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The Fever Dream of Mrs. Stowe

Stowe’s treatment of the death of Tom is restrained: we are spared the worst of his sufferings. By contrast, Little Eva takes five purposeful and meditative chapters to die of consumption. This spectacular experiment in the domestication of death is borrowed from Dickens’s handling of the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, but it is moralized by Stowe far more assiduously. The allegory is neatly fixed around household realities. By her perfection of charity, Eva is meant to embody a virtue that her father is too feeble to practice and her mother too selfish to care for. Yet the series of scenes in which the angelic child instructs and consoles her admirers, and gives locks of her hair alike to the slaves and masters of the house, and draws the tears from Topsy that prove the incorrigible black child worthy at last of redemption—all this is carried off with so calculated a view for effect that the author’s aim is almost nullified. The piled-up solemnity shivers into bathos when Eva (having thirty pages earlier announced, “I’m going there…there…to the spirits bright,” and again, “I’m going, before long“) admonishes the slaves to read their Bibles, and then realizes with a shudder: “Oh, dear! You can’t read!” She pulls herself up with a “Never mind” and declares they will be saved anyway because she has prayed for their souls.

The earlier scenes on the estate of Augustine St. Clare are animated by a different kind of energy. Here, uniquely, we begin to see the slaves as individuals. Augustine has allowed his servants to run riot, and the arrogant self-will of his unsentimental brother Alfred, also a plantation owner, turns out to be a smaller calamity for the slaves than Augustine’s permissiveness. This points the moral of the book more finely than any comment could have done. All slaves are at the mercy of their masters. They are touched equally by the virtues and the defects of those who control them; and that is precisely the thing that is most wrong about slavery. The good master cannot prepare you for a life unsheltered by his benevolence, since, at any moment, the system itself exposes you to the possibility of being sold out from under him. On the St. Clare estate, the viciousness of the system shows plainly in the manners of the house slave Adolph, who has copied from Augustine a nonchalance that has no foundation in the conditions of his life. When Augustine dies, he will leave this faithful disciple utterly unequipped.

Augustine St. Clare is the most interesting of Stowe’s creations: a man with a touch of Byronic pride, self-mockery, and indolence, who has lost his gamble at love and felt himself crushed by fate and marriage. He never wished for his slave inheritance, but cannot imagine getting clear of it. At the same time, St. Clare is an exacting critic of his New England cousin Ophelia, and a jaundiced observer of the part played by moral luck in the making of what society calls a good man. “What poor, mean trash,” he says, “this whole business of human virtue is!” In the South, slaves and masters are unlucky enough to be born into a system the North has got mostly free of; but that does not mean that the men and women of the North are finer human specimens. The difference is “a mere matter, for the most part,” Augustine remarks, “of latitude and longitude”; and he points to Ophelia’s father, who, though he happened to settle in Vermont, seems “a duplicate of my father. I can see it leaking out in fifty different ways,—just that same strong, overbearing, dominant spirit.”

There are many democrats, he adds, who are only such because they have “fallen on democratic times”; at heart, they may be aristocrats, “as much as my father, who ruled over five or six hundred slaves.” His antislavery cousin Ophelia (in some part a self-portrait of Stowe) has no answer to these sallies. From the manners of her Southern relatives, of all people, she will finally learn to overcome her physical revulsion from touching a Negro—a feeling as unworthy as the haughtiness she deplores in the institutions of mastery.

Stowe’s complex treatment of conscience is a most admirable and unexpected feature of the book. The chapter entitled “Miss Ophelia’s Experiences and Opinions,” whose theme is the impossibility of earning a good conscience by confining oneself to clean experiences, can be read as a pamphlet in itself. For Stowe saw as clearly as any of her contemporaries that freedom without education would be a cheap and destructible gift for emancipated slaves. She did not know the method for achieving a durable improvement in a people not yet prepared for the fruits of emancipation; and she lets her characters share her anxiety. The test for education in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is Topsy, who recognizes her own sinfulness (much as the slave trader Haley does) but does not expect it to stop. “You find virgin soil there, Cousin,” says Augustine to Ophelia; “put in your own ideas,—you won’t find many to pull up.” The real education of Topsy comes as a transformation of feeling; and it is brought about by the death of Eva.

