Friday, June 8, 2018

The Two Altars; or, Two Pictures in One

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896)
From American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation

“Operations of the Fugitive-Slave Law,” c. 1850. Hand-tinted print of a wood engraving by American artist Albert Bobbett, (1824–c. 1888).
In speeches delivered to various organizations during the winter of 1855, Frederick Douglass proclaimed, “One flash from the heart-supplied intellect of Harriet Beecher Stowe could light a million camp fires in front of the embattled host of slavery, which not all the waters of the Mississippi, mingled as they are with blood, could extinguish.” Three years had passed since the publication of Stowe’s first novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and, as Douglass affirms, she was now one of the leading lights of the antislavery movement.

Only five years earlier, however, Stowe was barely known in abolitionist circles; she came to the cause hesitantly and somewhat indirectly. Born and raised in Connecticut, she moved with her family to Ohio in 1832. “When she came to Cincinnati, she was a New Englander; when she left eighteen years later, she was an American,” writes biographer Joan D. Hedrick. “The West was the cradle of her career.“ Like other members of her family, Stowe was against slavery, but she initially felt that abolition was too extreme a position; her first writing on the subject was actually a piece defending freedom of the press. Published in 1836 in the antislavery Cincinnati Journal—her brother Henry Ward Beecher was temporarily the newspaper’s editor—the essay condemned the mob that attacked another local antislavery newspaper before killing several black residents and destroying homes belonging to free black families.

For the next few years Stowe wrote short fiction inspired by her New England background and admired for the use of dialect, as well as moral stories and temperance tales. Her debut collection, The Mayflower; or, Sketches of scenes and characters among the descendants of the Pilgrims, appeared in 1843. Two years later, however, she wrote “Immediate Emancipation,” her first antislavery story, recounting “literal matters of fact occurring in the city of Cincinnati, which have come within the scope of the writer's personal knowledge [and] have merely been clothed in a dramatic form, to present them more vividly to the reader.” Abandoning the more conservative views of her father and sister and adopting the more radical opinions of her brothers, this sketch signifies a turning point in Stowe’s attitude toward the question of abolition.

In the summer of 1849 Stowe’s eighteen-month-old son died in a cholera epidemic that swept through Cincinnati and killed several thousand residents. She later wrote to a friend that it was “the awful scenes and bitter sorrow of that summer” that gave birth to Uncle Tom’s Cabin:
It was at his dying bed and at his grave that I learned what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her. In those depths of sorrow which seemed to me immeasurable, it was my only prayer to God that such anguish might not be suffered in vain. There were circumstances about his death of such peculiar bitterness, of what seemed almost cruel suffering that I felt I could never be consoled for it unless this crushing of my own heart might enable me to work out some great good to others.
But it was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act that ignited her indignation and passion. While the law was working its way through Congress in 1850, she wrote “The Freeman’s Dream,” which advocated civil disobedience against any attempt to capture and return escaped slaves. Then, in June 1851, just as Uncle Tom’s Cabin began appearing in serial form in The National Era, she published a third story, “The Two Altars,” meant as a response to the newly passed legislation. Blending the didacticism of antislavery writing with the sentimentalism expected by the readers of her fiction, the story’s two parts contrast the romantic idealism of the Revolutionary War with the devastating reality of a people torn apart by slavery.

Note: Several details in this introduction are from The Publishing History of Uncle Tom's Cabin 1852–2002, by Claire Parfait (2007).

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