Harriet Beecher Stowe seemed destined to write a powerful protest novel like Uncle Tom’s Cabin: her father was Lyman Beecher, a prominent evangelical preacher, and her siblings were preachers and social reformers. Born in 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut, Stowe moved with her family at the age of 21 to Cincinnati, where she lived for eighteen years. In Cincinnati, across the Ohio River from slaveholding Kentucky, Stowe was exposed to the institution of slavery. Although she made just one brief trip to Kentucky, which was her only personal contact with the South, she knew freed and fugitive slaves in Cincinnati. She also had friends who participated in the underground railroad, the secret system for aiding runaway slaves in their flight to freedom. Stowe learned about slave life by talking to these people and by reading a great deal, including slave narratives and antislavery tracts. She also saw northern racial prejudice. Stowe began writing while living in Cincinnati. In 1836 she married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a distinguished biblical scholar and theology professor, and they had seven children. After marrying, Stowe continued to write, supplementing her husband’s limited earnings.
In 1850 the United States Congress voted to pass the Fugitive Slave Law, which not only prohibited Northerners from assisting runaway slaves in their escape from slavery, but also required them to return slaves to their masters in the South. Stowe, having moved to Brunswick, Maine with her family, had been planning to write a protest of slavery since her experiences in Cincinnati. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law proved a powerful catalyst. She began work on Uncle Tom’s Cabin and published it first in serial form in the abolitionist magazine The National Era. The first installment came out on June 5, 1851, but before the serial could be completed, the novel came out in a two-volume set in March 1852. The book became an immediate and extraordinary success, selling over one million copies in America and England before the year was out. Thus, Stowe became the most famous American woman writer of her day.
In the United States, in addition to its popularity, the novel incited controversy from both Northerners and Southerners: Northerners felt that Stowe portrayed the slaveholding South too kindly, while Southerners believed Stowe condemned their way of life. In response to criticism that her novel was not grounded in reality, Stowe in 1853 published A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which she pointed to factual documents-newspaper articles, court records, state laws-to substantiate her portrayal of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Less than a decade after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Civil War began, growing in large part out of the conflict over slavery. President Abraham Lincoln, upon meeting Stowe in 1862, is said to have declared, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” Stowe, who died on July 1, 1896, in Hartford, Connecticut, and is buried in Andover, Massachusetts, is still remembered mainly for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in spite of having published many works before and after its momentous appearance.