- The Evangelical Press, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the Human Medium
Between 1835 and the Publication of the Final installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the National Era in April 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published some three dozen pieces in the New-York Evangelist (1830–1902), an influential evangelical weekly newspaper known for its abolitionist views.1 This body of articles—a generic smorgasbord that includes temperance tales, religious parables and allegories, sentimental fiction, spiritual biography, literary criticism, Biblical fiction, poetry, and antislavery sketches—represents a substantial portion of Stowe’s publications in periodicals and gift-books during this period, and by far the largest number of her articles published in any single publication.2 Stowe’s work for Godey’s Lady’s Book and the National Era are well known to literary historians (Hedrick 133, 135–37; Smith), but her work for the Evangelist has received no sustained critical attention.3 Recent scholarship by Candy Gunther Brown, Gregory S. Jackson, and David Paul Nord (among others) has explored the considerable influence of religious print culture, and Protestant evangelical print culture in particular, on nineteenth-century American culture and literature. This scholarship provides an opportunity to examine Stowe’s work for the Evangelist more closely. What does it mean that the most popular novelist of the nineteenth century received her literary apprenticeship in one of the period’s most influential evangelical weeklies? And how does it put pressure on literary histories that narrate the development of the literary or the aesthetic precisely in terms of the decline or secularization of the religious?4
In the present essay my aim is not to claim Stowe as an evangelical—a Christian who affirms the four doctrinal positions outlined in [End Page 25] David W. Bebbington’s classic definition of evangelicalism: “conversionism,” “crucicentrism,” “activism,” and “biblicentrism” (3). As scholars have noted, Stowe’s shifting religious beliefs and self-identification make it difficult to label her clearly (Brown, Word 18). Nor do I attempt to determine the role of Stowe’s theology in her decision to publish in the Evangelist. A number of factors undoubtedly influenced her decision, including the fact that the paper paid well (Hedrick 139). Rather than interpreting Stowe’s personal beliefs and motivations, I focus on her Evangelist pieces themselves and how they engage a set of thematic concerns, formal strategies, and assumptions about the role of art in society prevalent in the evangelical press. After a brief glance at Stowe’s early use of writing as a religious instrument and an overview of her work for the Evangelist, the essay sketches the paper’s emergence in the 1830s and the events that positioned it as an important and controversial evangelical publication when Stowe published her first article there in May 1835. The dozens of articles Stowe published in the Evangelist over the next two decades represent a literary apprenticeship in which she taught herself to write entertaining yet salient social commentary that would appeal to the paper’s evangelical audience, and then to place that writing strategically in venues where it would circulate widely and engage a broad range of readers. It is no exaggeration to say that without the Evangelist there likely would have been no Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for it was there that Stowe honed her “vocation to preach on paper” (qtd. in Hedrick 64).
I use the concept of “mediation” (Mitchell and Hansen xx–xxii) to focus on three distinct ways in which print functioned in what Michael Warner has called the “evangelical public sphere.” The first involves print’s ability to collapse physical distance by connecting a spatially dispersed evangelical reading public to each other and to the objects of their social concern, resulting in a form of “imagined community” that is distinct from the secular national imaginary defined by Benedict Anderson (6–7); the second involves print’s capacity to serve as an instrument of moral truth, untrammeled by formal complexity or “merely” aesthetic concerns; and the third involves claims that a divine power participates in the creation and of a text and lends it a special social agency. Stowe’s Evangelist pieces engage each of these forms of mediation...