Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker

Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker

by Susan Campbell

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Overview

Tempest-Tossed is the first full biography of the passionate, fascinating youngest daughter of the "Fabulous Beecher" family—one of America's most high-powered families of the nineteenth century. Older sister Harriet Beecher Stowe was the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Brother Henry Ward Beecher was one of America's most influential ministers, and sister Catherine Beecher wrote pivotal works on women's rights and educational reform. And then there was Isabella Beecher Hooker—"a curiously modern nineteenth-century figure." She was a leader in the suffrage movement, and a mover and shaker in Hartford's storied Nook Farm neighborhood and salon. But there is more to the story—to Isabella's character—than that.

Isabella was an ardent Spiritualist. In daily life, she could be off-putting, perplexing, tenacious, charming. Many found her daunting to get to know and stay on comfortable terms with. Her "wild streak" was especially unfavorable in the eyes of Hartford society at the time, which valued restraint and duty. In her latest book, Susan Campbell brings her own unique blend of empathy and unbridled humor to the story of Harriet's younger half-sister. Tempest Tossed reveals Isabella's evolution from orthodox Calvinist daughter, wife, and mother, to one of the most influential players in the movement for women's suffrage, where this unforgettable woman finally gets her proper due.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819575975
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 01/05/2016
Series: Garnet Books Series
Pages: 244
Sales rank: 1,002,032
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

SUSAN CAMPBELL is the author of the memoir Dating Jesus: Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl and coauthor of Connecticut Curiosities. She has appeared on CBS News Sunday Morning, the BBC, and WNPR. Her column about the March 1998 shootings at the Connecticut Lottery headquarters in Newington was part of the Hartford Courant's Pulitzer Prize–;winning coverage of the tragedy. She lives in East Haven, Connecticut.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

THE WORLD THAT AWAITED BELLE

Understanding Isabella Beecher Hooker means first understanding her family — the large, dynamic New England Beecher clan. Isabella was born in 1822, the first child of her father's second wife, with eight older half-siblings to welcome her. Her father was the noted early American minister Lyman Beecher, and her siblings included a world-famous author, a world-famous minister, and an internationally recognized advocate for women's education. "Lyman Beecher," wrote one biographer, "gave us queens as well as kings among men."

Certainly he held an unparalleled position of authority in early-1800s America. From a 1904 biography: "Perhaps no one during the first half of the nineteenth century was more closely connected with the better life of America, both in its religious and in its reformatory aspects."

If Lyman Beecher had not existed, someone would have invented him. He was thunderous in the pulpit, and rough-hewn away from it. Even though his children did not cleave to his brand of fundamentalist theology, they worshipped him for all his charismatic, sometimes coarse ways. But at his core, Lyman was a storyteller, and one of his favorite stories involved his own birth. How he came to this story one can only guess, as one can only guess if it's accurate. But it's a good story.

As so often happened with marrying men in the 1700s, Lyman's father, a blacksmith named David, was widowed and married five times — to Mary Austin, Lydia Morris, Esther Lyman, Elizabeth Hoadly, and Mary Lewis Elliott. He had twelve children with his wives, though eight of the children died in infancy. This, too, was common in a time of infant mortality that ranged, depending on the year and location, from 10 to 30 percent. Lyman, born October 12, 1775, in Guilford, Connecticut, was the product of David's third and best-loved wife, Esther. She was from Middletown, Connecticut, and of Scottish descent. She possessed, said her son, "a joyous, sparkling, hopeful temperament."

This characterization is conjecture on his part, or it is a description based on information gathered from his relatives. Lyman Beecher was born in the seventh month of his mother's pregnancy, and she died of consumption — the "great white plague" — two days after his birth. Her illness had weakened her to the point that the midwives had little hope for the baby, and, wrote Beecher, wrapped his tiny body and laid him aside to die, until one of the women attending his mother thought to check him, and found him alive. She cleaned him and properly ushered him into the world.

"So you see it was but by a hair's-breadth I got a foothold in this world," Lyman wrote. That early brush with death — or, at least, the family stories he heard about it — helped set Lyman Beecher on the road to a lifetime of conquering — starting with his weak infant nature and branching out to conquer his adult sinful nature and that of sinners who refused to hear the gospel. The story paints Lyman as stronger than mere mortals — a view his children, including Isabella, all seemed to share.

He entered Yale College, then nearly a hundred years old, in 1793. His education was interrupted in its first year when he contracted scarlet fever. An epidemic swept through Connecticut and peaked in New Haven in January 1794 with some seven hundred cases reported. Lyman recovered, only to discover during his second year that he was abysmal at mathematics. During his third year, he became heavily involved in gambling — so much so that he ended the year in debt. Frightened at the hold gambling had on him, he took a leave of absence for a week and cured himself of "that mania."

