Preserving, recognizing literary history

The Department of Interior has designated the Hartford home of Harriet Beecher Stowe a National Historic Landmark, the honor coming more than 50 years the same distinction was awarded to the home of the man next door.

The neighbor, of course, was Samuel L. Clemens, who, unlike Mrs. Stowe, used a pen name, Mark Twain. Together, Mr. Clemens and Mrs. Stowe probably sold more books than all of the other 19th century American authors combined. Mrs. Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was the second best selling book in the world at that time, surpassed only by The Bible.

So why did it take so long for the home of Mrs. Stowe, whose book was perhaps the most influential work in American history, to become an official national landmark? There's a good explanation.

Unlike most American families in the 19th century, the Beechers and the Stowes were rather mobile. Harriet Beecher was born in Litchfield and was educated at her sister Catherine's female academy in Hartford. She moved to Cincinnati as a young woman to rejoin her father, Lyman Beecher, who taught theology at a seminary there.

While in Ohio, she met and married Calvin Stowe and the couple was living in Brunswick, Maine, where Mr. Stowe was teaching at Bowdoin College, when she wrote her great anti-slavery novel between 1850 and 1852. That home was designated a National Landmark on Dec. 29, 1962, the same day as the Mark Twain House in Hartford and Twain's boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri.

Hannibal was not only the childhood home of the man who is arguably America's foremost literary figure, it was also the setting for his two greatest works, "Huckleberry Finn" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." Both of these novels were written while he lived next door to his aging neighbor in Hartford.

With the Stowe home in Maine already recognized for "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the Interior Department's National Park Service, in announcing the selection of the Hartford house, chose to emphasize Mrs. Stowe's later activities on behalf of the role of women and especially her opposition to polygamy.

"Stowe's role in opposing polygamy provides insights into not only her role as a social reformer above and beyond the issue of slavery but also her opposition to polygamy," the park service said in announcing the designation.

The Stowe House and a dozen other historic sites announced March 10 bring to 2,497 the number of National Landmarks in the United States. Connecticut has 62, including the Monte Cristo Cottage, the New London boyhood home of Eugene O'Neill, one of America's greatest playwrights.

There is little likelihood of a second O'Neill national landmark, as the site of his birthplace, a long gone hotel at the corner of Broadway and 43rd Street in Manhattan, is now a Starbuck's.

But it is fortunate that Connecticut has preserved and protected the homes once graced by its most renowned writers, O'Neill, Twain and now, Stowe.

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