Road Trips: Happy Birthday, Harriet
by Angeline Goreau
Angeline Goreau is the author of “Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn.” She lives in the town of Litchfield.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was fifty-one years old when Abraham Lincoln, on meeting her at the White House in 1862, declared: “So this is the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Harriet could be called diminutive in stature only. She was a woman of expansive ambition, the prolific author of twenty books—among them a novel that, arguably, changed the world more than any other work of fiction in history. Uncle Tom’s Cabin vividly brought to life the horrors of slavery and set the minds of reformers everywhere on fire. First published in 1852 and never out of print since, it has been translated into thirty-seven languages.
Harriet Beecher was born in Litchfield, CT on June 14th, 1811. On Tuesday the Litchfield Historical Society will be throwing her a party on what would be her 200th birthday. There will be cake and a discussion about Pogunuc People, a novel she wrote about her fondly remembered country childhood.
The daughter of Litchfield’s Congregational minister, Lyman Beecher, Harriet was the seventh of thirteen children, all crowded into the parsonage (far right in the painting) on North Street, which Harriet described as “a wide, roomy, windy edifice which seemed to have been built as a series of afterthoughts.” A preponderance of boys, as well as Dr. Beecher’s habitual absentmindedness, made the household somewhat chaotic, though full of energy and excitement. More than one prodigy emerged from this interesting habitat: Harriet’s brother Henry Ward became one of the most famous preachers in America; her sister Catherine played a crucial role in shaping women’s education.
Dr. Beecher was famous for his ponderings on predestination, as well as such pressing moral issues of the day as whether Christmas should be celebrated. His stern Calvinism lay heavily on little Harriet, who was called Dolly at home, but she found liberation wandering in the woods, spoiling her clothes with berry juice. Another kind of liberation came unexpectedly when, at the bottom of a barrel of sermons, she discovered a copy of Arabian Nights. Dr. Beecher had forbidden his children to read novels—which he viewed, at best, as “trash” and, at worst, as dangerous. But with Harriet’s discovery, the floodgates opened, and soon Dr. Beecher himself fell under the spell of Sir Walter Scott, whose adventures all of Litchfield read aloud to each other in the evenings, eagerly waiting the next installment to arrive by the unspeakably slow post. In those days, a book was an event, as Harriet once remarked.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Pogunuc People, recreates life in Litchfield as it was at the turn of the nineteenth-century, a time when people felt no need to lock their front doors at night; if fact, in summer left them standing open so the moonlight could shine in. She sketches tea-parties and political quarrels, exuberant Fourth of July celebrations, and religious revivals. She writes elegiacally of her childhood—summer’s “perfect freedom” and the “dreamy stillness” of a town where the coach comes only once a week. “Everybody staid at home and expected to stay there the year through.”
Not all was elegy, however. The novel does not fail to remark on the six months of winter’s “howling desolation” and makes much of the rats at the parsonage—a population so large and war-like that the family cat preferred to ignore it entirely. Cranky New Englanders make trouble with their neighbors, and even go so far as to move the schoolhouse to a new location without the consent of the town.
Copies of Pogunuc People, which includes a key identifying characters that Stowe disguised with pseudonyms, may be purchased from the Litchfield History Museum. In the book, Harriet herself is Dolly Cushing and her father, Lyman Beecher, is Parson Cushing. Judge Tapping Reeve makes an appearance as Judge Belcher; the Revolutionary hero Col. Benjamin Tallmadge has a significant role in the novel as Col. Davenport.
On Saturday, the Litchfield Historical Society will follow up Harriet’s birthday party with a walking tour focusing on the Beecher family.
Litchfield History Museum
Discussion of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Litchfield roman a clef, Pogunuc People
Tuesday, June 14; 7 - 8:15 p.m.
Litchfield Historical Society
Walking tour of The Beechers’ Litchfield
June 18, 10 a.m.