How a Punctuation Mark Gave Us Uncle Tom’s Cabin
If you Google “Semi-Colon Club” right now, you’re going to get a lot of stuff about colon cancer awareness. But back in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s heyday, the Semi-Colon Club was a gathering of extraordinary writers living in Cincinnati, Ohio.
In 1832, at the age of 21, Harriet moved to Cincinnati with her father when he accepted a new job. Her writer uncle, Samuel Foote, invited both of them to join a little literary group that met in his parlor every Monday at 7:30 p.m. Over drinks and hors d’oeuvres, writers contributed pieces to be read aloud to the club, anonymously if they wished, and listened as their work was critiqued.
What was just a way to improve writing and do a bit of socializing (one account said the evening always ended with “a gay Virginia reel led by the reader of the evening and a merry-hearted girl”) ended up being an important part of history. Stowe’s first published story appeared in the Western Literary Messenger, which just happened to be published by a member of the Semi-Colon Club. Without that break, she may never have gone on to write one of the most explosive pieces of literature the world has ever experienced.
Though none of the other members of the circle quite reached the level of literary fame Harriet did, there were definitely some achievers in the ranks of the Semi-Colon Club. Just a few of them:
Salmon P. Chase. Chase was just a young man of 25 when he was in the club, but he would go on to become the 23rd Governor of Ohio, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury and the sixth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In fact, Chase was likely the man who introduced Harriet to Lincoln when he uttered the famous sentence, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” OK, so we don’t have proof Lincoln actually said that, but the pair did meet at the White House in 1862.
Caroline Hentz, who is probably most famous for writing a direct rebuttal to Uncle Tom’s Cabin called The Planter’s Northern Bride in which it is “revealed” that most slaves were content, treated well, and didn't want their freedom.
Elizabeth Blackwell, who later became the first female physician in the United States.
Eliza and Calvin Stowe. Nope, the last name isn’t a coincidence. Calvin was a professor at Lane Theological Seminary, where Harriet Beecher Stowe’s father happened to be the president. When his wife (and Harriet’s good friend) Eliza died of cholera, Calvin and Harriet found themselves spending more time together. They married, of course, and when their first children ended up being twin girls, they named them Eliza and Harriet.
In addition, the Semi-Colonites had at least one notable visitor: Charles Dickens dropped by when he came to the U.S. in 1842.
By the way, the name of the club actually had nothing to do with punctuation or thought separation, other than serving as a clever double meaning. The explanation was that Christopher Columbus - whose Spanish name was Cristobal Colon - discovered new lands, then those who discovered other new things could at least be called Semi-Colons.