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n his recent and widely praised book The Approaching Fury, Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861, UMass history professor Stephen Oates departs from standard historical narrative to fashion first-person "accounts" by thirteen historical figures. Inspired by William Faulkner's novels and Robert Altman films, Oates drew upon his subjects' own writings, as well as contemporary accounts in which they appear, to create vivid monologues on the times and events leading up to the Civil War.
Oates' "voices" include those of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Jefferson Davis, John Brown, and perhaps more strikingly, for here the imaginative leap required was across the lines not only of time and experience but of gender Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Stowe (1811-96) was a member of an old, illustrious New England family; daughter of Lyman Beecher, a leading clergyman of his time; sister of another celebrated clergyman, Henry Ward Beecher; wife of religion professor Calvin Stowe, and the mother of seven children. A passionate and intellectual woman, Stowe found her voice halfway through the nineteenth century and halfway through her life. Uncle Tom's Cabin was the result. In the following excerpts from Voices of the Storm, Oates' Stowe explains how the discovery came about. FSW
I was on my way from Cincinnati to Brunswick, Maine, with our three older children, when I heard people on our steamboat talking about the new fugitive slave bill being debated in Congress. When we stopped in Boston to visit brother Edward, who was pastor of Salem Church, the new bill was the main topic of conversation. Edward was an abolitionist, and the measure made him furious. "It declares open season on all Negroes in the North," he said. "Without benefit of jury or judge, any black can be hauled back into slavery on the word of anybody who claims to be an owner or to represent an owner." By the time I reached Brunswick, my soul was on fire with indignation at this new violence about to be inflicted by the Slave Power on the innocent and defenseless. But what could a mere woman do? Eight months with child, with three children in tow and loaded down with a cargo of trunks, I felt powerless to help the poor souls....
A letter came from Isabella, Edward's wife. "Hattie, she wrote, "if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is."
I stood with the letter crumpled in my fist and said, "I will write something. I will if I live." I had long dreamed of writing something important, something that would make a difference. Now God had given me the opportunity...I hired a governess to help me with the older children, and worked on my story while the baby slept.
It was a bitterly cold winter. The snow piled up in the streets, and the wind rocked the house and howled at the eaves...If I sat by the open fire in the parlor, my back froze; if I sat in my bedroom and tried to write, my head ached and my feet were cold. When I had a headache and felt sick, there was not a place in the house where I could lie down and take a nap without being disturbed...Searching for a comfortable place to write, I finally settled on the parlor. Here, before an open fire, I composed on Great-Grandfather Ward's drop-leaf table, shutting out the music of the piano next door and the noise of the children's school above.
By January 1851 my sketch was leading to something else, something more direct. I realized that what I really wanted to write about was the sufferings of actual slaves. As a woman, a mother, and a Christian, I felt called to speak for the oppressed who could not speak for themselves....But the story resisted me; it lay on the table in vague, inchoate fragments. Though I prayed to God for strength, I was almost paralyzed with self-doubts. I was just a little bit of a woman, not quite forty, about as thin and dry as a pinch of snuff; never very much to look at in my best days, with no accomplishments beyond bearing children and publishing a little book of New England sketches. Who was I to write about so terrible an evil? Who was I to speak for the poor slaves, I to awaken America to their cries?
...I thought: "I have known a great many slaves...have known their history and feelings, have seen how alike their hearts beat to any other throbbing heart. Above all, what a woman feels deepest of all, I have seen the strength of their instinctive and domestic attachments in which as a race they excel even the Anglo-Saxon." That I thought, that was what I must write about, in the context of the cruelties of the slave system and its offense to God.
But where to begin such a story? Who were to be the central characters? On Communion Sunday, as I sat at the communion table in Brunswick's First Parish Church, a vision began playing before my eyes that left me in tears. I saw an old slave clad in rags, a gentle Christian man like the slave I had read about in American Slavery As It Is. A cruel white man, a man with a hardened fist, was flogging the old slave. Now the cruel master ordered two other slaves to finish the task. As they laid on the whips, the old black man prayed for God to forgive them.
