Pulitzer Winner Joan Hedrick on Harriet Beecher Stowe & Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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The Learning Curve Joan Hedrick

[00:00:00] Mary: Hello everyone and welcome to the Learning Curve podcast. I am happy to be here this week as guest co-host. My name is Mary Tamer and I am the executive director of Democrats for education reform. We are here during Women’s History Month, this month of March. And I’m so pleased to be joined by my guest host today Jocelyn Chadwick.

[00:00:27] Mary: Jocelyn is a brilliant and courageous scholar formerly of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who had keynoted at a previous Pioneer Institute event on Mark Twain and Huck Finn. Welcome, Jocelyn.

[00:00:42] Jocelyn: I’m really glad to be here. And as you say, I am foremost, an educator, teacher, scholar, and author, and I’m just happy to be a part of this and to revisit one of my favorite authors.

[00:00:58] Mary: That’s wonderful, Jocelyn. And we [00:01:00] are going to dive right in and I know we’re going to each talk about a news clip and something that caught my eye recently and something that caught my eye. Could eerily relate to was a column by Marcella Garcia at the Boston Globe, where she questions whether or not having algebra in the eighth grade limited her own readiness for upper-level math classes in her high school and college years, she writes about this issue in the context of what we currently see happening around the country as schools and districts debate whether or not to eliminate certain classes.

[00:01:35] Mary: In the name of equity. We saw this in San Francisco 10 years ago when they decided to no longer offer eighth-grade algebra classes due to the disproportionality of white and Asian students who were enrolled in those classes and just last week on Super Tuesday. It turns out voters in San Francisco by a significant margin, more than 80 percent decided to vote [00:02:00] in support of a non-binding measure to bring eighth-grade Great Algebra back.

[00:02:04] Mary: As Garcia writes, the theory behind San Francisco’s policy was that it would close racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps by keeping all students in the same classes until later in high school. But it failed to close those gaps. Garcia also notes that we are facing the same arguments in some Massachusetts districts, but writes further that lack of diversity in advanced math classes is a problem.

[00:02:28] Mary: But leveling down is the wrong solution. And this column really spoke to me not only because of my own mathematical challenges as a student. But, you know, when we think about the goal of a truly equitable education system, is it really the right path to bring everyone down and reduce the number of classes we’re offering Or do we rather want to help lift everyone up?

[00:02:52] Mary: And in my mind, this is really about access and opportunity, which all of our students deserve.

[00:02:59] Jocelyn: And my [00:03:00] book for Women’s History Month, three new audiobooks that celebrate women, were reviewed by Catherine A. Powers, on 9 March this year. And of those three, the one that I found really interesting is The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jean Harris. And it was wonderful. It was first published in 2013.

[00:03:22] Jocelyn: And now in the audio version, which I think it’s great. It sort of applies to folks who like to read or those who like to listen. And Theo Harris says in her book that she is presenting a multidimensional portrait of the woman who has been, you know, we remember Rosa Parks as deciding not to stand on the bus.

[00:03:40] Jocelyn: She wants to sit on the bus in 1955. And one of the things that I found interesting about this review of the book is that it focuses on Rosa Parks with another statement in the civil rights movement. There weren’t that many women who were a part of [00:04:00] it because they were pushed out and I thought, well, that’s not what I’m aware of.

[00:04:04] Jocelyn: There are a number of women who were a part of the civil rights movement. And not all of them were African Americans, some were white, some were Jewish, and some were of all faiths like Fannie Lou Hammer or Viola Luto, who was actually killed. Doing the work of the civil rights movement but all of that said, I just, I guess being a woman and a woman of color whose parents were from the civil rights movement, I just wanted to say that there were a lot of unsung women who worked with that movement, but this book sounds very, very different.

[00:04:36] Jocelyn: Interesting. And I do plan on listening to it just to see what O’Harris’s perspective is on Rosa Parks and why she decided to focus on the, and I’m glad the bigger picture of Mrs. Parks and not just the one act. I totally agree with that because women played a critical role during the civil rights movement.

