Portraits of American Women: Ii. Harriet Beecher Stowe
SHE was a little woman, rather plain than beautiful, but with energy, sparkle, and vivacity written all over her. I always think of her curls, but they were not curls of coquetry or curls of sentiment. They were just alive, as she was, and danced and quivered when she nodded and glowed.
The first half of the nineteenth century, when she was growing up, was still the age of ministers in New England, and she was of a ministerial family, grew up in that atmosphere, and inherited all its traditions. Only she preached in books, not from the pulpit. She passed her youth among the joys and torments of religion, as then practised. She married and had children. Then she set the world afire with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, made money, which she sorely needed, wrote more books, a huge number of them, made more money in proportion, spent it with much generosity and some joy, and died, perhaps a great author, certainly having been a great power in her day.
She did all this with health that was never robust, never reliable, and often wretched. ‘A wisp of nerve,’ she calls herself; and she was. ‘She loved more,’ says her biographer, ‘and consequently suffered more than others, and the weight of her suffering was heavier because she had grown up, apparently, almost without care, either from herself or others, in behalf of her body.’ There were no gymnasiums for girls in those days, no vigorous outdoor sports, no tall, swaying figures and red cheeks; only samplers and prayer. Mrs. Stowe often analyzed these conditions in her characters, and also analyzed them, with much acuteness, in herself. ‘About half of my time I am scarcely alive, and a great part of the rest, the slave and sport of morbid feeling and unreasonable prejudice. I have everything but good health.’
But do not suppose that she let morbid fancies or cringing nerves interfere when there was work to be done. That generation had its weaknesses, and sometimes cultivated them; but it could trample on them, when occasion demanded, and even forget them. Mrs. Stowe was an excellent manager, careful of her household, 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 attended 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.’ She gives an amusing picture of her efforts to apply this principle in establishing a new home: furniture men flying about, servants calling, assistants suggesting, everything to be done, and nobody ready to do it. 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 a letter from her husband, saturated 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.’ 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.’ Yet, even in these depths, if there is a call from others in greater misery, she can respond, sometimes with soothing 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 sympathize. Why did n’t you engage the two tombstones — one for you and one for me?’
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.’ She cultivates 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.’
In the main she likes people. Instead of saying, with Madame de StaalDelaunay, that she is always glad to make new friends because she knows they cannot be worse than the old, she declares that she leaves Brunswick 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 singular 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.’ 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 relations of life. ‘There is a heaven,’ she says, ‘a heaven — a world of love, and love after all is the lifeblood, the existence, the all in all of mind.’ 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.’
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 herself.
Her children she loved and tended and cared for, entering into all the interests of their lives and being prostrated 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.’ 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 expression of affection . . . the stronger the affection, the less inclination have I to express it. Yet sometimes I think myself the most frank, open, and communicative of beings, and at other times the most reserved’? 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 depth 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 dissection 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’ But neither the dread nor the indifference indicate 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 qualified 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 agglomeration of fact and fancy in Mather’s Magnolia. 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 curiously such writings of contemporaries as appealed to her quick and eager spirit. But she created 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 Fuller and Sarah Ripley, nor the enthusiasm for education as a moral agent, which animated Mary Lyon. Quotations 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 naturally æsthetic, nor was it especially susceptible to emotional stimulus from painting or music.
The great activity, the really vital and vivid manifestation 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 these religious problems were to the young person of one hundred 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 in a peculiar degree the power of lacerating the nerves of the soul, and producing strange states of morbid horror and repulsion.’ 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 outward sources of excitement, thinking grew to be a disease.’
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 sanctuary, they were far more applicable to Mrs. Stowe herself. 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, naturally 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 autobiography 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 sufferings 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 unavoidable misery in the world without adding the distresses 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 depression, 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.’ That she took all her spiritual experiences with passion, is evident also. ‘Thought, intense, emotional thought has been my disease.’
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 her. 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 days. 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.’ 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.’
