- Those Golden Balls Down Yonder TreeOranges and the Politics of Reconstruction in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Florida
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In the years following the Civil War, famed author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe painted a number of canvases of Florida oranges. One in particular resembles the view from Stowe's window, displaying a cluster of fruit cascading down a leafy tree. Stowe completed this painting after 1867, when she purchased an orange grove in Mandarin, Florida—a move southward that might have seemed a curious decision for an ardent abolitionist. But purchasing southern land and transforming former plantations into smaller cotton farms and orange groves was considered at the time a charitable act to revitalize the devastated region and transform its political climate. Florida, in particular, was in need of revitalization; the state was dismissed as a primitive swamp and cultural wasteland made worse by the Civil War. Many northerners, Stowe included, believed an orange industry would inspire a cultural awakening in Florida and foster a more egalitarian atmosphere that would supplant industries tarnished by slave systems. For Stowe, the orange represented the promise of a "New South," and her artistic activism demonstrates how an object as familiar and innocuous as a canvas of oranges held broader implications for Reconstruction in Florida.
Few scholars have investigated Stowe's overlooked painting practice because it has naturally been eclipsed by her more prominent career as a novelist and abolitionist. Stowe published the celebrated anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852. It became the bestselling novel of the nineteenth century (and the second bestselling book of the century, behind only the Bible) and brought her world-renown as an author and ambassador for the American abolitionist movement. The novel was published in a contentious moment when debates about slavery were intensifying, and it is credited with helping to fuel both the abolitionist movement and the later push to Civil War. At war's end, Stowe joined several northerners who migrated southward and praised her peers for "applying the habits … and industries of New England to … the Floridian soil." In her weekly column in The Christian Union, Stowe encouraged her readers to move south, too, pleading, "To all who want warmth, repose, ease, freedom from care … come! Come! Come sit in our veranda! This fine land is now in the market so cheap that the opportunity for investment should not be neglected." Readers may have been particularly compelled to move south after learning that Stowe yielded a profit of $1,500 a year from her Florida grove.1
Stowe wrote often of her idyllic orange grove, painting an attractive portrait of Florida as the "Mediterranean of the South." A photograph shows charming woodwork on the windows and porch of her cottage. It also displays towering trees in her front yard that provided critical shade from the Florida sun. On the horizon line across from the porch, Stowe had a generous view of the St. Johns River. The extraordinary circumstances of Stowe purchasing an orange grove in Florida cannot be overstated. It was highly unusual for a woman to buy land in [End Page 31] the late nineteenth century, not least an orange grove spanning 30 acres, but Stowe had her earnings from her book and was able to capitalize on the Homestead Acts, which empowered women, former slaves, and anyone deemed loyal to the Union to cheaply purchase land in the South after the Civil War. Keenly aware that northern migration could bring northern money and influence to the South, Stowe crusaded for Florida oranges in several of her articles and through her artwork. One of her largest paintings, Orange Fruit and Blossoms, is her most unusual. Instead of painting fruit on a horizontal axis as is typical of still...