After church, I rushed home in a trance and wrote down what I had seen. Since Calvin was away, I read the sketch to my ten- and twelve-year-old sons. They wept, too, and one cried, "Oh! mamma, slavery is the most cursed thing in the world!"
...From page one, the story was not so much written as imposed upon me. It seemed to have a life and will of its own, swelling into forty installments, a full-fledged book as scenes, incidents, conversations a living world rushed upon me with a vividness and importunity that would not be denied. The book insisted upon getting itself into being, and I had no choice but to follow where it led me. I wrote during every spare moment I had at the kitchen table, in the bedroom, in the candle-lit parlor at night when the children were in bed...
When I finished Uncle Tom's Cabin, in the late winter of 1852, I felt as if I had written some of it almost with my heart's blood...What had I created? First of all, Uncle Tom's Cabin is a mosaic of facts no, it is fiction truer than fact. It exposes readers to a living reality. It depicts the oppressed ones as real people who suffered terribly from the loss of their loved ones and from the cruelties meted out to them, and who longed for freedom just as whites did...
Yes, I took a risk in writing such a story. What if the country rebuked me? What if my father disapproved came flying through the door, crying, "Hattie! This is not the proper subject for a lady to write about!" But I felt I had to speak out...
I was quite unprepared for the success of Uncle Tom's Cabin... When on March twentieth, 1852, John Punchard Jewett of Boston published a two-volume book version, we were worried that the initial printing of 5,000 copies would never be sold. To our surprise, 3,000 copies were sold the first day, the balance on the next! Additional printings of 45,000 copies were gone in two months. The public appetite for the book "Tom mania," they called it seemed insatiable...By March 1853 total sales in these country had reached 305,000 copies and were still climbing...
I was utterly incredulous of all that was said about Uncle Tom's Cabin. It passed me like a dream. I could only see that when a Higher Being had a purpose to be accomplished, He could make even "a grain of mustard seed" like me the means. When I look back on Uncle Tom's Cabin, I am certain that God wrote it. I was but the instrument in his hands.
UMass history professor, Stephen Oates
We interviewed Stephen Oates about his experience of writing the Stowe monologues; what was it like to assume the persona of a nineteenth century woman writer?
"I've loved Harriet Beecher Stowe for a long time, and I've taught her for many years. When I decided to write this book about the coming of the war, Harriet Stowe led the list of people I wanted to include.
"I wanted the passion, immediacy, and freshness of the first-person voice.
"But it's not the same thing, writing in their voices, as teaching or writing about them. To adopt thirteen voices...my wife has said it has made me hopelessly schizophrenic and it'll take fifteen years of therapy for me to find out again who I am.
"When I started the book, I had to walk around and get in character, but as I went along, I got so I could pop in and out. I did some acting in college, I never thought it would pay off, but by gosh! it did. I had dreams, I dreamt as my characters would. I could sense my characters in the room my wife wouldn't come into the study, she'd say, 'there are too many people in there.'
"From a purely literary point of view, Uncle Tom's Cabin was the most popular book of the nineteenth century. Stowe was the wealthiest, most prominent novelist. I wanted to show how a rather obscure, unhappy housewife became so upset about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that she wrote what, to many Southerners, was a literary declaration of war. She drew from actual fact; it was not the imaginings of a perfervid woman. She wanted to create an accurate portrayal of the best and worst of the system. Stowe bent over backwards to show the South accurately.
"I had no trouble whatsoever talking in Stowe's' voice. No, I didn't have to dress up in a dress...A novelist is a ventriloquist, and the frustrated novelist in me allowed me to become Harriet Stowe.
"When I'm writing, I'm a faithful follower of routines but Stowe would wake me up at midnight, I'd go down to my study, and in the middle of the night, I'd be typing along, her words staring at me. At seven a.m., my wife would come down to see what had happened to me, and there I'd be, my hair askew, my eyes bloodshot.
"When I was being her, I was completely unaware of being in Amherst, Massachusetts. Stowe's is the longest monologue. I played no favorites, but I hated it when I had to leave her."