Harriet Beecher Stowe was married to Calvin Ellis Stowe, a Bowdoin alumnus. When Calvin was offered a position on the Bowdoin faculty in 1850, the Stowe family moved from Cincinnati, Ohio to Brunswick. By this time, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had long since left Brunswick and was a well-established writer, living at Craigie House in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow & Harriet Beecher Stowe
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Coincidentally, both Longfellow and Stowe lived at in the same Brunswick home, albeit at different times. Upon moving to Brunswick in 1850, the Stowes moved into the Titcomb homestead. Longfellow had earlier lived in the same home while a student at Bowdoin with Calvin Stowe. (Hedrick, p. 194) This home, now known as the Stowe House, was run as a hotel and restaurant for many years until its recent purchase by Bowdoin College.
Longfellow later lived in another Brunswick home, which in turn became the residence of Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain.
Harriet Beecher Stowe claimed that she was inspired to write Uncle Tom's Cabin after seeing a vision of the slave Tom while she was worshipping at the First Parish Church in Brunswick. Exposing what she believed to be the horrors of slavery to a worldwide audience (Stowe had never actually seen them firsthand), Uncle Tom's Cabin was an instant sensation, selling ten thousand copies in the first week following its 1852 publication. Uncle Tom's Cabin was soon translated into many languages and reportedly is the best-selling book of the nineteenth century with the exception of The Bible.
The publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin made Harriet Beecher Stowe an extremely influential individual during the antebellum and Civil War years. Upon visiting the White House in November, 1862, President Lincoln is reputed to have said, in reference to Stowe, "Is this the little woman who made this great war?" (The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin, edited by Stern, Philip, New York: Paul S. Eriksson, Inc., 1964, p.33) According to Carl Sandburg, Stowe claims that Lincoln said "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war." (Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume Two, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1939, p.201) Either way, this story has made its way down through history.
Longfellow had opposed slavery throughout the antebellum period, and even published Poems on Slavery in 1842. Thus, although he would not be considered a strident abolitionist, one would expect him to sympathize with what he read in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Yet his agreement was hardly immediate. At the outset of his reading of the book, Longfellow noted in his journal: "Began 'Uncle Tom?' - a pathetic and droll book on slavery." His view soon changed however, as a later journal entry stated: "Every evening we read ourselves into despair in that tragic book, "Uncle Tom's Cabin!" It is too melancholy, and makes one's blood boil too hotly."
One year later, perhaps envious of the meteoric rise in Stowe's popularity, Longfellow wrote: "How she is shaking the world with her 'Uncle Tom's Cabin!' At one step she has reached the top of the staircase up which the rest of us climb on our knees year after year. Never was there such a literary coup-de-main as this." (Gossett, Thomas F., Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture, Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, 1985; in turn citing Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 3 vol., edited by Samuel Longfellow, Boston, Ticknor & Co., 1886, 2:222-23, 233)
While Longfellow clearly admired Stowe's work, the feeling was mutual. Stowe traveled to England to spread her abolitionist message in 1853. Perhaps indicative of Longfellow's literary influence in Europe at that time, Stowe wrote to Longfellow before she departed. Her reason for writing to Longfellow, she explained to him, was "so that I shall be able to say in England that I have seen Longfellow!" (Hedrick, p.236; in turn citing correspondence from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, February 1, 1853; Houghton Library, Harvard University)