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Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide.

Print Price: $49.50

544 pp.
24 illus., 235 mm x 155 mm


Publication date:
June 1995

Imprint: OUP US

Harriet Beecher Stowe

A Life

Joan D. Hedrick

"Up to this year I have always felt that I had no particular call to meddle with this subject....But I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak." Thus did Harriet Beecher Stowe announce her decision to begin work on what would become one of the most influential novels ever written. The subject she had hesitated to "meddle with" was slavery, and the novel, of course, was Uncle Tom's Cabin. Still debated today for its portrayal of African Americans and its unresolved place in the literary canon, Stowe's best-known work was first published in weekly installments from June 5, 1851 to April 1, 1852. It caused such a stir in both the North and South, and even in Great Britain, that when Stowe met President Lincoln in 1862 he is said to have greeted her with the words, "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that created this great war!"
In this landmark book, the first full-scale biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe in over fifty years, Joan D. Hedrick tells the absorbing story of this gifted, complex, and contradictory woman. Hedrick takes readers into the multilayered world of nineteenth century morals and mores, exploring the influence of then-popular ideas of "true womanhood" on Stowe's upbringing as a member of the outspoken Beecher clan, and her eventful life as a writer and shaper of public opinion who was also a mother of seven. It offers a lively record of the flourishing parlor societies that launched and sustained Stowe throughout the 44 years of her career, and the harsh physical realities that governed so many women's lives. The epidemics, high infant mortality, and often disastrous medical practices of the day are portrayed in moving detail, against the backdrop of western expansion, and the great social upheaval accompanying the abolitionist movement and the entry of women into public life.
Here are Stowe's public triumphs, both before and after the Civil War, and the private tragedies that included the death of her adored eighteen month old son, the drowning of another son, and the alcohol and morphine addictions of two of her other children. The daughter, sister, and wife of prominent ministers, Stowe channeled her anguish and her ambition into a socially acceptable anger on behalf of others, transforming her private experience into powerful narratives that moved a nation.
Magisterial in its breadth and rich in detail, this definitive portrait explores the full measure of Harriet Beecher Stowe's life, and her contribution to American literature. Perceptive and engaging, it illuminates the career of a major writer during the transition of literature from an amateur pastime to a profession, and offers a fascinating look at the pains, pleasures, and accomplishments of women's lives in the last century.