A degree from Yale — a school with a theology far more orthodox than that of the other premier New England school, Harvard — gave graduates two career choices, law or the ministry. By Lyman's junior year, the thought of entering law — with its "little quirks, and turns and janglings — disgusted me," wrote Lyman. He graduated in 1797 with a class of thirty-one, sixteen of whom became lawyers, fifteen of whom entered the ministry.

As he was completing his education, Lyman met the woman who would be the love of his life, Roxanna Foote. Roxanna traced her family back to the early congregation of Thomas Hooker, who settled Connecticut and was known as the first American democrat. The men of her family fought in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars.

Roxanna Foote was every bit as intellectually curious as her young swain. As a girl, she'd learned French by propping her lesson books on her distaff so that she could read them as she spun flax. Her grandfather once described his three eldest granddaughters by guessing what each girl would say upon rising from bed. Harriet, the eldest, would encourage everyone to start a fire and sweep. Betsy would wonder which ribbon to wear to a party. And Roxanna would say, "Which do you think was the greater general, Hannibal or Alexander?" Neighbors shared books with one another, and when one much-awaited volume was published, a neighbor rode on horseback to bring it to Roxanna, and "a great treat they had of it."

* * *

Lyman had sworn he'd never marry a weak woman, though Roxanna's Episcopal religion — against which Lyman waged a lifelong war — must have given him pause. After a brief courtship, Lyman asked if she would marry him. In response, she mentioned their religious differences and the fact that he was still in school. Undeterred, he told her he intended to continue his visits with an eye on marriage, and Roxana — as she told him later — consented because she never thought the relationship would amount to much. At one point, Lyman seems to have agreed with her, and he came to the family's Guilford home, Nut Plains, prepared to end the problematic relationship. But Roxanna, perhaps sensing a breakup, began to cry and he wasn't able to tell her why he'd come — and he never did. He did, however, send her books to read that might convince her of the errors of her theology. In turn, Roxanna wrote impassioned letters asking for her beloved's help in finding the defects in her prayer life.

Later, as Lyman aged and began to slip into dementia, his son Charles read him snippets of the letters he'd written to Roxanna so long ago and saved. As Charles read, occasionally Lyman interrupted him and said, "Who is that fellow? He's all wrong." When Charles told his father he was reading Lyman's love letters to Roxanna, Lyman stopped a moment, then said, "Well, I was an ignoramus, but if I had him and her in one of my inquiry meetings, I could have set them all right in half an hour."

They married on a rainy September 19, 1799, and with Roxanna at his side, Lyman Beecher set out to spread his influence by writing sermons that lit on the topics of the day. A series of sermons against dueling in 1806 was delivered in response to the death-by-dueling of former secretary of treasury Alexander Hamilton at the hand of Vice President Aaron Burr.

But it was a sermon Lyman gave in 1807 in East Hampton, New York, and later delivered at a larger church meeting in Newark, that placed him firmly in the public eye. Remember, this was a time when the leading thinkers of the day were not politicians, but ministers, and sermons were reprinted as booklets and in newspapers and circulated widely. Beecher's first popular sermon, "The Government of God Desirable," was favorably compared with the work of the storied Jonathan Edwards, whose 1741 sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" was supposed to have moved his congregation to "tears and convulsions." Printed, Lyman's sermon ran twenty-seven pages and ended with the warning, "But rebel, and still he will reign, still he will bless his kingdom, but he will exclude you, forever, from its holy joys."

It's not a modern-day page-turner, but this was Christian orthodoxy at its most raw, and it would make Lyman Beecher as much a household name as possible in the days before mass communication — "a Puritan of the Puritans," according to his son Henry Ward.

But Lyman was restless, and he and Roxanna and their growing family — Catharine born in 1800, William Henry in 1802, Edward a year later, and Mary two years after him — could not live on Lyman's $400 a year. Roxanna would prove a practical balance to the high-strung Lyman by taking in boarders, but when that didn't meet the family's financial needs, she opened a school and taught English and French. Lyman's growing influence caught the attention of Congregationalists in Litchfield, Connecticut, and the family soon settled in the Litchfield Hills in a large and drafty home that was the frequent stop of wayfarers and teachers intent on taking advantage of a poor minister's largesse.

The move's timing could not have been better. With world-class educational institutions, Litchfield was a vibrant, changeable town. For a short time between 1790 and 1830, all roads passed — or seemed to — through Litchfield.

