Back in 1850, a preacher’s wife in Maine, Harriet Beecher Stowe, received some advice from her sister-in-law, Isabella Beecher:
“Hattie, 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.”
Hattie had written several textbooks and articles for magazines, mostly to supplement the family’s meagre income. But this was something else again. The great Charles Dickens — who was no slouch as a scribbler — had done his damedest to wake the country up to the accursedness of slavery, but Americans just called him “a fool and a liar.”
Then one day Hattie Stowe had a vision while she was sitting in church. Her son tells us it was “blown into her mind like a mighty wind.” She went and sat down at her kitchen table and began to write. Fifteen years later slavery was brought to an end (at least in law), and no less a figure than Abraham Lincoln himself said this was due in large measure to Hattie’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
When the two meet in Washington in 1862, the six-foot-four Lincoln shook hands with the five-foot-zero Stowe and said, “So you’re the little woman that started this great big war.”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, although it is not widely admired as a literary work in our time, was probably one of the most powerful works of literature in the history of the world. It sold more than two million copies worldwide.
Besides galvanizing the antislavery movement in the US, it also had a profound effect on public opinion in Britain, and certainly helped to prevent the British from coming into the war on the side of the Confederates when it might have been in their interest to do so to ensure a continued supply of cotton for their mills.
Unfortunately Uncle Tom, who was beaten to death because he refused to reveal where two fugitive slaves were hiding, is now considered a demeaning stereotype. I think that’s too bad. I think he was a hero. Hattie Stowe certainly was.
To me the success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin reveals the power of the kitchen table. One hundred years later another housewife sat down at her kitchen table and tackled another ancient evil — child sexual abuse.
The rape of Selena Cross in Peyton Place by Grace Metalious lifted the curtain on this “accursed thing” for the first time in the history of literature, and America could never again pretend it didn’t exist.
When I worked in the NH Senate I served as the staff to the Senate Select Committee on Child Abuse and I accompanied the chairman, Senator Eleanor Podles of Manchester, on numerous speaking engagements.
Every single time she spoke, one or more women would come up at the end and wait quietly for a chance to speak to the senator privately. While I was not privy to these conversations, I was amazed at how many there were. I have never been so moved or felt a part of something so important. And there is no doubt that Grace Metalious encouraged countless child victims to bring this problem into the light of day.