[00:04:58] Jocelyn: So at least this gets the ball [00:05:00] rolling.

[00:05:00] Mary: Oh, that sounds fair. Fantastic, Jocelyn. I’m going to have to add that to my own reading list as well. So thank you so much for sharing. Coming up after the break, we have Trinity College Pulitzer winner Professor Joan Hedrick talking about 19th-century American novelist and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe.

[00:05:17] Mary: Please stay with us.[00:06:00]

[00:06:07] Joan: Dr. Joan Hedrick is the Charles A. Dana Professor of History at Trinity College. She founded Trinity’s Women’s Studies Program and worked with the faculty to reconfigure it as the Women in Gender Program. Her research interests are biography, the literary history of the post-Civil War era, and the politics of literature.

[00:06:27] Mary: Dr. Hedrick’s books include Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Life. For which she won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1995 and the Oxford Harriet Beecher Stowe Reader. She was awarded a Rockefeller fellowship in 1983 and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships in 1983 and 1998. She earned an AB degree from Vassar College and a PhD from Brown University. Thank you so much for joining us, Professor Hedrick.

[00:06:56] Joan: You’re welcome.

[00:06:57] Mary: Professor, you’re the Pulitzer Prize [00:07:00] winning biographer of the 19th-century author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, would you briefly share with us why she was such a widely influential, though often underappreciated, literary figure in U.S. history?

[00:07:17] Joan: Well, she was influential mainly because of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which established her reputation internationally and she went on to write many, many books after that. She was the primary Wegener in her family in the 1870s, so she had to write, and many of the books were quite popular.

[00:07:38] Joan: The reason that she has not been popular in the 20th century has to do with the establishment of a literary canon in the later part of the 19th century, where some books were decided to be the best books, the ones that were classics, and, all the works by women. were denigrated, [00:08:00] but in fact, in literary history, if you look at the publishing history, it was women who were writing the novels in the early part of the 19th century and being successful.

[00:08:11] Joan: People like Susan Warner, Lydia Maria Child, and there were many others who were writing best-selling novels, whereas Hawthorne had to have a job on the side in order to support his family because his books were not selling. But in the 1870s, the whole literary landscape changed when the Atlantic Monthly began publishing, and they employed critics who would tell their readers which were the best books to read.

[00:08:41] Joan: And one of the critics was Henry James, who spent his time completely trashing anything women wrote and elevating other books. He didn’t like the women’s writing because typically Women who did not have the vote, who did not have a voice in [00:09:00] politics, were using novels to pursue political agendas, such as slavery such as for Lydia Maria Child, the status of Native American population.

[00:09:11] Joan: Rebecca Harding Davis wrote a book called Life in the Iron Mills, which explored what it would be like to be a worker there if you had the artistic bent of somebody who wanted to create. And it was a review of Rebecca Harding Davis in which Henry James just said that, you know, this is just sentimental, sentimental tripe.

[00:09:32] Joan: It’s not literature. And he elevated the kind of, books that he would go on to write. And so, when literary history was written in the 20th century most notably by Matheson, who wrote a book called The American Renaissance, which had to do with all those books that were published around 1850, like The Scarlet Letter, and Moby Dick, Walden.

[00:09:55] Joan: He elevated all those male writers, but the fact that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was [00:10:00] published in 1851 52 somehow slipped his notice. A book that sold wildly and was all over the world and was translated into 63 languages. So was really that establishment of a literary canon, which was then taught in colleges.

[00:10:18] Joan: Those were the books that were taught. I had a PhD from an American studies program and I had never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin until much, much later because we just didn’t read women’s books.

[00:10:31] Mary: So that’s the explanation. Fascinating. Let’s talk a little bit about Harriet Beecher’s family and her father.

