Harriet Beecher Stowe: “No whitewash, no secrets, but evil, suffering, imagination, endurance, and redemption — just like life.”

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe, born in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1811. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a prominent Congregationalist minister, and he was a great proponent of education. The family moved to Cincinnati in 1832, and Harriet married Calvin Ellis Stowe; he was a clergyman and scholar, and he encouraged her to continue writing.

Although Ohio was a free state, Cincinnati was separated from Kentucky slave-owners only by the Ohio River, and Stowe was very aware of conditions through her encounters with fugitive slaves. She also read a great deal of abolitionist literature, and when her husband took a teaching position in Maine, she began writing a long tale of slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (1852), which caused a national sensation. When she met President Lincoln in 1863, he reportedly remarked, “So this is the little lady who made this great war.”

In 1996, novelist Jane Smiley wrote in Harper’s: “Ernest Hemingway, thinking of himself, as always, once said that all American literature grew out of Huck Finn. It undoubtedly would have been better for American literature, and American culture, if our literature had grown out of one of the best-selling novels of all time, another American work of the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Smiley explained that by making the racism and slavery a personal matter between two individuals, rather than a political and institutional evil, Huck Finn fails even where it succeeds, by allowing white people to feel good about getting over their racism without ever actually doing anything about it. . . .

About Huck Finn, she writes, “All you have to do to be a hero is acknowledge that your poor sidekick is human; you don’t actually have to act in the interests of his humanity.” She concludes: “I would rather my children read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even though it is far more vivid in its depiction of cruelty than Huck Finn, and this is because Stowe’s novel is clearly and unmistakably a tragedy. No whitewash, no secrets, but evil, suffering, imagination, endurance, and redemption — just like life.”

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