The Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe
Why bother with Harriet Beecher Stowe? Because she is immensely readable, and because her subject was slavery. The former cause probably does more than the latter to explain Mrs. Stowe’s excellent “press.” Since her death in 1896 many fine studies of her life and work have steadily appeared; there has never been a real need, though there have often been claims, to stimulate a revival of scholarly interest in her extraordinary career.
One after the other, each scholar seems to have approached Mrs. Stowe’s work with a grim sense of duty to its historical importance, and, one after the other, gone on to discover with a sense of happy surprise that it is not all duty after all. For almost everything she wrote—the potboilers and polemics, the romances and New England genre sketches, the journalism and the letters—is a pleasure to read, as is her single masterpiece. To take up Uncle Tom’s Cabin in maturity, Edmund Wilson has said, is “a startling experience,” for it is “a much more impressive work than one has ever been allowed to suspect.” Charles H. Foster, who discussed all the Stowe novels,1 struck the same note in justifying his enterprise: “I have written this book in the belief that others might wish to share my excitement in discovering an author everybody almost knows.”
The most recent study, The Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe by Alice C. Crozier, faces once again the two obvious tasks of Stowe criticism, perhaps of any literary criticism: first, to convey the pleasure and profit to be derived from individual works with sufficient force to make readers want to read them and publishers want to reprint them; and second, to place the works in their historical, literary, and intellectual context. Professor Crozier has some success with the first of these tasks, and it is not an easy one, for almost every Stowe novel lacks the sort of unifying sweep that makes for brief, interesting critical summaries: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with its great river structure, is an exception to this. Every Stowe novel (here including Uncle Tom’s Cabin) has its crudities, excesses, wads of padding—as well as vitality, passion, humor, fresh characterization, vigorous argumentation, and splashes of sheer good sense. Lengthy quotation, for which Mrs. Crozier wisely makes room, often does more than critical commentary to convey the quality of a novelist who was, before all, a gifted professional in the golden age of the form.
In the second of her tasks, the intelligent placing of Harriet Beecher Stowe as a novelist, Mrs. Crozier contributes little that is new and much that is irritatingly off the point. In this area we must still rely on Annie Fields, Charles Edward Stowe, Lyman Beecher Stowe, Constance Rourke, Forrest Wilson, C. H. Foster, Kenneth S. Lynn, and several others. I would particularly recommend John R. Adams’s life of Harriet Beecher Stowe for Twayne’s United States Authors Series (1963), which conveys efficiently and unemotionally a remarkable amount of pertinent information, especially about the period before Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Known and the Unknown by Edward Wagenknecht (1965), which, in the manner of R. W. Chapman’s classic monograph on Jane Austen, arrives at a complex portrait of the novelist by supplying problematic topics (what did she read?, for example) with minute answers; and Edmund Wilson’s powerful discussion of Mrs. Stowe in Patriotic Gore (1962). None of these three is mentioned by Professor Crozier, who also makes surprisingly little use of the published correspondence, still the best materials through which to place Harriet Beecher Stowe in her time. And placing the authoress of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a task of no common importance, for slavery—Negro slavery, chattel slavery, American slavery—was not in the 1850s, and is not today, a subject like any other.
But Professor Crozier is a disciple of Perry Miller. She is not much interested in slavery or indeed in the bustling American 1830s and 1840s, when Harriet Beecher was living in Cincinnati, on the border between east and west, north and south. There she married Calvin Stowe, raised a large family, and began writing for money. Mrs. Crozier tries to refine the grit of Mrs. Stowe’s life and work by treating it as a screen through which to examine wherever possible, sometimes where impossible, various myths of ancestral New England Puritanism. Thus she presents the novelist of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a product of the tradition of “providential history”:
…a popular form among New England Puritans from the earliest days of the colonies. In this tradition, Mrs. Stowe sees herself as setting down the events of her time in order that her contemporaries and descendants might understand the role of these events in the total scheme of human history from the Fall to the Final Judgment. Thus, she speaks with the prophets of old, reminding the nation of its historical commitments, recording its present struggles, warning of the impending wrath of the Almighty….
