Nancy Koester has taught religion and church history at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, and at Augsburg College, Minneapolis. An ordained Lutheran minister and a spiritual director, she is author of the new biography Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life.
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Harriet Beecher Stowe lived at our house while I wrote her biography — or so it seemed. My family and I were all on a first name basis with the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
“What is Harriet doing today?” my husband would ask.
“Well, she just had twins.”
Or, “she’s attacking slavery . . . she’s meeting Lincoln . . . she’s attending a heresy trial . . . she’s growing oranges in Florida . . . she’s in denial about a family scandal . . . she’s singing hymns in Mark Twain’s garden.”
Harriet was finally “resolved into love,” as she herself said.
When it was time to send the manuscript to my editor, it felt like having a child leave home for college. I was relieved to see her go, but then I missed her. My husband and I went to a nice restaurant and raised a glass to celebrate. We were sending Harriet to a finishing school called Eerdmans for the last leg of her journey to book-hood.
But Harriet — both the historical person and my project about her — will always be part of my life. Biographers know how deeply attached you can get to a person who died long before you were born. Unlike Stowe herself, who dabbled in spiritualism, I didn’t use an Ouija board to communicate with her. But I did learn to read her handwriting, and I pored over piles of her letters saved in various archives around the country. I marked up my copies of the books she wrote, and the magazine articles too. Before I was done they were highlighted, filled with colorful post-it notes, and marred by coffee stains. I bought, begged, and borrowed many a volume of scholarship written about her, knowing that I could never possibly read it all.
Life is more than print, so I listened to songs she would have known, and traveled to places where she lived. I was able to go inside and tour two of the houses she lived in, one in Cincinnati, Ohio, and one in Hartford, Connecticut; the ones in Brunswick, Maine, and Andover, Massachusetts, I could only look at longingly from the outside. I visited her grave in Andover and placed a red rose there. Truth be told, I let previous visits to Florida help me imagine Harriet’s winter home near Jacksonville. But I did actually visit Sorrento, Italy, to see the place where Harriet set her Italian novel. Quite a few of the places she visited in Europe I have been to as well, and although much has changed in these places, some of the things she saw and marveled at, like the Venus de Milo at the Louvre, are still the same.
There were other, more personal, experiences that also helped me to empathize with Harriet. She was a preacher’s daughter from a large family, with a father endowed with more energy than three normal people. I am too. She married a biblical scholar and seminary professor who encouraged her to write. I did too. She was raised in evangelical Christianity and sought a spiritual home in a sacramental and liturgical church. So was I — and so did I. But there the similarities end. Unlike Stowe, I am not brilliant, prolific, or particularly courageous. Nothing in my life can even come close to Stowe’s heroic stand against slavery. Nor can I fully grasp what it meant to be a woman in the nineteenth century, try as I might. Stowe knew that, unlike her brothers, she could never be a preacher because she was a woman. I am ordained in the Lutheran Church. I can vote and speak in public, not because I worked for it but because others did. Part of my challenge in writing Harriet’s story was to think myself back into her world — a world that was very different for women. Yet the things I felt in common with Harriet nonetheless helped me along.
Biographers need to bond with their subjects. Who could spend precious years researching and writing about someone they did not enjoy, or at least respect? And yet. Identifying too personally with a subject carries some risk. It can lead to wishful thinking and misrepresentation. If we can never completely know ourselves and the people dearest to us, how much can we really know someone from another century? Thankfully, Stowe wrote a great deal about herself and her spiritual journey. I did not have to write fiction, but I did have to listen carefully and use both discipline and imagination to enter Harriet’s world.
Around the time I was starting work on the Harriet project, I read Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. In this book Lamott points out that writers should not rescue a character from failures and foibles. No, “sometimes you just have to let him lay where Jesus flang him.” I laughed hard and took the advice to heart. Much as I admire Harriet Beecher Stowe, she did some things I wish she hadn’t, and left some things undone I wish she would have attempted. She could be very credulous, and loyal to the point of blindness. Despite her famous stand on slavery, she carried many of the prejudices endemic to her times. It was not my job to fix those things, but to let her humanity shine through.
Today, as I write this, a box of fresh copies of the Harriet book have arrived on my doorstep. I had the pleasure of calling my editor to say thanks and savor the moment. Harriet has grown up and come home, and I find to my delight that she does not need me anymore. What a wonderful Christmas present!
Click to order Nancy Koester’s Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life.