A postcard commemorates Harriet Beecher Stowe and her 1861 novel “The Pearl of Orr’s Island.”
In the summer of 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe and her family relocated from Cincinnati, Ohio to Brunswick, Maine. Her husband, Calvin, had just accepted a faculty position at Bowdoin College, and Harriet came to establish their household, attend to their five children and engage in social functions required of a faculty wife.
A woman of remarkable energy, Stowe did not just spend her time keeping house. She attended presentations and events, arranged family outings and continued her participation in the abolitionist cause, even harboring a fugitive slave in her home. She also gave birth to a sixth child, and, by the end of her two-year stay, had produced her literary masterpiece, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the bestselling book of the 19th century.
Stowe also found time to begin “The Pearl of Orr’s Island,” a novel about two orphans, Mara and Moses, and their love for each other. The plot centered on their childhood misadventures, but the real focus of the story was the island and its inhabitants. There was Captain Kittridge, who wove fantastic yarns from his seafaring adventures; sisters Roxy and Ruey, who had their finger in every birth, death and accomplishment on the island; Zephaniah and Mary Pennell, who took on the challenge of raising the children; and Parson Sewell, who kept a secret passion buried deep in his bachelor heart.
Stowe embellished her tale with strong visual elements, scenes that many of us would recognize today: “The whole sea was a waveless blue looking-glass streaked with bands of white.” And she captured the cadences of island speech: “I declare, that boy! I never know what he will do next.” Writing to Calvin shortly after her departure from Brunswick, Stowe enthused about the book’s prospects. “I must go to Orr’s,” she told him, “and see old Jonas again.”
But life intervened. The family moved to Andover, Massachusetts, distancing the author from her subject. Tensions between North and South exploded into the Civil War, and the controversy sparked by reactions to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” demanded continuing attention. Stowe also made several trips to Europe during this period, where she met and befriended such European notables as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Lady Byron, and she wrote two other full-length works — “The Minister’s Wooing” and “Agnes of Sorrento” — before turning her attention to “Pearl.”
Most important for this delay, however, was her son Henry’s drowning in 1857. Her appetite for her Maine story gave way to personal grief. When she returned to “Pearl,” childhood delights were overwhelmed by grim challenges; her celebration in local color transformed into a meditation on spirituality and death. “How would you like it,” Miss Roxy explained to readers, “when everything was goin’ smooth and playing into your hands, and all the world smooth and shiny, to be took short up? I guess you wouldn’t be reconciled. That’s what I guess.”
“The Pearl of Orr’s Island” appeared first in serial form between January and April of 1862. It consisted of chapters Stowe had written while still in Maine. Stowe then asked for and got a pause in publication, citing overwork. When the story resumed several months later, she was sufficiently sensitive about its shortcomings as to write a disclaimer. “We beg our readers to know,” she told them, “that no great romance is coming, only a story pale and colorless as real life and sad as truth.” Little did she realize that truth and life were at the heart of her accomplishment.
“The Pearl of Orr’s Island” appeared in book form in 1861 and 1862. By the time of Stowe’s death in 1896, it had gone through 34 printings and had earned the respect of her contemporaries, including Sarah Orne Jewett and Oliver Wendell Holmes. John Greenleaf Whittier, the so-called “barefoot” poet, preferred it over all of Stowe’s previous works. “The Pearl of Orr’s Island” is my favorite,” he wrote. “It is the most charming New England idyll ever written.”
But the success of Stowe’s “Pearl” was most apparent in the changes it brought to Orr’s Island, transforming it from a remote fishing village into a lively tourist destination. A cottage industry grew up around “The Book,” as curious visitors sought the originals for its characters and visited spots where key scenes were said to have taken place. Where once there was only a single hardscrabble road leading to the island and no public amenities to speak of, restaurants, inns and ferry service were established to accommodate the influx, and postcards bearing Stowe’s portrait and the house in which she stayed flooded the mail. The book’s popularity had not waned by the time of the book’s centennial. As one enthusiastic contributor wrote, “(you) will never forget the thrill of pleasure which accompanies a visit.”
Today, “The Pearl of Orr’s Island” is a historical artifact. It graces the shelves of libraries and special collections, but the excitement it once inspired has settled into a quiet familiarity. Sites once associated with the book — the house in which the orphans grew up, the beach where they played, the pirate grotto where Moses mused about his future — have reassumed their anonymity. Reading it now, however, I am still struck by Stowe’s imagery, her affection for the island and its people, and her ability to render a sense of place, sometimes, in just a handful of words: “but they had come from neighboring points, crossing the glassy sea in their little crafts, whose white sails looked like miller’s wings.” “Pearl” reminds us of Stowe’s extraordinary talent and explains why many of us love being and living in this special place, as she obviously did.
Joann Gardner was an associate professor of English at Florida State University for 39 years. Now a freelance book reviewer and essayist, she divides her time between Bailey Island and Tallahassee, Florida.