Thursday, August 25, 2016

Harriet's Legacy

The newly renovated Stowe House
I've been fascinated by a real estate battle in our town. It seems Bowdoin College is suing a woman in California over the sale of her house.  At issue: a building at 28 College Street, Brunswick, Maine, owned by Arline Pennell Lay. Bowdoin says they made a deal with Ms. Lay ten years ago to buy the property for 125-percent of fair market value. Ms. Lay says the house is worth much more, and has a buyer who will pay her much more. That’s because – according to Lay --- Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in that house.

We take our history, and our place in it, very seriously in Brunswick. We like to think the Civil War began and ended here: sparked by Uncle Tom’s Cabin and effectively concluded when the 20th Maine, led by our very own Joshua Chamberlain, fixed bayonets at Gettysburg and successfully defended Little Round Top. A statue of Chamberlain (which looks less like the general and more like a cross between Senator Angus King and a popular third grade teacher here in town) stands poised just outside the gates of Bowdoin. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are both Bowdoin alums.

So claims of who wrote what when, and where, is no small thing in these parts. Still, this argument over where Stowe penned Uncle Tom’s Cabin  -- and how it affects a property’s value -- is pure silliness.  Ask any mother who writes.

At a time when there were no washing machines, dishwashers, or personal computers, Harriet Beecher Stowe had seven children and completed more than 30 books. She wrote with ink and a steel nib; she lit with lamp oil. I had two children, babysitting help, and a MacBook, and when my children were young I could barely complete a grocery list, let alone a novel. Sleep and logical, sequential thought were both casualties of those early parenting years.

I can tell you that Stowe probably wrote wherever she could: the family’s house on Federal, her husband’s office in Appleton Hall, maybe even, occasionally, that house at 28 College (although in Stowe’s day the building was located on Park Row.)  I’ll bet she’d have locked herself in the privy out back with ink and paper if she thought it might buy her 15 minutes of alone time.

We Writer-Mothers claw, carve, eke out and wrest time and inspiration from the daily storm of errands, diapers, and meals prepared, eaten and cleared. Children comforted, entertained, bathed. Stowe wrote to her sister-in-law, “Nothing but deadly determination enables me ever to write.” God, yes. We must be determined. And deadly.  Not in the violent sense, but in terms of taking the work seriously. This pursuit is not a hobby (despite what my accountant says) or a passing phase. It’s a passion and a calling and it requires, demands, rests upon, time and space, both literal and figurative. 

 Bowdoin has recently completed a marvelous renovation of 63 Federal Street, the house where the Stowe’s lived from 1850-52. A room on the first floor of the house has been designated “Harriet’s Writing Room,” and the college has done a fine job of weaving together the history of the house, the family and the larger community.

But let’s be honest: this lovely space, which rivals the platonic ideal of a Pottery Barn catalogue home-office, is not the only room where Uncle Tom’s Cabin might have been written. I actually take issue with any attempt to pinpoint the “place.” Because as those of us who write, and who mother, know, that’s just not how it happens.

“Writing” doesn’t always involve a well-appointed office and clear desk in a room of one’s own. We make space when and where we can and these spaces are rarely neat or convenient. JK Rowling scribbled the plot for Harry Potter in a tea shop, on a napkin, with a child in a stroller. Toni Morrison composed novels while her children played at her feet. Louise Erdrich would strew toys in a line on the floor, buying precious writing minutes as her baby crawled to each one. Laurie Halse Anderson brought a laptop to her kids’ games, tapping out Speak while perched on the bleachers.

So the question for me is not where Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin … but how?

I’m confident Arline Pennell Lay’s attempt to pick Bowdoin’s deep pockets will be sorted out by lawyers who specialize in contracts. Meanwhile, I’m in awe of Harriet’s achievement. And grateful that in my history-rich town, her determination and her spirit continue to inspire. You can’t put a price on that.