Harriet Beecher Stowe, the internationally known U.S. author and abolitionist, whom President Abraham Lincoln famously called “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” referring to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and the American Civil War (1861-1865),[1] was also the author of numerous other works, many of them much lesser known today. Stowe’s Palmetto Leaves (1873), the subject of this essay, was, for example, a best-selling travel narrative about life in Florida after the American Civil War and is considered to have been an impetus behind the modern tourist industry in Florida. Today, however, Palmetto Leaves has been mostly overlooked or forgotten by scholars. In spite of this oversight, Stowe’s text about life in Florida during the post-war period of Reconstruction merits close evaluation because it exposes Stowe’s racial, political, and gendered views as they evolved after the Civil War. Because the author and her work were so popular in their day, Palmetto Leaves makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the politics of Northern White women writers and post-Civil War sentiment in the North. As I offer in this essay, Stowe, and her largely White and female readership in the North, increasingly saw the benefits of, and helped enable, a racially hierarchical society during the period of Reconstruction. Thus, in spite of Stowe’s “pioneering” decision to go south in the years after the war ended, my essay complicates our understanding of the proto-feminist author and shows how Stowe ultimately eschews new frontiers in Palmetto Leaves and instead embraces racially regressive views.

[1] For more on the memory and/or myth of President Lincoln’s comment about Harriet Beecher Stowe starting the Civil War, see Sachsman et al., 8.

Author Biography

Elif S. Armbruster is Associate Professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston, MA, USA. She focuses her research and teaching on women writers of the long nineteenth century and on contemporary women writers from typically marginalized populations including Native Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans. She is the author of Domestic Biographies: At Home with Stowe, Howells, James, and Wharton (2011) as well as of interviews with and book chapters and essays on authors including Willa Cather, Anchee Min, Grace Talusan, Edith Wharton, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and others. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University.