, in standards, even in
practice, and yet be all lovable. "My dear friend,"
she says, "we must consider other people s natures/ 27
Is it possible to give more broadly human as well as more
broadly Christian advice than that?

But all the tolerance and comprehension did not mean
indifference or mere idle study of men s various ways of
going to ruin. With the sympathy came a passionate
desire to help, a profound conviction that sympathy
was the best agent for helping. And as she had a con
stant eagerness to make over souls, so she had a
whirlwind energy in the manner of doing it. She
tells us of her father s wonderful faculty of exciting
family enthusiasm. When he had an object to accom
plish, he would work the whole household up to a pitch
of fervent zeal, in which the strength of each one seemed
quadruple3. She amply inherited the trait, and strove


with all her nervous force to "do good, wherever she
might be. Even the simple pursuit of her own pleasure
she was fain to justify by some side-issue of benevo
lence. Thus, when she bought a plantation in Florida,
she urged that she was largely influenced by the wish to
elevate the people. The plan, she says, " is not in any
sense a mere worldly enterprise." 28

Very characteristic is the anecdote told by Elizabeth
Stuart Phelps of the friend in Germany whom Mrs.
Stowe was anxious to convert from his sceptical phi
losophy. First, she argued, pleaded, persuaded by letter,
some of her letters being even thirty pages long. When
this epistolary effort failed her, she was obliged to rely
wholly upon prayer; and at length, at Christmas-time,
her perseverance was rewarded by the complete conver
sion of the reluctant German. 29

But with Mrs. Stowe the natural expression for this
preaching, reforming impulse was literature, just as
with Mary Lyon it was teaching. Gautier said that the
production of copy was a natural function with George
Sand. Without emphasizing it quite so strongly, it may
yet be said that the pen was the implement that Mrs.
Stowe handled most readily an d with most pleasure.
She did not write because she read. She wrote because
she thought and felt, and writing was to her the sim-


plest medium for getting rid of thought and feeling.
Like many others with a similar gift, she was not frank
or particularly outspoken in daily converse. It costs
her an effort to express feeling of any kind, she says.
Yet when she took her pen, all her inner life flowed out
readily. Could she have said to any one what she wrote
of Niagara, for instance? "I felt as if I could have
gone over with the waters; it would be so beautiful a
death; there would be no fear in it. I felt the rock
tremble under me with a sort of joy. I was so maddened
that I could have gone too, if it had gone." 30

All her life writing excited her, overpowered her.
She does not do it methodically, systematically, but with
a frenzy of self-forgetfulness. "My own book, instead
of cooling, boils and bubbles daily and nightly." 81 The
work overcomes her in the production ; it overcomes her
afterwards, as if it were the production of some one else.
When she reads of the death of Uncle Tom, she can
" scarcely restrain the convulsion of tears and sobbings "
that shakes her frame. 32

With such a mighty instrument of preaching at hand
as this, how can she fail to exercise it? It is a most
interesting study to disentangle the web of motives that
lies behind her literary achievement. Money? Money
enters in, of course. Mrs. Stowe liked to earn. She also


liked to spend and liked to give. Now earning was irregu
lar, spending was lamentably regular. She so managed
that she was never seriously hampered financially; she
was too prudent and too honorable for that. But the
pressure of money needs was not strictly favorable to
the pursuit of literature. Her biographers tell us that
at times what she pursued was not literature, but the
necessities of life; and she herself says that when she
began " Uncle Tom/ she was " driven to write by the
necessity of making some income for family expenses." 8 *
Yet the passion for writing, for doing something that
would make the world remember her, went far deeper
than any need of money. Her sister, in a sharp, brief
characterization of all the family, says that, as a child,
" Harriet is just as odd, and loves to be laughed at as
much as ever." 34 To be laughed at, to be pointed at,
to be praised there is the writer surely. Mrs. Stowe
tells us that, when she first began to read, she was pos
sessed with the longing to do something in literature.
When she was thirteen, she wrote a tragedy. " It fille3
my thoughts sleeping and waking," 35 till her sister
forced her to write extracts from Butler s "Analogy,"
instead. All through the production of her lengthy
series of works it is evident that she was impelled by
something besides the need of money: that the intense


ambition to succeed, to get glory, to touch and move and
thrill the hearts of men, was ever present with her.

At the same time, she would not have admitted that
this was her main motive, any more than money. Her
gifts, if she had any, were given her for a purpose, and
that was never forgotten. "He has given me talents
and I will lay them at his feet, well satisfied if He will
accept them." 36 She writes with her life-blood, she
says, and " as called of God." In " Uncle Tom " she was
openly and confessedly doing missionary work. But in
everything she ever wrote, her desire was the same. She
was a Beecher. The Beechers were Levites, preachers,
all of them, only it fell to her to hold forth from a
vaster pulpit than any other Beecher ever dreamed of.
And just as with them, so her utterances were given to
her from a higher source. She did not write "Uncle
Tom," she declares. She saw it, she felt it, she heard it
in prophetic visions. It came to her in a great tide of
inspiration, the spirit pouring through her as its mere
humble instrument for the renovation and regeneration
of the world.

And as the preaching, missionary instinct was always
present in her literary ambition, so it was equally present
in her enjoyment of popularity and success. It is un
necessary to say that these came to her in vast measure,


and she appreciated them. When she was eleven years
old, her father asked her teacher who wrote a certain

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Online LibraryGamaliel BradfordPortraits of American women → online text (page 6 of 14)