and so on. There is a good deal in this study about Mrs. Stowe’s reaction to Jonathan Edwards (whom Perry Miller tried, I believe unsuccessfully, to make the pivotal figure in American intellectual history) and even about the Hartford minister, Horace Bushnell2—but not a word about Nat Turner, Josiah Henson, Lewis Clarke, Denmark Vesey, or Frederick Douglass, without whom Mrs. Stowe’s slavery novels would not have been written. Professor Crozier shows little interest in the most obvious of the forces which drove Harriet Beecher Stowe to dramatize the slavery question, almost alone of her literary generation in America: that is, her place in the radical wing of Victorian women writers, all of whom were drawn to dangerous subjects; and particularly her position as domestic slave, the overworked, undersupported mother of a multitude of babies. This important subject, Harriet Beecher Stowe as a woman novelist, has been investigated, if never fully explored, by other Stowe scholars.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Dred, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s two slavery novels, are romances in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott, not of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Mrs. Stowe’s own defense of these books, her assertion that they are as authentic as they are romantic, is probably still the way to make them look respectable as well as interesting, and to get them back into the hands of American readers, where they belong. Indeed, it can be shown that the romantic tone of these novels is an aspect of their authenticity.
In hundreds of printed pages of notes and documentation, particularly in her volume-long Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), Mrs. Stowe offered to her suspicious public documentary evidence of the reality behind her fictions, evidence that was long discounted as mere self-defensive gesturing on the part of a novelist who brought heroics, sanctity, and gothic horrors into her stories of the slave. Today, however, these sources command increasing respect as they become widely known under the rubric of Black Literature. They make it possible for us to see Harriet Beecher Stowe as the white novelist who did honor to the experience of the slave because she was steeped in the writings of black men who had themselves been slaves—and who, some of them, wrote of their experience with a genius from which she was proud to profit.
Probably for this reason her second slavery novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, which rests in part on the 1831 Confessions of Nat Turner, is guilty of none of the “distortions” to which objection has been raised in the controversy over William Styron’s novel on the same subject.3 Nat Turner in Mr. Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner has been criticized as a departure from the Nat Turner revealed by the 1831 Confessions because he is presented in the novel as having been taught to read by his white master; as having no family ties other than those with his mother; as exhibiting mild homosexual tendencies; as having no heterosexual tendencies beyond those revealed in fantasies involving a white woman, one of the victims of the massacre; as being in historic isolation as the leader of a slave revolt; as failing as a rebel leader largely because the majority of his fellow slaves remain loyal to their masters.
Dred, however, the figure based on Nat Turner in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, derives his education and also his rebelliousness from father, mother, and grandparents on both sides of the family, all important to him, all black. He lives and dies in the Great Dismal Swamp: “What the mountains of Switzerland were to the persecuted Vaudois, this swampy belt has been to the American slave.” Dred has both wife and children, who live with him and rely on his love, support, and protection in the swamp. Far from being a rebel in isolation, he is presented by Mrs. Stowe as a product of the Denmark Vesey uprising (Charleston, 1822). And the large, varied slave society of her novel is solidly loyal to Dred, hostile to the white master, and determined on the achievement of freedom, though differing among themselves on the worth of a massacre.
These aspects of her hero and her story Harriet Beecher Stowe lifted whole from the 1831 Confessions of Nat Turner—which she appended, almost in their entirety, to her novel—and also from other documents of unrest in the ante-bellum South, black and white. Such were, after all, the materials of daily reading and discussion in the abolitionist circles to which the Beechers and Stowes belonged in the 1840s and 1850s. Mrs. Stowe could even write to the great Frederick Douglass himself for information to solidify her account of the life of the slave; and that, in fact, is just what she did while finishing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
After suffering scornful neglect from generations of readers in America (not in Europe), Uncle Tom’s Cabin enjoyed something of a popular revival during the era of Martin Luther King, because its theme is the nobility of suffering under tyranny. Dred, published five years later in 1856, invites special attention today because its theme is rebellion; and because of Mrs. Stowe’s shift of emphasis, through the title figures of the two novels, from Christian love to Old Testment wrath; her shift of setting from the Nation to the underground; her shift of tone from outrage to despair.
There are many fine passages of controversy and description in Dred, some interesting characters and dramatic episodes. But for all the interest of its subject the novel as a whole is abortive and chaotic, markedly inferior in construction to its predecessor. Dred‘s worst problem, its lack of an ending, is apparent to the reader from the first page of the novel. Mrs. Stowe simply did not know what she—or history—was going to make of the various strands of her story.