Worse than the doubts is the dead feeling of exhaustion 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 sympathy with the feelings of youth.’ So her spirit flutters in an endless turmoil, exalted and depressed all the more because of the quiet and tranquillity of her life without.
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 obscuring 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 instinct 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.’ 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 him.’
In the New England of those days the desire to do something generally meant to communicate one’s religious 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 victory! 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 gloriously; 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.’ 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 did. 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 sympathetic. 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, ‘tolerance for individual character is about the last Christian grace that comes to flower in family or church.’ 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.’ 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 constant eagerness to make over souls, so she had a whirlwind energy in the manner of doing it. She tells us that her father had a wonderful faculty of exciting family enthusiasm. When he had an object to accomplish, he would work the whole household up to a pitch of fervent zeal, in which the strength of each one seemed quadrupled. 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 benevolence. 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.’
Very characteristic is the anecdote told by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, of the friend in Germany whom Mrs. Stowe was anxious to convert from his skeptical philosophy. 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 Christmastime, her perseverance was rewarded by the complete conversion of the reluctant German.
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 and with most pleasure. She did not write because she read. She wrote because she thought and felt, and writing was to her the simplest 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 water; 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.’
All her life writing excited her, overpowered her. She does not do it methodically, systematically, but with a frenzy of self-forgetfulness. ‘My book, instead of cooling, boils and bubbles daily and nightly.’ The work overcomes her in the production; it overcomes her afterwards, as if it were the production of some one else. When she reads the death of Uncle Tom, she ‘can hardly restrain the convulsion of tears and sobbings ’ that shakes her frame.
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 irregular, spending was lamentably regular. She so managed that she was never seriously hampered financially; she was too essentially 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.’
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,’ 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 possessed with the longing to do something in literature. When she was thirteen, she wrote a tragedy. ‘ It filled my thoughts sleeping and waking,’ 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.’ 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 unnecessary 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 composition. ‘Your daughter, sir.’
‘It was the proudest moment of my life, ’ she says. But she had many proud moments afterwards. The storm of applause — and of equally intoxicating obloquy — which came to her from Uncle Tom’s Cabin has not often been surpassed in the history of literature. She was praised and admired and reviled in America. In England the reviling was less, the praise and admiration perhaps even greater. When she visited that country, high and lowcrowded to gaze upon her, to touch her hand, to hear her speak.
Nor was it all vague and impersonal glory, which flowed about her in the streets but left her alone on an isolated pinnacle. What she asked of the world most was love. In the full sweep of her success she wrote, ‘It is not fame nor praise contents me. I seem never to have needed love so much as now.’ Well, love came to her. She made friends everywhere, friends with wealth, friends with distinction, friends with titles, who took her into their hearts just as nearly as those who had grown up with her at home. The warm lining of her fame was as rich and lasting as its glittering outside.
Through it all she was modest, put on no airs or vain pretenses, did not seem to feel that she had done any thing great, insisted, with apparent sincerity, that the work was not her work nor hers the glory. She moved among those curious and applauding crowds, a little, quiet, shrinking, yet always dignified figure, with a half smile of wonder what they were all making such a fuss about. ‘It was enough to frighten a body into fits,’ says her husband of one great occasion. ‘But we took it as quietly as we could, and your mamma looked as meek as Moses in her little, battered straw hat and gray cloak, seeming to say, “I did n’t come here o’ purpose.” ’
She enjoyed it; oh, there is no doubt about that. She was eminently human, and few human beings have lived who would not have enjoyed it. But through all the tumult and hurly-burly there persisted that still, small voice telling her that the triumph and the means that won it were given her for a purpose. The instinct of the missionary and preacher at once excused her joy in her success and doubled it. Not hers was it to write brilliant and cleverly turned stories for the fleeting enchantment of an hour, but to stir hearts, to win hearts, to push on the movement of great causes in a turbid world.
Lowell, writing as editor of the Atlantic, of which she was a pillar in those days, cautioned her to ‘Let your moral take care of itself, and remember that an author’s writing-desk is something infinitely higher than a pulpit.’
