In 1982, a Trinity student wrote a senior research paper chock-full of quotes by Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was a noted abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The professor who read that paper was Joan Hedrick, Charles A. Dana Professor of History at Trinity, and the paper would turn out to have more of a significant impact on her life than she realized at the time.
“I read the quotes and was struck by what a good writer Stowe is," Hedrick said. "That made me want to learn more about her and her literary reputation –which in the twentieth century was very low."
The curious professor did just that and was so struck by Stowe’s writing and bravery, that she went on to dedicate the next several years of her life to researching one of the most influential figures in American history. Hedrick’s curiosity and research culminated in a biography of Stowe, appropriately titled Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life
. Hedrick was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the book in 1995, roughly 13 years after she first read Stowe’s work.
“Students can be very influential to teachers,” Hedrick said. “Trinity is a wonderful place for a teacher-scholar. We learn from our students and pass back to our students— Trinity is an ideal place to do that.”
Other Trinity students were involved in researching the book, and they benefitted from the College’s proximity to the house where Harriet Beecher Stowe grew up, just a short drive from Trinity’s Hartford campus. The house is now called The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, where Hedrick, now the world’s foremost authority on Stowe, has been a trustee for nearly 20 years. The center preserves Stowe’s legacy, and offers tours, educational classes, and events throughout the year. It was an important resource for Hedrick and her students along the way.
“The students came back with terrific research,” she said. “One student found a sentence from one of Stowe’s letters that is one of my favorites,” she added, before reciting the line by heart.
So here I am, amidst dust and disorganization, and the downward tendency
of all people and things. Hoping for better times bye and bye.
–Stowe to her publisher’s wife, Annie Fields
“The quote highlights the quality of Stowe’s voice – the lightness and whimsicality,” Hedrick said. “It’s the humor and vividness. That’s what engaged me.”
Stowe did not just inspire Hedrick to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, but also moved Hedrick to be a voice for social justice herself, starting with the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program at Trinity, which has grown in scope over the last several years.
“My interest in Stowe has had an effect on the way I approach teaching literature,” Hedrick said. “I became much more interested in women’s studies at Trinity as a result.”
Hedrick said that one must be very fond of someone to spend as much time as she has with Stowe, and the latest outcome of her interest is an appearance on a new PBS docudrama called “The Abolitionists,” which tells the stories of some of the most influential figures during the abolitionist movement, including that of Stowe.
“I was very excited that they would be featuring Stowe in a PBS documentary,” Hedrick said when she was first approached by PBS, adding that Stowe deserves the recognition for “her writing and her passion for social justice.”
Hedrick is interviewed in Episode Two of the three-part docudrama, which airs on Tues., Jan. 15 at 9 p.m. EST