It wasn’t long after I became enraptured by the uncommon fiction of Roxana Robinson that I learned she was a direct descendant of the famous, controversial 19th century preacher Henry Ward Beecher and a relative of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe. I was intrigued but somehow not surprised; it was easy to find threads of this weighty influence in Robinson’s fascinating and intense novels, which include This is My Daughter, Cost and the recent Sparta. A few weeks ago I got the chance to ask Roxana about her family history. In this first half of the interview, we talk mostly about Henry Ward Beecher. In the second half, we’ll focus on Harriet Beecher Stowe.
LEVI: How old were you when you found out you were a Beecher? How was the family heritage explained to you?
ROXANA: I must have known very early that I was a Beecher: Roxana is a Beecher name, so as soon as I knew my name I knew I was a Beecher.
Roxana was Lyman Beecher’s wife and the mother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, my great-great-great-aunt, and Henry Ward Beecher, my great-great-grandfather. I narrowly missed being named “Roxana Beecher Barry.” I’m one of five children, and most of us received names that identified us with certain parts of our family. Mine identified me as a Beecher; no-one else in my family had a Beecher name.
This made me feel, irrationally, that I had a closer and more direct link to them than any of my siblings had. My mother encouraged this, giving each of us things that strengthened this bond, so that we each felt the responsibility for carrying on a certain part of family tradition. She gave me a silk patchwork quilt, made by the ladies of the parish in Brooklyn, and presented to Mrs. Henry Ward Beecher; she gave me Roxana Foote Beecher’s beautiful silk pincushion and embroidery hook. I still have this, tucked away in my bureau, in a box in which the contents are identified in her small elegant curving handwriting. It was clear that family heritage implied some kind of responsibility.
My mother was proud of both her great-grandfather, Henry Ward Beecher, and her great-great aunt Harriet. She spoke those names with the odd mix of pride, humor and modest deprecation that my mother used about her family. The fact that we were Beechers made her proud, though not solemn or reverential. We were not to take it too seriously. It also amused her. “My Great-Aunt Hattie!” she would say, if Harriet Beecher Stowe’s name came up, smiling and tossing her head.
In the summers we went to a place in Connecticut near Litchfield, the town where both Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe were born. Their parents, Lyman and Roxana Foote Beecher lived there, and the house still stands, a big, handsome, unpretentious farmhouse, painted the dark red of the 18th century. A discreet sign outside it declares its Beecher connection. It’s on the main street, among much larger and grander houses. I don’t remember when I first learned that it was connected to me, but certainly it was early. I knew that this was my family, that for some reason other people knew about it.
LEVI: What did being a Beecher mean to you personally at this time in your life?
ROXANA: It was puzzling. Clearly the family was proud of the Beecher heritage. Those names were used in every generation – my mother’s favorite brother was called Henry Ward, another brother was William Beecher, and her favorite cousin was Roxana. But I understood that also there was some kind of reticence about the family, some information not yet known to me.
I don’t know how old I was when I learned that Henry Ward Beecher had been accused of adultery, and had endured an excoriating and widely-publicised trial. I learned from my mother that this was a subject of great distress within the family. The Beechers were devout church-goers, many of them were well-known ministers, and morality was a crucial core value. This accusation seemed leveled against the essence of the entire family.
It’s unlikely, by the way, that Beecher was guilty: the ecclesiastical trial found him innocent, the civil trial ended in a hung jury, and halfway through it the prosecutor said he wished he could change sides. Beecher was a well- respected minister with a large following. He was an outspoken abolitionist, a man of conscience and ideals, and he had led a completely blameless life. The accusation was made against him by the opportunistic daughter of a snake-oil salesman (literally) and by a man whom Beecher had fired from his magazine. There was no proof of any crime.
But of course as a story it was irresistible, the fall from virtue of a man of god. My mother told me about a biography that had appeared in the 1920s, which smeared Beecher, and became the source used by all succeeding books. This was very painful to her, a wound that was reopened endlessly. From this I understood that, although we were proud of Henry Ward Beecher, we couldn’t assume that everyone would understand our pride. We had to be prepared for scorn.
Something similar happened with Harriet Beecher Stowe and her reputation, though no-one took her to court. A novelist’s reputation rises and falls with the cultural tides, and by the time I was in college, Great-Aunt Hattie’s had sunk far below the status she’d had in the late nineteenth century. By the 1970s, tolerance was low for melodrama, long-winded narrative and religious rants. And besides the literary there were racial issues: Stowe had come under attack from black cultural critics, accusing her of condescension, ignorance and cultural appropriation, as well as other crimes. So I wasn’t eager to identify myself with someone who was flamboyant, sensationalist, wordy, earnestly religious and probably racist.
Because of this confusion over private allegiance and public opinion, I didn’t dare actually read Uncle Tom’s Cabin until about five years ago, when another writer, learning of my intellectual lacuna, bought me a copy when we were at the writers’ colony, MacDowell. When I finally read the novel, I was relieved and delighted. I was filled with pride at Hattie, who was utterly fearless at taking on such a huge, highly charged subject, one that was important on every conceivable level: moral, economic, political, religious and philosophical.
I came to understand that the Beecher heritage was centered on integrity, morality and courage. Morality was central: Beechers stood up for what we believed. We took a stand. We fought the good fight. We were fearless on the part of Right. All that was salutary and meritorious, but there was another side to it: Beechers liked public attention. They were a bit showy, a bit self-righteous, they felt their moral scrupulousness somehow elevated them. They were theatrical and melodramatic, a bit sentimental. This part of the heritage was something I was less proud of. This late nineteenth century inclination toward bathos and pathos, fervor and cant, was less appealing. In the late twentieth century, a time of science and rationalism, all this was easy to dismiss.
