Connecticut Voices; Joan Hedrick
Hello and welcome to Connecticut voices a production of the Connecticut Center for the book in partnership with the Hartford currents North-East magazine. I'm Nancy Cobb. My guest is biographer Joan Dee Hedrick. What does it take to compile a major biography of an American icon in author Joan Hendricks case it took more than a decade of painstaking research sifting through thousands of documents and libraries historical societies and private collections across America. Hendricks landmark book is called simply Harriet Beecher Stowe a life. It is the first full scale biography to be published on the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin in more than 50 years. Joan Hedrick also is the director of Women's Studies and a professor of history at Trinity College in Hartford and she's the author of a critical study solitary comrade Jack London and his work. Hendryx latest book Harriet Beecher Stowe a life was published by Oxford University Press. She lives in Middletown Connecticut with her husband Travis. Welcome Joan. Thank you. Why Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Well. I think there's always a lot of reason somebody settles on a topic I know a strong impetus for me was the fact that in 1980 I came to Trinity to teach and coming to Hartford stimulated whole new. Courses to teach in subjects to latch on to. And I was very aware of living or teaching just five minutes away from Harriet Beecher Stowe's house and I knew that there was a research library there that had a lot of documents and I was attracted to the idea of working on a person whose documents were. More right within. Within Reach. And that has been a very good decision. Beyond that I. Discovered in my work on Jack London that I really love biography as a form so I knew that I wanted to do another life. And I also knew I wanted to work on a woman this time. Let's talk a little bit about that the art of the biographer. It's a it's a fine line I know to balance storytelling with historical
analysis in just the right proportions and I found as I was reading this that. It read like I say like a good yarn I mean this woman's life the very interesting facets of her family of origin and then her her husband and her children and that and her working life with the backdrop of the 19th century as you say 15 years her life span the entire 19th century. Why does biography attract you the strongest pull for me is that it gives you the whole picture. It's a very synthetic form through one person's life. You see the whole time you use it you have to balance. Biography with with the history with psychological insight with. In in the case of Harriet some understanding of the gender ideology at the time. But it puts it all together in a package that is accessible I think that's what really appeals to me.
Did you find yourself I mean you have worked on this project for 10 years. Did you find that you became closer to her that you had more of an understanding that you become in a sense at one with the person whose biography you're writing. That's a very complex question. I think in the beginning I thought that I was more in line with her and I discovered I was projecting my own agendas on the mats healthy. It wasn't a real closeness that she was much more different both more distant in time than I had appreciated and that her agendas were were often ones that I couldn't fully support. But well her. Family and class provincialisms and her racial provincialism I think are the major factors combined with a kind of Beecher smugness that she was sure that she was right about all of these things. I felt distance from her on those points that came from being a Beecher
in the sense that there was a certain entitlement absolutely being part of this Beecher family which you can talk about later. That's right. That's right so that sense of privilege and the right it gave her. A sense that she had the right to speak even though she was a woman so it was a very empowering thing for her. So while I I felt that I in some ways gained some distance from her while I worked on it there. There was a moment right when I finished the book that I I did feel that somehow the. Her life just rose up before me in a flash in this wonderful sense when I finished and I really had this powerful sense of connection with her as a human being that was really very very moving and it just took me by surprise and I hadn't expected that the fact that she she came from a family of letters as it were father was a very powerful minister. There was. A ritual of letter writing in the family that continued over the years could you talk a little bit about how the how these pieces came together to make her a writer inform her.