[00:10:38] Mary: Who was a controversial 19th century, New England, Calvinist preacher. And his name was Lyman Beecher. And he was a nationally recognized figure. Could you talk a little bit about her family, her formative, educational, intellectual, and religious experiences, and how they shaped her worldview and later her [00:11:00] abolitionist writings?

[00:11:01] Joan: Lyman Beecher was really a bigger-than-life father. He was a hellfire. Preacher, he took an intense interest in his many, many children, in their intellectual development and particularly in their religious formation so he was a powerful influence on Harriet and Catherine and, Isabella, all three of whom went on to be very public figures and, to pursue reforms.

[00:11:28] Joan: As he was pursuing revivals all over the country. but the family life was, it was very lively, always, lots of people, lots of, visiting clergy, lots of people coming in and out so it was very sociable setting.

[00:11:48] Joan: She was privileged to attend the Litchfield Female Academy in Litchfield, which was run by Sarah Pierce, a woman who believed that women’s [00:12:00] intellects were the match of men’s and deserved a good education. So instead of just teaching the usual subjects for women’s schools, like making samplers and Learning how to sew and to knit and to paint.

[00:12:15] Joan: She gave the students basically the male curriculum in which they studied the natural sciences history all the subjects that the boys pursued usually in the first week of college. So Harriet had a really wonderful education there. And while she was there she was the editor of the school newspaper.

[00:12:36] Joan: Which is something to note. And so already she was finding her voice a way to influence people.

[00:12:44] Mary: That’s wonderful. Your biography of her emphasizes her role in helping make literature writing an emerging American profession. Could you talk about her literary apprenticeships, her [00:13:00] early writings?

[00:13:00] Mary: I know you just mentioned her, her time as a reporter, and the wider context of her times, including emerging. Public schools, book publishing, newspapers, and social reforms during the age of Jacksonian democracy.

[00:13:16] Joan: Yes she was writing at a time when the gender roles were very sharply divided.

[00:13:22] Joan: Women were supposed to be private and in the home. And men were public and in the world. And they were the ones who were doing politics, therefore. Well, an institution that mediated between these two poles was the parlor. Because in the parlor, men and women had a mutual society together. In the parlor, people wrote letters, had conversations, they played the piano.

[00:13:50] Joan: It was a very social place, but it was also a place where women could write and they could develop their voices. And [00:14:00] another extension of that is the parlor societies that developed, like, the Semicolon Club. Cincinnati, which was basically a literary club. People wrote little essays and poems remembrances of their time in the East because many of the people in Cincinnati in this club were Easterners who came West, like the Beechers.

[00:14:21] Joan: And then their productions would be read aloud to the whole company, and they would be critiqued, and they would by the company. People laugh, they might be moved by them. And this was a wonderful venue for a budding writer. Stowe could see the faces of her audience, she could see what moved people and made them angry.

[00:14:43] Joan: She developed a very intimate narrative voice in this parlor society and this really was the beginning of her, her literary apprenticeship.

[00:14:57] Mary: And then in 1832, [00:15:00] Lyman Beecher moved his family to Cincinnati, to bring his evangelical crusade. in the American West. Would you talk about her New England-style idealism and how Harriet Beecher Stowe developed her voice?

[00:15:17] Mary: As a writer and her interactions with family, literary circles, abolitionists, and the politics of slavery in Ohio.

[00:15:26] Joan: The politics of slavery were very, very evident at this time. It was an extremely volatile time. time. and Harriet herself witnessed mobs, pro-slavery mobs in Cincinnati.

[00:15:40] Joan: Uh, was a publisher there Bernie, who had a printing press in which he published abolitionist. Sentiments and a mob broke into the press stole his press and threw it into the Cincinnati River. And Harriet was, witnessing similar kinds of, events [00:16:00] there. Her brother, Edward was very involved with abolition and knew Elijah Lovejoy who was a prominent abolitionist.

