Harriet-Comment by Patricia O’Brien

Harriet, you did it.  You scraped open the hidden (and not so hidden) raw sores of racism in this country with one passionate book, and you did it by climbing into a shameful world armed only with your imagination.  That’s what novelists do. And I can talk directly to you, because you are real in my imagination – thank goodness for that, because I want you to know you were and remain an inspiration to any novelist trying to pull back the curtains on history.

You didn’t do it with a non-fiction attack on the evils of slavery. Uncle Tom lived only in your head.  But he was true, and when you gave him to a shocked society, it was a gift that opened locked consciences around the world.

All the facts had been there – families torn apart, slaves whipped and broken, cruel manhunts to corral escaped “property”- but facts can rattle about like dried corn husks; easily discarded or ignored.  The moral arguments against slavery were still scattered, still devoid of both wide support and clarity.  You illuminated truth by offering a powerful human story.

And everything changed.

Oh, what a ride that must have been.  I think of you surely reeling at the uproar following publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, at the anger and praise that must have hammered at your door.  And the fear?  There must have been some.  Maybe when you opened that anonymous package and found some cruel master had sent you the dried, shriveled ear of a slave?   And how, through all of this, did you keep writing while bearing seven children and keeping a home?

I set out in Harriet and Isabella to imagine what your struggles were and how you faced them during a time of crisis for the entire Beecher family.  Your brother stood accused of adultery before the world: Henry Ward Beecher, the most famous preacher in America, actually put on trial for adultery.  It was a scandal that rocked the country.

You were loyal to him; that we know.  You and your sister, Isabella, who felt differently, became estranged.  What was it like for you to be so torn between two people you clearly loved?  You came from a family of purpose and talent that was as famous in its time as the Kennedy family has been in our time.  And as vulnerable.

So, while I visited your life and wondered, I marvelled anew at the determination and grit you showed in so many aspects of your life.  I went to the Schlesinger Library and read your letters, and those of your brother, Henry, and those of your sister, Isabella, and I could hear your pen scratching across the page, as real and urgent a sound to me as it must have been then to you. And when I visited the Stowe Center and held in my hands the bracelet of slave fetters given to you by the Duchess of Sutherland, I felt time and distance evaporate.

So now, two hundred years since your birth, I – along with so many writers – salute you.  Thank you for your ferocity and fighting spirit. You make us proud of the power of a story to change a culture and to change lives.

Patricia O’Brien

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

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