The two main educational institutions in Litchfield — one a law school and the other one of the country's rare schools for young women — were part of a shift in America from an agrarian culture to one centered in urban areas and small towns. The shift to a mercantile society helped spread capital to families that heretofore had scant opportunity — other than marrying into it — to amass wealth. You either owned a farm or you didn't.

The shift also broadened the opportunities for education, making books and the advancement of knowledge not so much the enclave of the wealthy and the clergy but also open to anyone with access to a newspaper or book. At the same time, the shift to a more mechanized society and a more urban environment made the enforcement of the country's slave economy more difficult.

Those were the positive results of the modernization of the U.S. economy, but for every winner, there is a loser. Railroads might make travel more convenient, but they destroyed previously untouched vistas. Factories increased productivity, but they polluted the streams. Material wealth that had been unimagined outside of royal families rewarded a choice few — and consigned the losers to slums equally unimaginable.

With the shift came an even sharper division between the worlds of women and men. On a farm, chores were unending, and rare was the family that would begrudge an extra pair of hands in the fields — whether those hands were male or female. Not so in a mercantile society. To fulfill economic roles, the world was splitting in two, with, in general, women assigned the indoor tasks and men assigned the rest. That is not as much an overstatement as it might appear. The attitude of taming a wilderness — the new country of America — was being replaced by a desire for more order, starting with the home front. For the first time in the country's short history, the feminine role was shrinking.

Lyman's spiritual ancestors had come to the colonies with a mania for salvation equaled only by their disdain for royal rule. Their love of a heavenly king far trumped their embrace of an earthly one — and their worship began with discipline of self. The same way women of Isabella's generation would be told they could rule the world by ruling their homes, the Puritans believed they could usher in a godly world by focusing on eradicating their own foibles. This rigorous self-examination shows up in the austerity in paintings and sculptures that portrayed the Puritans as possessing "rock-ribbed integrity." Throughout Isabella's life, the imagined simplicity and integrity of Puritan family life would be recalled with fondness — if not complete accuracy. Ironically, the same theology that would condemn modernity was a healthy backdrop for industrialization, because Puritanism rewarded those who worked hard and those who treated idleness as a sin. Puritanism rewarded thrift as well — so families living on meager resources found theological support for their scrimping. Salvation could be found in the lesser cut of meat — or in no meat at all. If life on earth was difficult, a reward in heaven could be gained by working hard.

With that foundation of a binary gender world, Lyman Beecher did not pursue the formal education of his daughters beyond a certain age, but he at least saw the wisdom of sending them to Miss Sarah Pierce's Litchfield Female Academy. Miss Pierce adhered to the radical notion that women and men were intellectual equals. Her rigorous curriculum included logic, chemistry, botany, and mathematics — not a common course of study for women in the early 1800s. Townsfolk who worried that their daughters were being taught dangerous topics could rest assured that Pierce's classes also included painting, singing, and dancing. Catharine and Harriet — and, for a while, Henry Ward — were students. The fit was not a comfortable one for Henry Ward. As the only boy, he once laughed out of turn in class, and as punishment was tied to a bench.

Tuition was $5 per quarter for writing, history, grammar, rhetoric, and arithmetic and an additional $6 per quarter for French. Board was offered with "respectable families" for anywhere from $1.75 to $2 a week — a substantial sum at a time when median wages were roughly $10 a month. The fee did not include laundry. By teaching religion at Miss Pierce's, Lyman Beecher earned his daughters a tuition discount. Given their close proximity to the school, the Beecher sisters would have avoided paying board, and of course they'd do their own laundry, so the family could just afford a world-class education for the young women — for a few years, at least.

When the Beechers entered the school, women were being encouraged to enter into lives of domesticity, and most of that was in class-specific terms. In fact, modern domesticity in America — think Food Network and mommy blogs — had its birth in the late eighteenth century. If the halls of power were closed to them, women "had a special role to play in promoting civic virtue. As 'republican mothers,' they should educate themselves and take an interest in political affairs, in order to raise their sons to be virtuous citizens and their daughters to become republican mothers in the next generation." The British notion of "fashionable womanhood"— ?characterized by later marriage and more education — had all but been erased. Replacing it was the notion of the hearth as a haven and a sanctuary.

Miss Pierce's school became a focal point of the family's activities. The school drew students from around the country, and during Miss Pierce's forty years as a superintendent, the school educated some three thousand students in the Litchfield Hills, where "the country was preferred as most suitable for females' improvement away from the frivolities and dissipations of fashionable life."

