Paul Laurence Dunbar

Harriet Beecher Stowe by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Dunbar was inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as it was one of the first works of literature to shed light on the brutality and cruelty of slavery.

Here is an analysis of ‘Harriet Beecher Stowe’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Paul Lawrence Dunbar was one of the most well known African American writers of his time. His poetry brought to light the depths of that which his ancestors suffered at the hands of slave owners. Dunbar’s parents were former slaves, and his mother was eager for him to learn to read and write, and she encouraged him in his composition of poems. You can read Harriet Beecher Stowe in full here.

Harriet Beecher Stowe by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Harriet Beecher Stowe Analysis

Line 1

She told the story, and the whole world wept

In the first line, he praises Harriet Beecher Stowe for telling the true story of slavery. At the time when Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, much of the United States was blind to the true nature of slavery in the South. Although it is obvious that many people must have known about the horrors and cruelty of slavery, it is also significant that plantation owners and other slave owners tried to keep hidden the true nature of slavery. They tried to convince society that slaves were happy and that most masters were kind. Although those who experienced slavery first hand knew otherwise, some were deceived, and in this poem, Paul Lawrence Dunbar claims that when Harriet Beecher Stowe published a novel revealing the reality of slavery, the world wept.

Line 2

The next line explains why the world wept. It wept because it finally saw “wrongs and cruelties it had not known”.

Line 3

But for this fearless woman’s voice alone.

The third line reveals the vast audience of Stowe’s novel when Dunbar claims that the world would not have known the depth of the cruelty of slavery, “but for this fearless woman’s voice alone”

Line 4

Here, Dunbar reveals why this novel was finally able to break through to society. He claims that upon reading this novel, many “consciences that had long slept” woke up to the reality of what slavery really was.

Line 5

Her message, Freedom’s clear reveille, swept

He explains that her message swept across the nation, and caused those with love for freedom to cry out for justice. Laurence implies that the publication of this book prompted “Freedom’s clear reveille”. The reveille is the U.S Army music Bugle calls. This suggests that the outcry and demand for justice that was a result of Stowe’s novel actually prompted war. Although there are various explanations for the reasons behind the start of the civil war, the desire to end slavery was embedded among other reasons, and certainly became the most important outcome.

Line 6

This reveals that her novel was acknowledged by the simple, who were ”heedless” and possibly ignorant of the true nature of slavery, all the way up to those who sat on a “complacent throne”, which implies that those in authority in the main knew the horrors of slavery but did not care. This novel, however, Dunbar believes was enough to shake some out of complacency and bring the truth to those living in ignorance.

Line 7

Command and prophecy were in the tone,

Dunbar compares the tone of Stowe’s novel to a prophecy and a sword of justice.

Line 8

Here, Dunbar acknowledges that Stowe’s publication was not without consequences. In fact, it had the whole country up in arms. Some were angry at the cruelty of slavery, while others were still fighting to keep their way of life at the expense of other human beings. He describes the “two people’s swelled in a fiery wave”. The “two peoples” he refers to are not white and black, slave or free, but rather those against slavery and those for it. Stowe’s novel created a great chasm between the two groups of people by bringing to light the cruelty of slavery.

Line 9

Around two peoples swelled a fiery wave,

Here, Dunbar reveals that although Stowe’s novel initially caused chaos and uprising, eventually, the result was freedom and enlightenment. This is why he claims that both groups of people were eventually “transfigured from the flame”.
Both the use of the word “transfigure” as well as the idea of refining fire, are biblical concepts that tie into Dunbar’s later comparison of Stowe to a priestess or prophetess. In many biblical stories, priests and especially prophets proclaimed what the Israelite did not want to hear. Eventually, the truth of their proclamations was seen, but initially, they caused uprisings and chaos. This is a fair comparison. Stowe spoke the truth and immediately, people panicked because it threatened their way of life. Eventually, though they came out of the chaos and were better for it.

Line 10

Dunbar calls for Stowe to be blessed for her strength in bringing to light what had been kept hidden.

Line 11

Blest be the hand that dared be strong to save,

In this line, he acknowledges that those in slavery had been kept uneducated and therefore unable to reach the world in the way that Harriet Beecher Stowe was able to reach them. This is why he praised her for stepping in to be a voice that would reach people. This was their “weakness”, that they had no way to reach the ears of society with their stories.

Line 12

Here he calls her a prophetess and priestess, which as mentioned before, is acknowledging her as one who proclaimed the truth even people did not want to hear it and even foretold what was to come.

Line 13

A race to freedom and herself to fame.

In this last line, Dunbar credits Stowe with beginning the race for freedom. He claims that she, with one move, set people on the course to fighting for freedom and simultaneously made a name for herself.

Historical Context

It is no surprise that Dunbar would hold Harriet Beecher Stowe in such high regard. The effects of her novel spread not only across the United States, but international, creating international pressure on the U.S to end slavery. It is reported that upon inviting her to the White House, Abraham Lincoln said to Harriet Beecher Stowe, “So you’re the little lady who started this big war”(Vallero). It is fascinating that one novel could have such a significant effect on the world. Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote this poem close to forty-five years after Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Although the United States was far from granting all people equality, Stowe’s publication caused such an uprising as to play a part in ending slavery. Dunbar looks back upon the result of her novel and expresses his gratitude for the risk that she took to bring justice to African American people.

Works Cited:

  • Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “Harriet Beecher Stowe.” Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. 853. Print.
  • Vallaro, Daniel. “Lincoln, Stowe, and the “Little Woman/Great War” Story: The Making, and Breaking, of a Great American Anecdote.” Lincoln, Stowe, and the “Little Woman/Great War” Story: The Making, and Breaking, of a Great American Anecdote. The University of Michigan, 2009. Web. 04 Feb. 2016.

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Allisa Corfman Poetry Expert
Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.
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