[00:16:08] Joan: Abolitionist in the West, who was murdered. So this was an extremely volatile time for the issue of slavery. Cincinnati is located right on the river that divides the south from the north. Just on the other side of the river is a slave state, Kentucky. there were sometimes.

[00:16:30] Joan: Huge of slaves who would get smuggled out and, cross the river and make their way into the city of Cincinnati. at one point a runaway slave knocked on the stove’s door and asked for help in getting to Canada. And they did assist that person by telling him where another safe house was on the way to Canada.

[00:16:50] Joan: So, Harriet was really deep in the thicket of, these struggles. One other item at Lane Seminary where Lyman Beecher [00:17:00] taught, the students decided to have a debate known as the Lane Debates, where they would decide what the best path, for slavery was, whether it was colonization or some other path.

[00:17:13] Joan: And the students spent 10 days debating slavery. So it was impossible to overlook this issue in Cincinnati.

[00:17:22] Mary: And then Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, prohibiting assistance to fugitives and strengthening sanctions against formerly enslaved peoples. Even in free states. At this time, Harriet and her husband moved with their family to Bowdoin College in Maine.

[00:17:41] Mary: Could you talk about the Fugitive Slave Act and its impact on her thinking and writing?

[00:17:46] Joan: This was a very important influence on her writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was so distressed at the reports in the newspapers of the effect of this Fugitive Slave Law. Because [00:18:00] that law gave bounties of 10 for every fugitive slave turned in to the authorities.

[00:18:06] Joan: Free African Americans were being kidnapped on the streets of Boston and sold to people who would take them back south and enslave them. And reports of this were keeping Harriet up at night. She described just crying into her pillow. She could not stand what was happening and she had to do something.

[00:18:30] Joan: Her sister, Catherine Beecher, urged her to write something. And she said, I will. I will if I live. And she began writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

[00:18:40] Jocelyn: Well, Professor, I get to ask you the next five questions. My first question is, the Stowe’s were ardent abolitionists and supported the Underground Railroad, temporarily housing several fugitive slaves in their homes.

[00:18:53] Jocelyn: Could you talk about how first-hand experiences with enslaved people and slave [00:19:00] narratives influenced Harriet’s writing?

[00:19:02] Joan: the example that stands out to me is she mentions her cook, who had been enslaved in, I think it was Virginia, under very, very harsh circumstances. And she later wrote that the stories that her cook, told her were just so harrowing that they profoundly affected her.

[00:19:23] Joan: And she used some of that material. She drew on it emotionally and intellectually and, pictorially when she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And that was, I think, a, very important influence on her. Brilliant.

[00:19:38] Jocelyn: Also, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly is Harry Beecher Stowe’s famous anti-slavery novel published in 1852.

[00:19:46] Jocelyn: It had a profound effect. Attitudes toward African Americans and slavery in the United States and abroad. Would you briefly summarize the novel’s plot and key iconic characters?

[00:19:59] Joan: [00:20:00]  There are really two plots in a way. Eliza the main character who was sold by a slave owner is escaping and going north. The other plot is that Uncle Tom is being sold south, so it’s a kind of X plot, with one character going one way and one character going the other. They are the two main characters in the novel. Eliza is described as a very beautiful mulatto woman who has a child who is also with her as she escapes. And Uncle Tom is a very loyal very hardworking slave on the Shelby Plantation.

[00:20:42] Joan: And because he’s so loyal, and because he’s so hardworking, he’s very valuable. So, when the slave dealer approaches Mr. Shelby, who’s in debt he decides to sell Tom because he’ll bring a good price. And at that moment Eliza’s son, [00:21:00] Harry, happens to run into the room and the slave catcher likes the looks of him and says, well, if you’ll throw that boy in then I’ll sign.

[00:21:12] Joan: Eliza hears this on the other side of the door and vows to run away with Harry. So she is, running one way and, Uncle Tom is being taken in chains to the South. So those are the two main plots of the book. And Uncle Tom is portrayed as something something of a Christ figure, in a way, toward the end of the book when his clothes are, fought over and sold, and he is between two other slaves who are also being punished, and he is truly a noble figure, although in the 20th century, the Uncle Tom took on a different kind of connotation, but the book is very noble.