While the Beecher girls were getting an education, Lyman Beecher was throwing himself into church life. Writing in the 1860s, Henry Ward Beecher said that his father had no life separate from the church, that he "entered the church briskly, walked nimbly down the aisle, ascended the pulpit stairs with a springy step that threatened to throw him up two stairs at a time ... he looked around the church as familiarly as if it was his own parlor."

As God demanded Lyman's energies, God also demanded the family's support. Lyman's enthusiasm was further fueled by his belief that his brand of American Christianity was exceptional, that it was the one true faith, and that it would be the salvation of the world. This led rather handily into a firm belief in American exceptionalism. Though there is some disagreement among modern-day scholars, for years, historians and theologians said that Jonathan Edwards — who framed early American Calvinism and whom Lyman Beecher held in great esteem — had predicted that the millennium would begin in America. The millennium, said Edwards, would involve a thousand-year reign of Jesus on earth, and when Beecher first heard that supposition, he'd dismissed it. Over time, though, he began to see the new country as the starting point of a new religious age, one that would hasten Jesus' subsequent return to earth. "What nation," he said, in a series of speeches given in 1834 as he toured the East Coast as head of Cincinnati's Lane Seminary, "is blessed with such experimental knowledge of free institutions, with such facilities and resources of communication, obstructed by so few obstacles, as our own? There is not a nation upon earth which, in 50 years, can by all possible reformation place itself in circumstances so favorable as our own for the free unembarrassed application of physical effort and pecuniary and moral power to evangelize the world."

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Tempest-Tossed"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Susan Campbell.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface
Genealogies
The Fabulous Beechers
Children of Isabella Beecher and John Hooker
The World That Awaited Belle
Training to Be a Beecher
The Education of Isabella Beecher
Isabella in Love
Isabella Marries, and Faces a Conundrum
Motherhood, and Confusion
Abolition, and an Awakening
A Woman's Worth, a Brother's Shame
A Spiritual Digression• In the Thick of It
The Elusive Ballot
The End, the Legacy
Notes
Index

What People are Saying About This

Gina Barreca

“Susan Campbell’s Tempest Tossed is an enthralling portrait of an American lady: a cross between a character out of Edith Wharton, Emily Bronte, and Sigmund Freud. A work as concerned with the spiritual as it is with the material, readers will find themselves swept up in the details of a particular moment in New England history as it reveals the universal themes of human ambition, frustration, despair, and enlightenment. The writing is gloriously readable and the story is cinematic in its scope and in the crisp development of its remarkable characters. This book might break your heart in some places, but it engages and inspires on every page.”

Debby Applegate

“For Isabella Beecher Hooker it was both a blessing and a curse to be born the youngest daughter of one of the most famous families in America. Just when she finally discovered her own calling in the women’s rights movement—working alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Victoria Woodhull—she found herself embroiled in the biggest sex scandal of the 19th century, the trial of her own brother for adultery. Susan Campbell has brought Isabella’s fascinating, forgotten story back to life with the deep research of a born historian and the vibrant, readable prose-style of a veteran journalist.”

From the Publisher

"For Isabella Beecher Hooker it was both a blessing and a curse to be born the youngest daughter of one of the most famous families in America. Just when she finally discovered her own calling in the women's rights movement—working alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Victoria Woodhull—she found herself embroiled in the biggest sex scandal of the 19th century, the trial of her own brother for adultery. Susan Campbell has brought Isabella's fascinating, forgotten story back to life with the deep research of a born historian and the vibrant, readable prose-style of a veteran journalist."—Debby Applegate, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

"With a journalist's concision and eye for the vivid quote, Susan Campbell captures Isabella Beecher Hooker's quirky temperament and her passion for women's rights. This wry and personal narrative is deeply informed, balanced, and a delight to read."—Joan Hedrick, author of Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography

"Susan Campbell's Tempest Tossed is an enthralling portrait of an American lady: a cross between a character out of Edith Wharton, Emily Bronte, and Sigmund Freud. A work as concerned with the spiritual as it is with the material, readers will find themselves swept up in the details of a particular moment in New England history as it reveals the universal themes of human ambition, frustration, despair, and enlightenment. The writing is gloriously readable and the story is cinematic in its scope and in the crisp development of its remarkable characters. This book might break your heart in some places, but it engages and inspires on every page."—Gina Barreca, author of Babes in Boyland: A Personal History of Coeducation in the Ivy League

Joan Hedrick

“With a journalist’s concision and eye for the vivid quote, Susan Campbell captures Isabella Beecher Hooker’s quirky temperament and her passion for women’s rights. This wry and personal narrative is deeply informed, balanced, and a delight to read.”

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