  • "Hedrick's approach to Stowe had depth, as did her analysis of 19th-century women's relationship to writing." Toronto Star
  • "...a major full-dress biography....Hedrick restores her subject's achievement in the abolitionist movement." New Brunswick Reader
  • "Joan Hedrick's study of Harriet Beecher Stowe is so fascinating because so many of the old assumptions about gender have been discarded." Scene
  • "Hedrick interprets the life of her remarkable subject as a shrewdly adaptive and emotionally fulfilling assertion of creativity and moral authority on the face of numerous constraints."--The New England Quarterly
  • "Thoroughly researched, carefully documented, and clearly written, it is a recommended read."--Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
  • "Hedrick is particularly eloquent in interpreting Stowe's personal life and womanly sorrows, implicitly recognizing Stowe's identifications with enslaved suffering, especially among females....This absorbing, richly detailed biography captures the historical and literary significance of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and places her squarely in feminist scholarship. The research is daunting and the interpretive narration thoroughly engaging....Hedick's accomplishment is monumental. This book is excellent popular and scholarly reading."--American Historical Review
  • "For its daring reconceptualization of American literary history, its panoramic view of nineteenth-century middle-class culture, and its keen insight into the art and personality of a major woman writer, scholars will find Hedrick's book indispensable. No one in the fields of American literature, American Studies, Women's Studies, or feminist criticism can afford to miss it, and no one in search of agreat read will want to overlook it."--Legacy, a Journal of American Women Writers
  • "It's a pleasure to see this 1994 New York Times award-winner in paperback: this means new audiences will have access to and be able to afford Hedrick's spirited version of Stowe's life and achievements."--Reviewer's Bookwatch
  • A New York Times Book Review Noteworthy Collection
  • "Joan D. Hedrick makes an extraordinary effort to place Stowe's life in a wider context, creating a much better understanding of her career and her personal life."--Florida Historical Quarterly
  • "Hedrick has explored carefully the social and spiritual life of Stowe as well as the cultural and literary era that shaped her. A deep and compelling portrait emerges, creating a better understanding of Stowe not only as a writer, but also as a strong, personable woman."--KLIATT, November 1995
  • "Intelligent, thoroughly researched....Helps us understand [Stowe's] contradictions by locating Stowe within the cultural context of her time, and in doing so, gives us an indelible portrait of 19th-century America."--The Wall Street Journal
  • "A classic biography--engrossing, capacious, definitive."--E.L. Doctorow, The New York Times Book Review
  • "A far-reaching and brilliantly synthesized narrative that not only relates Stowe's complex personal story, but also captures the ferment and verve of America's antebellum era....A major achievement."--Booklist
  • "Harriet Beecher Stowe's life spanned the nineteenth century, and her curiosity, career and enormous family kept her in touch with most of the major and minor movements of her time, from aboltionism to hydrotherapy, feminism to spiritualism. Astonishingly, Joan Hedrick's perceptive and wide-ranging account is the first significant analysis of Stowe's life in fifty years. And her book is so essential to understanding the evolution of middle-class women and nineteenth-century culture that it is hard to imagine how we have managed to get along without it....One of Hedrick's greatest contributions is her lucid presentation of the rise and fall of women's domination of the nineteenth-century fiction market."--The Nation
  • "Immensely readable."--Library Journal
  • "She gives us a vivid sense of the political controversies...during the headlong, unsettling period that led up to the Civil War."--The Washington Post
  • "Walks just the right line between storytelling and historical analysis. Drawing on the fine feminist scholarship of Kathryn Kish Sklar, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Ann Douglas, she refuses to unify or prettify the contradictions in Stowe's work and temperament: the way she will seize on a cliche, then unearth a revelations."--The New York Times
  • "For the first time...a genuinely satisfactory life of [Harriet Beecher Stowe]."--The New Republic
  • "A splendid, balanced representation of an author in her many roles, and of the way she changed her world."--Kirkus Reviews
  • "For a long time will remain the authoritative biography."--New York Newsday
  • "Exhaustive and richly detailed."--The Boston Book Review
  • "[A] landmark book."--Women's Review of Books
  • "Hedrick's excellent biography gives the contemporary reader a fresh look at the life of a powerful writer, a genuine moral force and an epochal figure in the modern history of women....This new biography does something even more important than tell Stowe's life and do justice to its greatest work. Hedrick has not only done exemplary research, she has also read carefully and with evident passion in the extraordinary scholarship of women's history and culture that mostly women scholars have produced in the last few decades. Her book retells Stowe's own story in terms of what has been learned about women's lives....This biography will surely direct readers to Stowe's work....It will also help readers to understand why the cutlrue wars continue and will continue because, as Stowe understood, literary ground is contested ground or writing isn't worth writing or reading."--Los Angeles Times Book Review
  • "A masterly biography, the best I've read in a great while. Hedrick's understanding of Stowe and her times is so deep, detailed, and assured that she can concentrate on the narrative, putting information and critical sophistication in the service of the story. This makes for good, rich reading--literary biography at its finest."--Phyllis Rose, author of Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf
  • "Will likely create a stampede of new interest in both the writer and her works....Hedrick is a subtle yet forcefully clear writer....Hedrick has ensured that this complex and extraordinary woman, Harriet Bveecher Stowe, will not be so easily forgotten at the next shift in literary taste."--The Virginian-Pilot and the Ledger-Star
  • "Hedrick has demonstrated a striking ability to weave together the varied elements of Stowe's life in a lucid and lively narrative, to use a wealth of letters with originality and grace, and to make Stowe and her world tangible. With this biography, Stowe has taken her place in the incredibly rich social and cultural milieu of nineteenth-century America, an America of revivals, early industrial capitalism, social reform, and women's entry into public life."--Mary Kelley, author of Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America
  • "Harriet Beecher Stowe is a monumental work of scholarship that provides a brilliant analysis of one of the most powerful, popular, and controversial writers in the annals of American literature."--Lois Rudnick, author of Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds
  • "Joan D. Hedrick, in an impressive act of scholarship, reexamines the life of Harriet Beecher Stowe, revealing a detailed portrait of one of the first female professional writers in America."--Stanley Archer, Magill's Literary Annual
  • "In this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Joan Hedrick has given us not only a sensitive, nuanced portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe but also an encapsulation of the major themes in nineteenth-century historical development. This is a biography which does not ignore historical context and thus renders comprehensible many of the seeming contradictions in Stowe's life and thought."--Altina L. Waller, University of Connecticut
  • "Splendid"--Nancy Fix Anderson, Nineteenth Century Prose

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Joan D. Hedrick is the author of Solitary Comrade: Jack London and His Work, and the Director of Women's Studies and Associate Professor of History at Trinity College, Hartford.

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