So this was what I was learning about my family heritage: it was complicated on every level. It had a private aspect and a very public one; it was one that was both idealistic and sensationalistic, altruistic and self-absorbed, morally scrupulous and somewhat self-righteous. It was even a bit judgmental [ morally intolerant], since the Beechers tended to see things in black and white, right and wrong. They were more apt to reduce things to a bold simplistic pattern than to draw in subtle shades of grey.
All this made it extremely difficult for me to reach any sort of clarity about the family. I didn’t want to side mindlessly with them out of blind loyalty, but I couldn’t side against them, either, ignoring my mother’s pain at the cavalier and prurient judgments made on Henry Ward Beecher by popular historians.
My loyalties were divided, and for a writer, that means putting the subject away from her. So for years I didn’t even think about being a Beecher, because it brought up such confusion in myself, confusion about loyalty and love and treason and identity – which is, really, the same set of confusions that every family rouses in every one of its members.
LEVI: It seems that Henry Ward Beecher’s adultery scandal, as you say, was a major news story at the time, and must have been very destructive to his public reputation. Still, it’s a bit startling to hear you say that he was likely not guilty, because a more natural reaction to the whole story today is to find the idea of a public trial for adultery strange. Does it matter if he was guilty of adultery or not? Well, I suppose similar charges haunted Martin Luther King, not to mention many Christian conservative preachers in recent decades, so perhaps it does – but isn’t it more important today to know whether or not he treated people well, and was a caring and generous person – or am I imposing a 21st century sensibility on a 19th century scandal?
ROXANA: It’s interesting to me that you would find it startling that the subject had such power. Probably most people would feel as you do.
But for our family this still has power, because the whole notion of moral integrity is so essential to us. Lyman Beecher, Henry’s father, was a very famous minister, a fire-breathing, outspoken evangelist who preached a bleak Calvinist creed; Henry Ward had a different view, holding that God’s love was available to everyone. (I won’t go into all the religious philosophy here, not that I’m an expert on it – but Lyman’s religion was bleak and Henry’s was forgiving.)
My point is simply that religion has been a central presence in my family for a very long time. Lyman had lots of children – nine, I think, and I think six sons, and I think all but one were ministers. His daughter Harriet married a minister. Henry’s daughter (my great-grandmother) married a minister. My grandmother’s father (other side of the family) was a minister. My uncle was a minister. Living an ethical and moral life was absolutely central to our family.
If a minister was revealed to be actually a hypocrite, it revealed something unthinkable – the undoing of everything on which faith was founded. I don’t know about Martin Luther King, or anyone today – though I still think it’s worse, whenever it happens, for a minister to be revealed as a hypocrite than anyone else: it negates all his or her teachings, as well as their moral authority.
But in our family, in which moral integrity was everything, in generation after generation, honesty was crucial. So for us the accusation of adultery was a source of profound distress. As to whether or not he was a caring and generous person, I think it’s generally believed that he was. He was lively and sociable, he believed in what he did, and spent his whole life bringing help to people.
But Henry Ward Beecher was famous for other things beside the trial. He was a man of great conviction and honor. He was an enormously popular preacher for whom a new church had to be built to accommodate his growing congregation: Plymouth Church, his church, held 2,000 seats. An extra ferry was added, on Sunday mornings, so people from Manhattan could go to Brooklyn to hear Mr. Beecher preach. He was an eloquent and powerful abolitionist, and an influential voice against slavery. He was sent to England by President Lincoln to persuade the British not to support the South. He also preached in favor of women’s suffrage, long before his time. He was outspoken and forceful on the issues he supported, and he was a force for good.
So he was a strange presence in our family, someone that we knew we should be proud of in private, but someone over whom a pall had been cast, someone whom we couldn’t admit to being proud of in public.
LEVI: Is there anything about Henry Ward Beecher’s particular message as a writer and an activist and a preacher that you find inspiring or relevant today, or that connects with your work as a writer?
ROXANA: I don’t think I consciously thought I was referring to Henry Ward Beecher or Harriet Beecher Stowe in my writing, but I did begin to realize, after awhile, that I was trying to reveal certain things to the world, certain things I found troubling, things I wanted the world to attend to. Some of these things were flaws I knew of in myself, things I regretted doing; some were things I regretted that the world was doing. I was bearing witness to things that had gone wrong, or that were wrong, or that had been committed.
Certainly this is always true in the Op-Ed pieces I’ve written on the environment: they are cries of anguish. And I recognise, now that I’ve spent some time thinking about this, that I am still part of a continuing family lineage, in which an urgent need is felt to express certain things. Like the others in my family, I’m bearing witness to the great chasm between perfection and humanity. I want to reveal wrongs that have been committed, errors that have been made, but I also want to understand them. I want to forgive imperfection, to read the world with compassion. All of this, I think is related to the thinking I’ve learned in my family – even if I’ve learned it by listening to arguments and rebelliousness, because of course my family, like all of them, is full of rebels. A family that demands rigorous ethical standards will have problems with forgiveness and tolerance. But it’s a demand – rigorous ethical standards – that seems very natural to me, just as everyone’s family standards seem natural to them.
It seems to me that in my own writing I think I move back and forth, weaving like a shuttle, between Lyman’s fire-breathing accusations and Henry’s deep compassion. Probably there’s a better way, but I don’t know how else to write.
In the second half of this interview, we talk about ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, James Baldwin and religion in fiction.