To her there was nothing higher than a pulpit, nothing could be. ‘The power of fictitious writing, for good as well as evil, is a thing which ought most seriously to be reflected on,’ she says. She never ceased to reflect on it.
She reflected on it more than she did on her story, her incidents, or her characters. In fact, fortunately, these hurried her on without reflection. But plenty of the reflection on the power of fictitious writing for good and evil always got mixed up with them. By temperament she was an interested and an acute and exact observer of human nature, both external and internal. Her stories, all her stories in greater or less degree, are founded on an extensive study of character and manners. This is true of her Southern novels, and they show that she had made good use of her opportunities in collecting material, both consciously and unconsciously. It is far more true of her New England books; and the fine and varied insight of The Minister’s Wooing, The Pearl of Orr’s Island, especially of Oldtown Folks, has hardly been surpassed since. In this line it must be remembered that Mrs. Stowe was an originator, for Hawthorne’s work was entirely different in spirit. If Miss Jewett, Mrs. Freeman, and Miss Alice Brown have developed some sides more effectively, Mrs. Stowe deserves credit for having set the great example. The shrewdness, the sympathy with which she depicted the New England farmer, and, above all, his wife and daughter, are forever commendable and delightful. That peculiar thing called the New England conscience is especially fascinating to Mrs. Stowe, and she is never weary of disentangling its curious webs of subtle torment.
In making all these investigations she sometimes likes to think of herself as the artist merely, who portrays man’s body and soul with scientific ardor and is more concerned with truth than with moral efficacy. ‘I am myself but the observer and reporter,’ she writes, ‘seeing much, doubting much, questioning much, and believing with all my heart only in very few things.’ She does herself infinite injustice. By comparison with some of us, she believed in a great many things. Especially, she was filled with an overwhelming zeal to convey to others what beliefs she had. It is here that she differs from the notable writers who have succeeded her. They, for the most part, observe and report life as it is, from scientific and artistic curiosity. But to Mrs. Stowe every heart is a text and every tragedy a fearful example. She probably was not aware herself how furiously she preached. But no Beecher was ever a mere observer, or could have been contented to leave New England and the world without making them better.
And as her observation and material were affected by her missionary spirit, so her artistic methods were affected even more. Everywhere the illustration of human truth is a secondary object; the first is to produce an effect — naturally, a moral effect. Now, in literature the subordination of truth to effect, no matter for what purpose, is melodrama. Dumas and the thousands like him arrange effective incident merely to amuse, to startle and excite the reader; Mrs. Stowe arranges it to jolt the reader into the path of virtue. It is not a matter of violent sensation. Where are there more violent sensations than are to be found in Shakespeare? But, as Trollope admirably remarks, there is no objection to sensation, no matter how violent, provided it is always subordinated to the development of character. When character is subordinated to sensation, the proper name is surely melodrama. It is amusing and profitable to hear Mrs. Stowe herself on this subject. Some one has accused her of being moved by melodrama. She is at first appalled, though she has no very clear idea what is meant. Then she concludes consolingly, ‘If, by being melodramatic, as the terrible word is, he [the artist] can shadow forth a grand and comforting religious idea . . . who shall say that he may not do so because he violates the lines of some old Greek artist?’ You see the point.
An entertaining side-issue of this preaching aspect of the creator of Uncle Tom is her active part in the Byron controversy. I have no wish to stir up a vexed and disagreeable question ; but I do insist that Mrs. Stowe’s part in it was based upon the zealous desire to do good, however much lack of tact she may have shown. When she was a child, she adored Byron, and was deeply overcome by the announcement of his death. She heard it from her father, who also adored him, — with reservations, — and thought that, if Byron ‘could have talked with Taylor and me, it might have got him out of his troubles.’ Is n’t that delicious? Later, she became intimate with Lady Byron, and, after her death, felt that an effort to make clear her relations with her husband would benefit the wife’s memory in this world and help to save the poet’s soul in the next. And what a magnificent theme it was for moral edification! Still, you see, the preaching Beecher. For it cannot be denied that there hung always about Mrs. Stowe that light, vast aura of sanctification which is, or was, so apt to emanate from the New England ministerial being, and which is condensed into a supernatural glow upon the countenance, even pictured, of her distinguished brother, Henry Ward.