That was one of the most interesting things that I discovered in my research that the becoming an author wasn't a mysterious and distant process the way I think we tend to think of it today but something that was very much the texture and of everyday life as you just said women wrote letters. In the parlor. To family members and these letters were usually read aloud by their recipients and they were. Taken seriously as literary productions. And the kinds of stories that Harriet began writing were written in the parlor for a literary club. And they were read aloud and there was a very natural transition between these parlor entertainment. And publication in the 1830s when she started her career. It's not at all what we experienced today when we sent a manuscript off in the mail to some unknown and distant publisher. And we have to think of ourself as an author before we do that. That made it very easy for a woman to enter the field because she didn't have to
decide to become an artist. It was very much something that women were expected to do as part of their social role. There's a point in the in the preface where you say. And I'd like to read it actually in her time southern readers objected to her portrayal of slavery in Tom's Cabin in our time African-Americans have objected to Stone's racial stereotypes to engage her life is to engage the plurality and contradiction of American culture. Could you talk about that. I think anybody who attempts to speak nationally is going to be controversial in this country because we have so many different. Races and and cultures and stow really did want to do that. She had her father's agenda Lyman Beecher wanted to shape the parameters of the emerging national culture. And Harriet attempted I think much more successfully than than her father to do the same thing. But naturally then you get caught in crossfires if you're speaking to this subculture. What is some other subculture going to say about that. It really it was her her achievement
to figure out a way that she could speak to such a divided nation. And it isn't surprising that she was controversial in her time and that she remains controversial. One of her first losses was her mother when she was five years five years old. Do you think that this the fact that she did lose her mother just solidified even more the relationship with the father and and probably expedited this. This path to writing. For her. Where do you think it was inevitable. No I think that that probably did occur. Father was a. Stronger model anyway. I think in terms of his personality then Roxana Beecher. But the fact that her mother would have represented to her the gender role which she should aspire to would have been I think I'm sure much more powerful if her mother had lived it would have made it more difficult I think for her to break out of that because she would have had those close emotional bonds to her mother. She never really knew her mother.
You know she she imagined her mother and she she traveled to Gilford as well where her mother was from not plains. That's right. And that she could felt the stronger connections by hearing the stories. Of her mother's. Sister. That's right. Harriet's and Harriet Wright. Was a very strong minded woman. And I think gave the young Harriet A. Different model of womanhood. Very witty and crisp woman who herself never married. She. Loved a model of a of an independent woman for Harriet. And the fact that she was named after her and had had quite a bit of contact with her into her adulthood I think meant that probably it was a stronger model than Roxana Beecher had been. She had much lost her life she lost a son to cholera. During the epidemic. The a brother to
suicide. Other children had had drug addiction problems. Did this last underscore. The natural empathy that she seems to feel for the disenfranchised. Absolutely. Do you vote in many places about the way in which suffering opens up the walls between human beings and of course it does make us feel vulnerable when we suffer and we often are I think much more. Open to the ministrations of of other people at those moments. And Harriet learned how to. Channel those feelings of grief and become a minister to other people other troubled people through the suffering that she had had. Would you read it from the passage now. I'm talking with Joan Hedrick who is the author of Harriet Beecher Stowe a life and I'm talking about Harriet's the loss
of her young son to cholera Charly and age year and a half. This is circa fifty eight hundred forty nine thousand forty nine. There was a cholera epidemic in Cincinnati in that year. On July 10th. Harriet wrote to Calvin yesterday little Charlie was taken ill not seriously and in any other season I should not be alarmed. Now however a slight illness seems like a death sentence and I will not dissemble that I feel from the outset very little hope. The doctors were all overworked but Harriet managed to carry Charley to one of them who so discouraged her with his prognosis that she was frightened and wished for the support of her absence husband and father. At one o'clock in the morning on July 12th. Harry was awakened by the shouts of the servant who told her that eleven year old Henry had been seized by vomiting. She sprang out of bed calling on God for help tended Henry who was soon relieved and turned her attention to
Charley. She applied hydropathic remedies a wet sheet rather than the Kalam L that was liberally dispensed for cholera. He appeared to be improving as measured by his increased crankiness. Never was crossness in a baby more admired she told Calvin. For the next week he continued to improve. Calvin stood in admiration of his wife's strength in a day of calamity you are worth having. Yours is a heart that never fails. He praised her handling of Henry's case a very bad one to manage he had had the diarrhea so long and you took the best course possible. It was better than all the doctors. On July 15th an old black woman who did washing in the neighborhood was taken ill over her tubs and died the next day. Anna Harriet and her daughters made a shroud for Aunt Frankie who had been one of Harriet stays in emergencies. After perhaps helping to prepare the body of this good honest trustful So they went to her funeral. The next day Charlie came down with what was unmistakably cholera. For five days Harriet watched