[00:21:56] Jocelyn: Yes. In the United States, Uncle Tom’s [00:22:00] Cabin was the best-selling novel and the second best-selling book of the 19th century following the Bible. Upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, quote, So this is the little lady who started this great war, unquote. Could you discuss the novel’s wide literary influence and its impact on the abolitionist cause and the Civil War-era politics?

[00:22:24] Joan: Well, it sold like wildfire. By the end of the first year of publication, it had sold 100, 000 copies in this country. It had already been published in an anti-slavery paper before the book publication. And it sold in, Britain even more widely. They sold a million copies in the first year because Britain had already abolished the slave trade in 1833, so there wasn’t that political issue.

[00:22:53] Joan: there. So it was, widely popular. And there’s a story of a man traveling on a train, and [00:23:00] he heard in the next compartment, somebody sobbing. he was certain this person was in great distress. So he knocked on the door and said, Sir, happening in there? Are you in trouble? Or are you reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin?

[00:23:14] Joan: Because so many people cried over the book.

[00:23:18] Jocelyn: That’s very good. The next question, I’m particularly interested, keenly interested in your response, because used that book in my research. In 1853, Harriet Beecher Stowe published a key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to document her literary depiction of slavery.

[00:23:36] Jocelyn: Would you tell us about the key? Keith’s documentary facts concerning American slavery, as well as her historical research and primary resources regarding plantation life in the South.

[00:23:49] Joan: Well, Harriet, her father, and her brothers, were real fighters when it came to public issues. And when the South attacked her book as not being true, that [00:24:00] really we took very good care of our slaves and they were better off on plantation than they were up in the North with capitalism and, and all that kind of pressure on them.

[00:24:09] Joan: She responded by writing a key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which basically assembles all kinds of documents written By often slave owners themselves that show the actual brutality of slavery. She had a number of very educated and intelligent brothers who did research for her. They would look over legal cases and find instances of, masters actually Killing their slaves because they were beating them so badly and this is in response to the South saying well No, we take good care of our slaves because you know, they are our labor power.

[00:24:49] Joan: And yeah, they’re our family and these legal cases show that her depiction of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin was mild and [00:25:00] In comparison to the realities that these legal cases showed like burning people alive, pouring acid on them. It was really awful.

[00:25:10] Joan: The kinds of tortures that they uncovered there. So she was, a fighter and this was her response to the South who said, you made up a lot of this. This is not true.

[00:25:20] Jocelyn: Ah, I see. Thank you. And you’ve written a quote, in her time, Southern readers objected to her portrayal of slavery in her novel.

[00:25:29] Jocelyn: In our time, African Americans have objected to STOs racial stereotypes, unquote. Would you talk about Harriet Beecher STOs enduring literary legacy, and how readers today should understand her life and many published works?

[00:25:44] Joan: I think the best way to understand her is to see her, in her historical context to see what she was writing about and how she was writing it.

[00:25:55] Joan: And to understand that the prism through which we look in the [00:26:00] 20th century was shaped by the Uncle Tom plays that were put on and ran continuously for 40 or 50 years in which Uncle Tom would be portrayed in a minstrel fashion. and those plays were for the 20th century the touchstone for the book.

[00:26:19] Joan: People didn’t always read the book, but many, many, many people saw the plays. So the image of Uncle Tom as a shuffling minstrel character really comes out of the fact that the novel was put on stage and then kind of melded with the minstrel. Tradition, which is very denigrating to the personhood of an African American person.

[00:26:42] Joan: Thank you.

[00:26:43] Jocelyn: And finally, we would love for you to give us one of your favorite quotes from your book.

[00:26:51] Joan: All right, of pleasures of writing this biography was having so many letters between Harriet and Calvin [00:27:00] Stowe draw on. So I’m going to read a paragraph that includes a quote from Calvin.

