Harriet Beecher Stowe Meets Aaron Burr

When I was a driver for a medical laboratory in Boston, I had to pick up blood samples from hospitals all over town. I remember when I figured out that Stuart Street turns into Kneeland Street, and it linked up two sectional maps in my brain.

That happens a lot in the study of history and literature, too. The world becomes smaller the farther back you go, and the literary circles make the world smaller still…

Turns out Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations after spending several months with… Benjamin Franklin. When Napoleon took Moscow, who do you suppose was in St. Petersburg, taking walks along the Neva with Czar Alexander? John Qunicy Adams.

My latest historical connection came reading a book by my grandmother’s cousin Edmund Wilson called Patriotic Gore. Dumb title, if you ask me, but a truly amazing book.

I have tried reading “Cousin Bunny” several times before, but he always seemed to be way over my head. I did notice that people who are smarter than I am spoke of his work with deep respect, so I tackled it once more.

This book has a great chapter on Harriet Beecher Stowe. He read all her letters and all her husband’s letters and all her books and he cites many many telling passages, saving the reader all that time and trouble, and I think he makes a very insightful summation that I think Mrs. Stowe would agree with.

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe

Her father, husband, and four brothers were all preachers in the Presbyterian Church, and the doctine of that church was Calvinism, best known in these parts in the sermons of Jonathan Edwards such as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Wilson notes that Calvin did everything in his power to expunge utterly and completely the teachings of Jesus from his religion. There isn’t an ounce of compassion or forgiveness in his doctrine, only bile. Children are full of sin and they’re damned, even if they do good works their entire life.

Mrs. Stowe’s father was put on trial by the Presbyterian Church for laxness in articulating this preposterous doctrine of predestination, and we know he counseled his sons to keeps their true beliefs to themselves.

Probably more than you want to know. But Cousin Bunny’s big insight is that Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had been hearing about this stuff all her life, gave voice to her true beliefs about religion through the voices of her African American characters who truly understood Jesus words about love and compassion and forgiveness.

Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr

Then, after the Civil War, Mrs. Stowe wrote more novels about early nineteenth-century preachers and the dilemmas of Calvinism, since that was what she knew best, and it turns out one of her favorite characters was Aaron Burr, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards.

I did my senior thesis on Burr’s Western adventures in 1805, but Mrs. Stowe’s novels show him earlier in life, as a young rascal intent on seducing as many women as he possibly can, married or not.

According to Cousin Edmund, Stowe suggests that Burr’s absence of morality in abandoning his mistresses is the logical result of the teachings of his grandfather about the damnation of the non-elect.

If we’re all damned except for a few self-righteous blowhards, and there’s nothing we can do about it, then why not?

Wilson says Stowe is “at her best” in scenes of high comedy “depicting the guile of Burr in imposing on his godly acquaintances.”

“Perfectly versed in all questions of doctrine, always respectful of the memory of his grandfather, he never plays the insolent rake but exhibits a consummate tact in dealing with the ministers’ households and invariably, while pursuing his wicked designs, is able to say the correct theological thing.”

As a young woman, Harriet Beecher would certainly have known that Burr was convicted of adultery [then a crime in New York] at the age of eighty.

Edna St. Vincent Millay
Edna St. Vincent Millay

The literary world was a lot smaller in those days. Mrs. Stowe also met Dickens, and Lady Byron, and Sojourner Truth, and famously, Abraham Lincoln.

Cousin Edmund’s literary world was pretty small, too. He went to Princeton with F. Scott Fitzgerald and my grandmother’s brother, my great uncle  Sandy, who later went crazy and was institutionalized.

Edmund Wilson became America’s foremost man of letters, helping along young writers like Fitzgerald and other writers like Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, among many others.

I have to laugh. I saw a poster at Amherst High School of famous gay literary figgers, and there was Edna. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure she qualified.

But that might have been news to Cousin Bunny, who chased her all over Europe trying to get her to marry him.