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Justice for Cassy

In response to:

The Fever Dream of Mrs. Stowe from the October 25, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

I was disappointed to note that in his otherwise insightful article about Uncle Tom’s Cabin [“The Fever Dream of Mrs. Stowe,” NYR, October 25, 2007], Professor David Bromwich overlooked the essential role of the character Cassy in Stowe’s exploration of both the nature of slavery and the possibilities of resistance to it. Those who have read the novel will remember that Tom encounters Cassy at Legree’s plantation. She is Legree’s discarded concubine, a mature black woman who is very angry, not only at her own treatment, but at the ruthless injustice of her world. Her first idea, when she sees Tom, who is healthy and strong (unlike the longtime denizens of the plantation), is that Tom might kill Legree (Bromwich mentions this), but when Tom refuses, Cassy’s story is not over. By means of a ruse that plays upon Legree’s intense superstitiousness (the dark counterpart to Tom’s Christian belief system), Cassy manages to escape with the young girl that Legree has purchased to replace her in his bed. The way Stowe works out the escape is one of the more exciting episodes in a novel abounding with suspense.

Cassy should be one of the best-known characters in American literature—she is smart, beautiful, wily, brave, and honorable. When we first meet her, her rage makes her nearly insane, but she subsequently marshals her self-control and saves what she can. For Stowe, she represents the side of slavery that too often went unmentioned but was widely understood, the sexual exploitation of black women. Through Cassy, Stowe explored the non-Tom side of resistance. Cassy is drawn toward “revolution”—she would like to overthrow Legree and his system—but she recognizes that with the resources at hand, this can’t be done. Instead, she saves the girl, and thereby regains her sanity and her family.

Part of the genius of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is that it depicts a range of both male and female characters. Each has an idiosyncratic relationship to the institution of slavery. Professor Bromwich mentions Ophelia, Stowe’s stand-in abolitionist; Topsy, the wild-child result of slave breeding; Little Eva, the saintly child; and Eva’s mother, the selfish, manipulative slave owner. Fully equal to these, and essential to Stowe’s panorama, is Cassy, the violated and enraged slave, who takes her fate into her own hands, knowing that no one else will save her.

Harriet Beecher Stowe knew that slavery was not a Southern male institution but a national institution that contaminated North and South, black and white, male and female. It thrills me to see Uncle Tom’s Cabin reemerge as a great American novel. But as it does so, let’s not let Cassy get lost again.

Jane Smiley

David Bromwich replies:

I thank Jane Smiley for making amends on my behalf to the character of Cassy. I agree with Smiley that Cassy’s rebellion is rendered sympathetically; at the same time, it makes Tom’s forbearance vivid by contrast. For reasons of economy, my review gave an equally foreshortened account of Aunt Chloe, the wife of Uncle Tom, the futility of whose wait for his return is a significant detail. A letter in chapter 43 (“Results”), in which George Harris commends the virtues of life in Liberia, ought to form part of any adequate summary, too—though, unlike the handling of Cassy and Chloe, George’s letter seems to me an artless contrivance.

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