Simon Legree belongs with St. Clare among the more humanly realized of the novel’s characters. He is not a devil but a coarse and common man, possessed by the sadism that comes from the lust for power when it has no worldly force to restrain it. Legree is what many men would be if their mastery were unlimited and if they cherished no interest besides mastery. What can moral judgment do with such a person? The scene in which Tom begs him to repent has hidden under it a broader theological issue. Stowe herself, and the Beecher and Stowe clans in their sermons and letters, had wondered whether in the afterlife a man like Legree was to be punished everlastingly. Close to that question lay a practical concern about worldly conduct. Could such a man be reformed without the fear of eternal punishment? For one of the differences between Uncle Tom and Simon Legree is that Tom is a believer. Without the urgent reality of religious faith supported by the threat of damnation, would there not be more Simon Legrees?

Stowe never seems to have satisfied herself on this point, and her palpable doubts place an extra burden on sheer sentiment to resolve questions about will and character that lie beyond the reach of sentiment. Her largest legacy from Dickens, for better and for worse, was a trust in the power of the change of heart. We see this in her rendering of the slave catcher Tom Loker, whose life is saved by the Underground Railroad and whose gratitude leads him to become a trapper of animals. We see a similar miracle in Topsy. We find it again in the cruel assistants of Legree, who are converted by Tom’s death to follow his example and reform their lives. The change of heart, for Stowe, was something between a plot device and an emanation of supernatural grace.

The editors of The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Hollis Robbins, suggest that Stowe also believed in a collective version of the change of heart. “Men might embrace anti-slavery politics,” they summarize the novel as saying, “because their wives expected better of them.” This seems true of two marriages in the book, the Shelbys’ and Senator and Mrs. Bird’s, where the wife is sentimentally and morally elevated above her husband. Yet the St. Clare marriage goes against the formula. Whereas Augustine is a good man, destroyed by failure in love and by self-pity, his wife Marie is a lower type in every respect: a female tyrant whose corruption is made worse by a refined ability to see herself as a victim. Still, it is true that Stowe in general presents a family and a home as sufficient to redeem all the sufferings with which society afflicts the helpless. These possessions become the sentimental proof of the claim that slaves are human: they, too, want families, and they can make happy families.

The completeness of Stowe’s conformity to the domestic ideology of her time stands in a curious tension with her political dissidence. One can see the difference plainly if one compares Uncle Tom’s Cabin with a novel that came out the following year, Melville’s Pierre. This story about incestuous desire and thwarted love shows the dutiful affections of a man to a family as at once inescapable and poisonous. “Melville,” Ann Douglas has accurately commented, “makes the sentimental domestic romance into a cage in which he deliberately confines his main character—and himself—both to define the limits of the form and to test the possibility of breaking out and destroying it.”

By contrast, Stowe turns the tragedy of slavery into the drama of the breakup of a family; and she resolves the moral problem by the device of the double reunion of a husband and wife (George and Eliza Harris) and a mother and child (Cassy and her daughter Eliza). Thus, black and white people are unified most of all by their desire to become members of a family. The strength of Stowe is that she recognizes the precariousness of this device. Her characters wonder incessantly whether the influence of sentiment on character and opinion can do much to resolve a crisis as heated as the sectional contest of the 1850s. They are not sure that feelings are enough; and Stowe herself was not sure.

Her portrait of a Christlike slave as a hero of freedom was easily misunderstood. The proposition “If all slaves were like Uncle Tom, the problem would be solved” was not a formula she would have wished to be understood as propounding. Nor was she suggesting that all slaves should try to be like Tom simply in order to make themselves admirable. Why then did she create so exceptional a hero? To offer the extreme case as exemplary is a common tactic in moral arguments; but when, as here, the argument is aimed at public persuasion, one may be uncertain what is intended by the choice.

Stowe deplored all violence, and argued against slavery as a system of hidden and endless violence. Does that mean that a slave has a right to rebel? The character of Uncle Tom subtly evades the question. Again, are all protesters also obliged to follow the code of self-sacrifice? “We are curious to know,” wrote William Lloyd Garrison, “whether Mrs. Stowe is a believer in the duty of non-resistance for the white man, under all possible outrage and peril, as well as for the black man.” This raises a fair question, since, presumably, an abolitionist in 1852 has a duty to resist the law of the slave hunter. But to the extent that Garrison meant to suggest a larger right of resistance, he was looking beyond the range of choices offered in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Most of all, Stowe succeeds in demonstrating that the highest moral virtues—patience and courage under duress, and charity in answer to insult—can be found among blacks as among whites. If this is so, she would have wanted her readers to conclude, not only is slavery wrong but every act that perpetuates slavery is a crucifixion.

