Today, a woman turns slavery from theoretical wrong
into personal evil. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Harriet Beecher was her
mother's 7th child. After the 9th, her mother died.
Harriet was raised by her
father, a Calvinist preacher in Connecticut who
held forth on Hell and damnation, but denied the
doctrine of predestination. When she was 22 they
moved out to Cincinnati where he was to be
President of a new seminary.
Her father had only one faculty member, a bright,
pudgy, and ineffectual fellow named Calvin Stowe.
For a while, Calvin's wife Eliza befriended Harriet
Beecher. So when Eliza died young, Harriet and
Calvin were drawn together by a shared loss, and in
1836 Harriet became
Harriet Beecher Stowe. Their first children
were twin girls whom they chose to name Harriet and
Calvin was a piece of work. In a crisis, he simply
went to bed. He had regular visions of ghosts.
Still, an odd chemistry bound these two somewhat
strange, and very plain, people. Maybe they were
just easy on each other. When Harriet had
had-it-up-to-here with bearing children and
primitive life in early Cincinnati, she'd go East
to take the water cure, leaving Calvin with the
It was on such a trip, with hypochondriac Calvin
promising to die before she returned, that Harriet
fell in with organized anti-slavery forces. By then
she'd already crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky
and talked with slave women. A slave named Eliza
Buck had touched her deeply with stories about the
brutality of the system.
In 1850, Calvin moved to Bowdoin College in Maine.
He sent Harriet ahead with the children to set up
the house. She looked so frumpy when she got off
the ferry that the college president, who'd come to
meet her, went back saying she hadn't arrived. The
only people who'd left the boat were a poor Irish
woman and her brats!
Next spring, struggling with a cold damp house and
one more baby, 40-year-old Harriet began writing
Uncle Tom's Cabin. She'd written very
little, and she set to work with few hopes.
But what she created was the literary success of
the century. When people asked how she'd done it,
she said God had written it for her. Some
complained about the meanness of letting Little Eva
die. She only replied that when she herself found
out about that part, she was so devastated she had
to quit writing for two weeks.
Uncle Tom's Cabin fulfilled no canon
of literary greatness. It was poorly researched, to
boot. But Harriet galvanized anti-slavery forces by
humanizing abolitionist theory. Now slavery had
faces and names (including that recurrent name
Eliza). And when had a slave ever been the hero of
a book? When Abe Lincoln, half-hearted abolitionist
at best, received Harriet in the White House he
said, "So this is the little woman who made this
However, a more perceptive analysis of Harriet
Beecher Stowe was made by George Sand in France.
Stunned by the moral force of the book, she simply
said that Stowe had "no talent, only genius."
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds