September 2, 2013

Fugitive guest may hold key to ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’

A scholar believes that a slave Stowe harbored in her Maine home inspired the landmark novel.

By BRUCE SMITH/The Associated Press

CHARLESTON, S.C.  — A Clemson University professor is convinced that Harriet Beecher Stowe might not have written "Uncle Tom's Cabin" if it were not for a fugitive South Carolina slave she harbored for a night before starting the history-making novel.

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Copies of Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and John Andrew Jackson's "The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina" are seen in this Aug. 29, 2013 photo taken at the Charleston County Library in Charleston, S.C. A professor of American literature at Clemson University, Susanna Ashton, says her research indicates Stowe harbored Jackson, then a fugitive slave, in her Maine home just before she started writing her novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Ashton says Jackson shared his painful experiences of slavery prompting Stowe to write the novel.

The Associated Press

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Harriet Beecher Stowe is shown in this undated drawing. A professor of American literature at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., Susanna Ashton, says her research indicates Stowe harbored a fugitive slave from South Carolina just before she started writing her novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Ashton says John Andrew Jackson shared his painful experiences of slavery prompting Stowe to write the novel. The first chapter appeared in the "National Era," an anti-slavery-weekly, of Washington, on June 5, 1851. It appeared later in book and as a play.

The Associated Press

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The book, which fueled the abolitionist cause and helped put the nation on the path toward the Civil War, was published in 1852 after being serialized the previous year.

It became a bestselling book of the 19th century, second only to the Bible.

Stowe mentions harboring the slave in her Maine home in a late 1850 letter to her sister.

She writes that "he was a genuine article from the 'Ole Carling State."' While it is well-known to historians that Stowe harbored a slave, neither her letter nor her later writings mention his name.

Susanna Ashton, a professor of American literature at Clemson, says her research has convinced her the slave Stowe harbored was John Andrew Jackson.

BORN INTO SLAVERY

He was born a slave on a Sumter County, S.C., plantation and escaped in 1847, fleeing to Charleston and then stowing away between bales of cotton on a ship heading north.

Ashton's conclusions appear in this summer's edition of "Common-Place," the journal of the Massachusetts-based American Antiquarian Society.

After fleeing, Jackson settled in Salem, Mass.

But when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 by Congress -- meaning even slaves who had escaped from the South could be returned to their owners -- Jackson headed north through Maine to Canada.

Jackson later learned to read and write, went to Europe and his book "The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina" was published in England in 1862.

After the Civil War, Jackson made a living as a writer and lecturer.

In his book, Jackson recalls the encounter with Stowe, mentioning her by name.

"She took me in and fed me, and gave me some clothes and five dollars. She also inspected my back, which is covered with scars which I shall carry with me to the grave. She listened with great interest to my story," he wrote.

In Stowe's letter to her sister, the original of which is in the Beineke Library at Yale University, Stowe notes the effect that night had on her family.

"There hasn't been anybody in our house (who) got waited on so abundantly and willingly for ever so long. These negroes possess some mysterious power of pleasing children for they hung around him and seemed never tired of hearing him talk and sing," she wrote.

In a recent interview, Ashton said: "Was it Jackson who was hidden by Stowe as a fugitive in Brunswick Maine? I'm 99.9 percent sure. That seems absolutely true. I think he was an inspiration for the novel. I think his pain touched her and helped her to act."

Ashton said after "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was published, a lot of blacks and former slaves wanted to meet Stowe and sought her endorsement.

"She was one of the biggest celebrities in the United States and had huge political and cultural clout," Ashton said.

"It was only when I looked at the dates more closely I said wait a minute, Jackson met her before she wrote 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' That's how the remarkable nature of this encounter began to unfold for me."

Stowe would later say she had a vision in a church in Brunswick -- the pew is marked -- where she imagined the ending of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and went home to write.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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This May 17, 2005, file photo, shows the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Brunswick, Maine. A professor of American literature at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., Susanna Ashton, says her research shows Stowe harbored a fugitive slave from South Carolina here just before she started writing her novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Ashton suggests that the painful story of slavery told by John Andrew Jackson prompted Stowe to begin writing the famous novel.

The Associated Press

  


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