Pro-slavery reviewers chiefly resented her portrayal of a system in which slaves had no rights at all, and in which that invariable fact necessarily led to brutal consequences. There were state laws, they said (in Virginia, for example) against cruelty; and it was not unknown for a slave to be pardoned for attacking a master, if evidence of provocation was brought before a court. These sophistical apologies Stowe was magnificently prepared to rebut, as she proved in the book she published the following year: A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon which the Story is Founded, Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work.

The Key displays the documentary sources of Stowe’s belief that slave owners and catchers know that they are doing wrong; and it offers prototypes for most of her main characters and incidents (including Eliza and Harry escaping from their new master by crossing the ice floes on the Ohio River). Against every political and theological justification of the slave trade, Stowe cites the closing statement by John Hale in the Rescue Trials of October 1852. “Why, gentlemen,” said Hale of a slave hunter like Tom Loker, “he sells agony! Torture is his stock-in-trade!… He hawks, peddles, retails, groans and tears about the streets of Norfolk.”

Stowe’s wit—a quality of the eye as well as the mind—comes out in the notations with which she explains her choice of prototypes. Frederick Douglass, for example, was in some measure the pattern for George Harris:

Douglass was the son of a white man. He was a plantation slave in a proud old family; his situation, probably, may be considered as an average one; that is to say, he led a life of dirt, degradation, discomfort of various kinds, made tolerable as a matter of daily habit, and considered as enviable in comparison with the lot of those who suffer worse abuse.

This is Stowe’s natural expository voice: sober, acute, tenacious, and precise. And the Key throughout exhibits the workings of a keen sociological intelligence. Had she not made her bid as a writer of fiction, we might today consider Harriet Beecher Stowe an American counterpart of Tocqueville and Harriet Martineau; for the Key shows her to be, like the authors of Democracy in America and Society in America, both an imaginative and a scrupulous interpreter of documents. So when she claims, “this is not novel-writing—this is fact,” she supports the novel’s description of a slave auction with the advertisements she found in South Carolina newspapers in November and December 1852. Human property here was “tumbled promiscuously out before the public with horses, mules, second-hand buggies, cotton-seed, bedsteads, &c., &c.” With an impartiality that recalls the best of the dialogue between Augustine and Ophelia, Stowe speaks in her own voice about the stake in slavery held by the North as well as the South. If a clergyman of New England, she says, elects to preach an honest sermon against slavery, “he will probably then find that the roots of the poison-tree have run under the very hearth-stone of New England families.”

The editorial apparatus of The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin makes very sparing use of the Key. The notes, instead, follow the action of the novel with marginal comments that are elaborate, often entertaining, and occasionally prodding without much aim: when the narrator mentions an after-dinner cigar, it is not clear who needs to be told that “once again, Mr. Shelby is putting something in his mouth.” The copious illustrations range from drawings by George Cruikshank and his followers to the color lithographs, poster art, and comic-book retellings that have followed the popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin over 155 years. Much of the introduction by Gates and Robbins, and some of their more expansive notes, offer, in effect, a rebuttal of James Baldwin’s strictures against Uncle Tom’s Cabin as propaganda. Baldwin published his youthful essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” in the late 1940s; and he objected there to a certain flatness of realization which he discerned alike in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son. He was striking a purist stance (we hate novels that have a palpable design on us) in defiance of prescriptive realism and agitational writing: great fiction should exemplify and impart, said Baldwin, “a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated, fulfillment which cannot be charted.”

By that standard, Richard Wright—the creator of the anti–Uncle Tom of Native Son, the murderer Bigger Thomas—had offended as deeply as Stowe in confusing the genuine work of imagination with a “devotion to humanity which is too easily equated with a devotion to a Cause.” And yet, looking back on Baldwin’s career, Gates and Robbins notice that he never overcame the temptation of protest he had once denounced; in his most eloquent work as an essayist, he showed a devotion to humanity reminiscent of Stowe’s. There is a larger point which the editors allow to emerge so distinctly that it need only be repeated once. In the mid-twentieth century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a more influential book than black novelists, essay writers, and social critics could easily acknowledge. What should we make of that? If Stowe’s abolitionist imaginings were a help in a later struggle for justice that had so different a temper and morale, one may well conclude: so much the better for both.


Justice for Cassy January 17, 2008

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