[00:27:07] Joan: Because he was a professor, Calvin worked in the house a good bit of the time, increasing not only the amount of companionship the Stowes enjoyed but also the daily jostling of unlike temperaments. Describing the incompatibility of two of her characters in Old Town Folks, Stowe wrote, a satin vest and a nutmeg grater are both perfectly harmless and even worthy existences, but their close proximity on a jolting journey is not to be recommended.

[00:27:37] Joan: There are certain points in which we are so exactly unlike, Calvin told her, that our peculiarities impinge against each other, and sometimes produce painful collisions when neither party is conscious of any intention. to disoblige the other, and he methodically enumerated them. Number one, I am naturally anxious, to the extent of needlessly taking much thought [00:28:00] beforehand.

[00:28:01] Joan: You are hopeful, to the extent of being heedless of the future, thinking only of the present. Number two, I am naturally very methodical as to the time and place for everything, and anything out of time or out of place is excessively annoying to me. This is a feeling to which you are a stranger. You have no idea of either time or place.

[00:28:23] Joan: I want prayers and meals at the particular time, and every piece of furniture in its own place. You can have morning prayer anytime between sunrise and noon, without the least inconvenience to yourself. And as to place, it seems to be your special delight. To keep everything in the house on the move and your special torment to allow anything to retain the same position a week together. Permanency is my delight. Your everlasting change.

[00:28:53] Mary: Wow. Thank you so much. Thank you, Professor Hedrick. That was a wonderful, wonderful conversation. I [00:29:00] really appreciate your time.

[00:29:01] Joan: You’re welcome.[00:30:00]

[00:30:13] Mary: That was an incredible interview with Professor Hedrick, and I feel like I learned so much and will definitely be revisiting not only her book but Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a result of this conversation. I do want to mention our tweet of the week uh, from Real Clear Education about major growth generators of K to 12 classical education.

[00:30:34] Mary: It’s an interesting link to an article. As someone who took part in a classical education, I can say I might need to brush up on my Latin and see what this is about. I also want to take a moment to thank my extremely wonderful cohost, Jocelyn Chadwick, for spending some time with me today.

[00:30:56] Mary: Thank you so much, Jocelyn, for joining as a guest cohost. It was [00:31:00] great to be with you. It was great being with you too. Thank you. And next week, Tufts economics professor, Dr. Elizabeth Setran will be talking about her research on Massachusetts’s METCO program, which is an educational integration program that has been in place for more than 30 years now.

[00:31:18] Mary: So tune in next week to the learning curve podcast. And until then, thanks for joining us.

This week on The Learning Curve, guest co-hosts DFER-MA’s Mary Tamer and educator and noted Mark Twain scholar Dr. Jocelyn Chadwick interview Trinity College Prof. Joan Hedrick, author of Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. During Women’s History Month, Prof. Hedrick discusses Harriet Beecher Stowe’s wide literary influence on U.S. history. From her abolitionist activism to the publication of the international bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, they explore Stowe’s New England upbringing, anti-slavery convictions, and lasting impact on American literature and social reform in the 19th century. Prof. Hedrick closes with a reading from her Harriet Beecher Stowe biography.

Stories of the Week: Mary discussed an article from The Boston Globe about why we should bring back eighth-grade algebra; Jocelyn spoke on an article from the Washington Post on Women’s History Month.


Joan Hedrick is the Charles A. Dana Professor of History at Trinity College. She founded Trinity’s Women’s Studies Program and worked with the faculty to reconfigure it as the Women and Gender Program. Her research interests are: biography, the literary history of the Post-Civil War era, and the politics of literature. Dr. Hedrick’s books include, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (1994), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography 1995 and The Oxford Harriet Beecher Stowe Reader (1999). She was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1983 and National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships in 1983 and 1998. She earned an A.B. degree from Vassar College and a Ph.D. from Brown University.


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