I do not mean, however, to stress this missionary side of Mrs. Stowe with undue emphasis. As I have before pointed out, she was a sunny, human person, with large understanding of the weaknesses of others and large allowance for them. She had an excellent portion of humor in her composition, and indeed this was as characteristic of her family as was preaching. She says of her oldest sister that her ‘ life seemed to be a constant stream of mirthfulness’; and Harriet herself often drifted into broad eddies of the same golden river. From her father she inherited the faculty of amusing people as well as that of admonishing them. From him also she got a sense of the pleasant things of this world, and a sort of eternal youth for enjoying them. ‘Hearts never grow old, do they?' cried the Reverend Lyman; and his daughter could have said the same.
One even divines in Mrs. Stowe pagan possibilities that are really delightful. She reproaches George Eliot with too much self-abnegation, and wishes that she could get her into the Beecher household, ‘where we sometimes make the rafters ring with fun, and say anything and everything, no matter what.’ She has occasionally an obscure feeling that something is wrong in the preaching attitude; that there are interests in life besides being good and the effort to make others so. ‘With all New England’s earnestness and practical efficiency,’ she writes, ‘there is a long withering of the soul’s more ethereal portion, — a crushing out of the beautiful, — which is horrible. Children are born there with a sense of beauty equally delicate with any in the world, in whom it dies a lingering death of smothered desire and pining, weary starvation. I know, because I have felt it.’
What charms me most in this connection is Mrs. Stowe’s conversion to Rubens. In all the wide spiritual world, can you imagine temperaments more different? She knew it as well as you do. She begins by hating him. Yet even then she feels the power. ‘ Rubens, whose pictures I detested with all the energy of my soul, I knew and felt all the time, by the very pain he gave me, to be a real living artist.’ Afterwards, when she sees the gorgeous Medici group in Paris, she is almost, if not quite, converted. That starved childish spirit, which hungered for earthly loveliness in the barren New England desert, found something to thrill it in the Rubens flesh, so splendidly redolent of the glory of this world. In fact, if she had been a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn, she would have followed it with the same proselyting ardor that she gave to Christianity; and the image of Mrs. Stowe, a thyrsus in her hand, undraped in a dainty, if limited, garment of fawnskin, careering over the pastures by the sea, at the head of a Bacchic squadron of middleaged New England damsels, does not lack a certain piquant, if indecorous, exhilaration.
But she was to descend to posterity, not as a votaress of Bacchus, but as an ardent expositor of the New England conscience. All her books are saturated with it. In every one of them nature and human nature, passion and hope, good and ill, are used to illustrate the goodness of God, the importance of virtue, the absolute necessity of making over the world on the New England model. Perhaps Uncle Tom’s Cabin is no better than some of the others; but it has the characteristics of all of them, and a fortunate conjunction of circumstances gave it an enormous success which none of the others could have achieved. Read everywhere in America and Europe, translated into all languages, it was far more than a novel, it was one of the greatest moral agencies the world has seen; and Mrs. Stowe will be simply the author of it to millions who know, and care to know, nothing else about her. Few teachers or preachers anywhere can ever hope to accomplish such results as she did.
Undeniably, with Mrs. Stowe, as with others of her type, there are times when one wearies intensely of this missionary endeavor. After all, the sky is blue, the winds blow, and life is pleasant. Why not let it go at that? Yet, when the hours and days of anguish come, — for the individual, or for the world, — as they are coming now, we realize that perhaps we need these little, fragile, insinuating, indomitable things with curls to drive or wheedle us into the fold of God.