Thus no transformation of the slave-holding South comes of the elaborate project to educate and emancipate his slaves which absorbs her white hero, an idealistic lawyer named Clayton, for he is persecuted socially and legally by his Southern neighbors and at last emigrates, with his freed slaves, to Canada. No awakening of the heart of the South comes of the awakening from frivolity to responsibility of Clayton’s beloved (Mrs. Stowe’s surprisingly charming Southern belle heroine), for Miss Nina dies in a cholera epidemic. No violent revenge on the masters comes of the rebellion planned by Dred, for he is tracked down in the swamp and killed. No forceful leadership for American slaves—or abolitionists—accrues from the escape of Harry Gordon, the intellectual mulatto slave in the novel, for he settles as Clayton does on the other side of the Canadian border. (Incidentally, Mrs. Stowe pointed in her Preface to a real North Carolina judge, whose eloquence she incorporated into Clayton’s trial scene; there were real settlements of emancipators and freed slaves in Canada, which she documents; and of course there was a real cholera epidemic, in which, while raising her family in Cincinnati, she lost one child.)
The Rungless Ladder, Duke University Press, 1954.↩
Mrs. Crozier's three-page discussion of Bushnell ("the foremost American Protestant theologian of his generation") is the low point of this religiocentric approach. She alternately suggests and disproves a relationship between Bushnell's ideas and those of HBS, marveling along the way both at Mrs. Stowe's "apparently complete unawareness" of Bushnell and at the failure of all her biographers to discuss him. Professor Crozier apparently has not read the 1850 letter in which Mrs. Stowe expressed concern "that the Bushnell movement may go too far." It is quoted by Edward Wagenknecht, who explores the Stowe-Bushnell relationship in the three sentences it deserves.↩
I have neither the space nor the intention to reopen this controversy, recently summarized by William E. Akin in an article in the American Quarterly (Winter 1969). Some of the discussion was carried on in the pages of this Review, and it reached out to include such distinguished figures as Herbert Aptheker, John Henrik Clarke, Eugene Genovese, Charles V. Hamilton, Vincent Harding, C. Vann Woodward, and many others. I want merely to point to one odd feature of the discussion, the almost complete silence about HBS's Dred. Professor Woodward, for example, in his haste to express enthusiasm for Mr. Styron's novel as "the most profound fictional treatment of slavery in our literature," listed among the "formidable" obstacles to Styron's accomplishment the fact that he had no models for his "meditation" on a slave revolt, and thus slighted not only the novels by black writers whose names were quickly cited by other scholars, but also the work of "the author everybody almost knows," Harriet Beecher Stowe.↩
The Rungless Ladder, Duke University Press, 1954.↩
Mrs. Crozier’s three-page discussion of Bushnell (“the foremost American Protestant theologian of his generation”) is the low point of this religiocentric approach. She alternately suggests and disproves a relationship between Bushnell’s ideas and those of HBS, marveling along the way both at Mrs. Stowe’s “apparently complete unawareness” of Bushnell and at the failure of all her biographers to discuss him. Professor Crozier apparently has not read the 1850 letter in which Mrs. Stowe expressed concern “that the Bushnell movement may go too far.” It is quoted by Edward Wagenknecht, who explores the Stowe-Bushnell relationship in the three sentences it deserves.↩
I have neither the space nor the intention to reopen this controversy, recently summarized by William E. Akin in an article in the American Quarterly (Winter 1969). Some of the discussion was carried on in the pages of this Review, and it reached out to include such distinguished figures as Herbert Aptheker, John Henrik Clarke, Eugene Genovese, Charles V. Hamilton, Vincent Harding, C. Vann Woodward, and many others. I want merely to point to one odd feature of the discussion, the almost complete silence about HBS’s Dred. Professor Woodward, for example, in his haste to express enthusiasm for Mr. Styron’s novel as “the most profound fictional treatment of slavery in our literature,” listed among the “formidable” obstacles to Styron’s accomplishment the fact that he had no models for his “meditation” on a slave revolt, and thus slighted not only the novels by black writers whose names were quickly cited by other scholars, but also the work of “the author everybody almost knows,” Harriet Beecher Stowe.↩