- Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life by Nancy Koester
Nancy Koester’s Spiritual Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–96) is deceptive, for it is so much more than a spiritual biography. It aims to demonstrate that Stowe’s spiritual journey and her literary journey are fully integrated. Accordingly, she presents a comprehensive overview of Stowe’s major works (although the discussion of Oldtown Folks [Boston, 1869]—the most important in terms of her theology—receives fairly short shrift as if it were merely a tract on the value of humanism in theology). The performance is stunningly intelligent, demonstrating in Stowe both a spirit of liberation (from inherited doctrine) and submission (to a refined understanding of gospel truth).
The account of Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Boston, 1852) as the visible symbol of the gospel truth that for a man to lay down his life for his friends is the noblest act reflects the complete melding of Stowe’s political philosophy and her religious creed. The importance of that observation, however, is to underscore the truth that there is no inherent tension between political and religious ideals. Accordingly, Stowe’s political projects have been accounted for in terms wholly consonant with her religious principles, although Stowe’s religious sentiments were continually changing during the period in which her political sentiments matured. She migrated from an older version of New England Congregationalist belief to an embrace of more liturgical forms, without ever losing her sure grasp of the fundamentals of republican politics.
At one point Stowe makes a trenchant observation in her last novel, Poganuc People: Their Loves and Lives (New York, 1878), which helps account for the progress of her moral pilgrimage:
The New Testament gives a glorified ideal of a possible human life, but hard are his labors who tasks himself to keep that ideal uppermost among average human beings.
The coarse, the low, the mean, the vulgar is ever thrusting itself before the higher and more delicate nature, and claiming, in virtue of its very brute strength, to be the true reality.(p. 251)
Koester has chronicled the reconciliation of the glorified ideal and the brute reality not only in the work but also in the person of Stowe.
This is a work of beauty and inspiration, well written, meticulously researched, and probingly challenging to hackneyed orthodoxies. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the argument for Stowe’s progressive views of race. Although it is questionable whether the theory of her being under the influence of “romantic realism,” as presented on the authority of Joan Hedrick, it is unchallengeable that Stowe offers diverse views of race, even within the African race, as opposed to a one-dimensional caricature (p. 115). Nor is it true that Tom can be accurately described [End Page 954] as “docile,” albeit he does not strike out on a path of physical escape. Tom’s prudence (in dealing with the slave-trader Haley), trust (in dealing with the indulgent slave-holder St. Clare), and outright defiance (in dealing with the brutal slave-holder Legree) all combine to describe a character well-delineated for its strength and judiciousness. Tom explains his reason for not escaping (while counseling escape to others such as Eliza in the opening of the novel and Cassy at the close of the novel) in terms of his self-conscious determination to sacrifice himself for the good of others. That reflects not docility but the “greatest love.”
It should be noted that Koester takes Senator Bird from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be a U.S. senator (p. 135), whereas he is clearly a state senator, as he has participated in state legislation aiming to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law within Ohio. This is, however, a negligible matter that does not mar Koester’s impressive work.