helplessly as his small body was wracked by the disease. On July 23rd Harriet wrote to Calvin At last my dear the hand of the Lord had touched us. We have been watching all day by the dying bed of little Charlie who is gradually sinking. She did not expect him to survive the night. There was no point in Calvin returning. All will be over before you could possibly get here and the epidemic is now said by the physicians to prove fatal to every new case. Charlie lasted three more days. His healthy constitution now only an instrument of prolonging his end. On July 26 Harriet when we were early upstairs. In the parlor down below Charlie pale and cold dressed in a much smaller shroud than Harriet had made for Aunt Frankie. As Harriet reached for paper and pen to tell her husband at last it is over. Her heart was full of the scenes of suffering to which she had been an unwilling witness. That such be fell the child who of all her children caused her the least trouble made her grief keen
and her own responsibility to Charlie sadly incomplete. Never was he anything to me but a comfort. He has been my pride and joy. Many a heartache has he cured for me. Many an anxious night have I held him to my bosom and felt the sorrow and loneliness pass out of me with the touch of his little warm hand. Yet I have just seen him in his death agony looked on his imploring face when I could not help nor sooth nor do one thing not one to mitigate his cruel suffering. I do nothing but pray in my anguish that he might die soon. With the death of Charlie Stowe experienced one of the most common and profound events of 1000 century family life. Certainly the death of a child is among the most difficult of all deaths to come to terms with. For so upsets what we think of as the natural order of things. In the mid 19th century such feelings were intensified in the popular culture by a historical shift underway that elevated the status of the middle
class child. In contrast to the prosaic 18th century view in which children were seen as little adults whose labor power should be utilized as soon as humanly possible. The nineteenth century middle class child was increasingly viewed as an object of special care. Whose nurture became central to the elaboration of the bourgeois home. In an inverse equation Thorstein Veblen would later explain the child's symbolic value increased as his direct contribution to the domestic economy diminished. This is one meaning of the type that Harriet had made of Charlie before he was buried. This new way of emotionally investing in children. Grew at a pace that outstripped the harsh demographic reality. Although infant mortality among their class was declining a contributing factor in this new evaluation of children the investment of the middle class and a more sentimental approach to childhood was growing even faster. Parents and gauged in a delicate balancing act. As they attempted to hold their children
loosely and at God's disposal. In 1831 Elisabeth Foote wrote of her son. I never have thought much of George until this winter. But now my admiration is as unqualified as any other person's. I think he is one of the prettiest little fellows that I ever saw. Yet I am almost afraid to rejoice in Him. I am afraid it is not true that he has to remain with us and grow to be a healthy and intelligent child. It seems too much like a miracle to be true. This child died three years later. The notion of the special child of whom Little Eva was the apotheosis. Of this historical shift. Is there a peculiar love given us for those that God wills to take from us. Harriet wondered after Charlie's death. Is there not something brighter and better around them than around those who live. Why else in so many households is there a tradition of one brighter more beautiful more promising than all the rest. Late early love. The notion that God had appointed these special children had as Nina Boehm has observed
immense reconciling power in an era when many children did in fact die young. The distance between the special child enshrined in 1903 literature and Akira types and the slave child removed from parents as soon as profitable was as vast as it was and remarked upon. After the external slave trade was about. The South depended on reproduction to replenish the ranks of cotton pickers and hoe wielders and plow handler. Indeed Deborah grey white notes that some masters figured that at least five to six percent of their profit would accrue from natural increase. When slave women did not readily find a maid of their own they were crudely bred with mates of the Masters choosing or impregnated by the master himself. Under these oppressive circumstances refusing to have a child was sometimes a form of resistance. All the fertility of slave women was nevertheless double that of the white population. There were stories of Bond women who aborted pregnancies rather than bring another child into slavery. There were also stories
of Bond women who gave their children poison rather than see them sold away from them into a life of degradation pain and oppression. I just decided I'm not going to let old master sell this baby. He just ain't going to do it. A slave mother was reported to say she got up and get something out of a bottle and pretty soon it was dead. Although such behavior was not typical Harriet Beecher Stowe included several references to infanticide among Bond women and Uncle Tom's Cabin. One in her concluding remarks and more prominently in the story of Cassie who took her child in her arms gave him laudanum and held him while he slept today. Declaring this the best death she could have given him for he at least is out of pain. Still sensitivity to circumstances that could drive a mother to such acts in the name of maternal love was surely heightened by watching at the bedside of Charlie as the Calvinist God for reasons best known to himself extracted a full toll of suffering before releasing her baby.
