Friday, June 10, 2011

Harriet Beecher Stowe starts her writing career in Cincinnati’s lively “parlor society”

In his LOA interview about American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, David S. Shields recounted how important literary coteries were to aspiring writers in pre-colonial and colonial America:
Whom you knew and who was your friend was attested by the fact that you owned writing in that person’s handwriting. It demonstrated your access to someone who was witty and wonderful.
As Americans migrated west, literary coteries continued to thrive, serving as a way for transplanted citizens to network, share news, and nurture new talent. Early in her twenties, Harriet Beecher Stowe launched her writing career in Cincinnati’s “parlor society,” as Stowe biographer Joan D. Hedrick describes in her LOA interview celebrating Stowe’s Bicentennial:
When the Beechers moved to Cincinnati in 1832, Harriet was invited to join a literary club, called the Semi-Colons, which met in the parlor of Harriet’s uncle, Samuel Foote. Members’ literary contributions were read aloud, anonymously, and then discussed and criticized by the group. One can imagine how useful such an apprenticeship must have been to an aspiring writer. Perhaps even more important to Harriet Beecher was the intimate nature of this gathering. She could see the faces of her audience and observe what moved them, what made them laugh, what reminded them of the New England many of them had left behind. She developed what would become the hallmark of her prose, an intimate narrative voice. Moreover, the semi-public space of the parlor gave her important access: her first story appeared in the Western Literary Messenger, published by a member of the Semi-Colon Club.
These meetings involved more than readings. Hedrick offers more details about what a lively evening at the Semi-Colons was like in her Pulitzer Prize–winning biography, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life:
The Semi-Colons met every Monday evening at 7:30. A reader—apparently always a male—was appointed for each meeting. Although some put their names to their productions, many wrote anonymously or under pseudonyms. After the readings there was discussion, followed by dancing, sandwiches and coffee, and, at Samuel Foote’s, a find brand of madeira. The evening finished off with “a gay Virginia reel led by the reader of the evening and a merry-hearted girl.”
Read the entire interview (PDF) with Joan D. Hedrick about Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Harriet Beecher Stowe: Three Novels

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