Friday, May 29, 2015

In dementia’s grip, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her famous novel over and over

Harriet Beecher Stowe spent the last years of her life in a demented state writing her great novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin over and over.  She wrote subconsciously from memory, word for word, as if she were creating it for the first time. Mark Twain, her neighbor in Hartford, Connecticut, wrote this account of her:

“Her mind had decayed, and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irish woman. Among the colonists of our neighborhood the doors always stood open in pleasant weather. Mrs. Stowe entered them at her own free will, and as she was always softly slippered and generally full of animal spirits, she was able to deal in surprises, and she liked to do it. She would slip up behind a person who was deep in dreams and musings and fetch a war whoop that would jump that person out of his clothes."

One of thirteen children sired by fiery Calvinist minister Lyman Beecher, and numbering among her siblings seven clergymen, including the famed Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet was born June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her mother died when she was a child, and her older sister Catherine enrolled her in a classically-oriented school. At age twenty-one she moved with her father to Cincinnati, where she joined a literary group called the Semi-Colon Club—and met Calvin Stowe, a young seminary professor who wooed, wed, and whisked her away to Brunswick, Maine, where he had a teaching job at Bowdoin College.

Harriet published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 and it became an instant best-seller. Hailed in the North as a ringing anti-slavery masterpiece, it was derided in the South. When Mrs. Stowe met President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, he greeted her by saying, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” She wrote several other books, but none had anything like the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Stowes spent much time in Florida, promoting it as a vacation destination and a good place for investment.

Not surprisingly, as the wife of a clergyman—and the sister of seven more—Harriet remained a steadfast church-goer, of the Congregationalist persuasion, all her life. As Uncle Tom’s Cabin evidences, Stowe was a believer in a strong supernatural element in Christianity, including dreams, visions, prophecies, and even a touch of spiritualism in which she indulged at seances.

Following her husband’s death in 1886, Stowe’s health began to deteriorate. Within two years she was deeply in the grip of what is now believed to be Alzheimer’s disease. Obsessed with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she devoted her life to writing it again and again.

The New York Times account of her death in Hartford, on July 1, 1896, reported: “She passed peacefully away, as though into a deep sleep. Mrs. Stowe's malady of many years' continuance, a mental trouble, took an acute form on Friday, when congestion of the brain, with partial paralysis, appeared. During Friday, Saturday, and Sunday Mrs. Stowe was about the house, but suffering very much. Since Monday she had been confined to her bed, and yesterday afternoon became unconscious.”

Stowe was eighty-five. Burial was in the cemetery at Phillips Academy in Andover, Masschusetts, next to her husband, a former faculty member there.

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