There were circumstances about his death of such peculiar bitterness. She later wrote of what might seem almost cruel suffering. But I felt that I could never be consoled for it unless it should appear that this crushing of my own heart might enable me to work out some great good to others. The capriciousness of a Calvinist God to whom there was no recourse but submission to his disciplinary Rod was monstrously paralleled by the cruelty of an overseer who held the human destiny of slaves under his whip. Infant mortality among slaves was twice that among the white population and slaves possessed their own children only at the whim of the master who often sold them into distant bondage just. To escape this fate. A slave woman and her child fled across the Ohio River in a celebrated story. Thus the slave parents experienced in extreme form the contradictions of middle class parenting. Stowe turned the distance between the special child of bereaved middle class parents and the exploited slave child and to a source of political
energy. By focusing on Uncle Tom's Cabin on the separation of children from parents. Stowe tapped the overwrought feelings of white middle class parents and enlisted their sympathies for slave parents through the powerful metaphors of an evangelical religion shaped by both loss and bondage. It was at his dying bed and at his grave she later wrote of Charlie. That I learned what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her. So many of the things in the way you sit somewhere that. Joe had a nose for sensing trims. Yeah. That's right definitely. Would you call her revolutionary. That's a very. Interesting question. It's hard for me to think of her as a revolutionary because she was so much a part of her time she was she was always. In the mix but then push push pushing against that. She had I think a revolutionary consciousness and in certain ways or what I think of as a
visionary consciousness. And when it could be connected to social and political movements as it was in the writing of Tom's Cabin. Yes absolutely revolutionary. This is 19th century or at least this true womanhood movement. Could you talk about that you're a professor of women's studies at Trinity true womanhood. What was that about. That was the the ideal to which 19th century women were supposed to aspire. And many of them did as we have discovered as we've read their letters and diaries. Their actual behavior often departed from the ideal of true womanhood but what women were supposed to do was to be pious pure domestic and submissive those were the four elements in the cult of true womanhood. In various ways. Figured out how to expand the bounds
without. Ever going so far except perhaps in the Lady Byron. Scandal that she was accused of not being a true woman. Could you talk about that. Well in the late 18th 60s she took it upon herself to. Defend Lady Byron. The occasion was the publication of a new book about Lord and Lady Byron published by Lord Byron's mistress which of course did not paint Lady Byron in a very favorable light so Harriet who had met Lady Byron in her several trips to Europe. Wrote. An article in The Atlantic Monthly telling the story of. Parent's life from Lady Byron's point of view. It was scandalous because although many people knew that the cause of their separation early in the 1900s was Lady Byron's discovery that Lord Byron had been regularly committing incest with his half sister. After.
His marriage. Nobody had talked about it publicly nobody had dared to talk about it publicly and Harriet who was not deterred by most. Rushed into print with an article that became quite a sensation and she was for that. Accused. Talking about things that no true woman should it exist. The. Atlantic Monthly. He was involved in that. Yes she was one of the founders of The Atlantic Monthly which was one of the most important journals to be established. After this. The midpoint of the 19th century. She also wrote pseudonymously as a man. Yes although not as much as many 19th century women did. Why was she able to. Why was she able to be. Great Beecher Stowe most of the time. I think because of the Beecher name. I think that gave her an audience it gave her recognition and.
People expected the Beatrice to speak out her sister Catherine although she was a woman had already published. Author and blazed the trail for her a bit in that regard. Catherine was undeterred by most. Descriptions against women although she actually was much more conservative in her. Her. View of what women could and could not do. And her actual behavior she was out there. What surprised you in your research for Harriet Beecher Stowe life. The most. Startling moment for me came when I realized that the review in the nation. That. Was. Very very. Rugged toward two women writers and cast them in the light of being sentimental. And only involved in good causes and not understanding how to write books that
were. Good art. Was written by Henry James. He. And his reviews of women writers consistently criticized them for the things that had made 19th century women's literature so so powerful. The things that have made Uncle Tom's Cabin an international bestseller. Their ability to move people and to make them see social injustices and to take action in their own times. James was interested in a kind of. Art that is removed from the social and political life that considers a novel simply an architectural a constructed object. It's an art for art's sake approach heartless in this really moving there. Absolutely. It is heartless. What would you hope to have if you had a dialogue with Harriet Beecher Stowe in a sense you have written your butt. What do you think she'd say with. Your so we're here today I think she would be asking some of the questions of the culture that she asked at the time
but of course in different forms because history has marched on but we still have a lot of the social injustices today that she railed against. I think the. Homeless today are our fugitive slaves. They have. No place to go. And they're growing in in numbers the kind of gap between the rich and the poor that that became so pronounced in the 1980s has left us a terrible legacy that we're struggling with right now. I think she would speak out against the. Final chapter paragraph of final chapter of Uncle Tom's cabin that was written well over 100 years ago and it reads This is an age of the world where nations are trembling and convulsed a mighty influences abroad surging and heaving the world as with an earthquake. Is America safe. Every nation that carries in its bosom great in and redress
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