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.)
For her failure to suspect that civil war lay ahead, a failure shared by most of her contemporaries, Harriet Beecher Stowe is hardly to be blamed. She wrote her slavery novels with little interest in history, providential or otherwise. She was concerned less with past or future than with the permanent romantic present, in which the rebel is hero—and the hero is proud, virile, intelligent, superior, beautiful, and black.
With characteristic bravado she announces herself to the reader of Dred as an authentic romancer. “We have been accustomed to look on the arguments for and against the system of slavery,” she writes in the introduction to Chapter XLIV, “with the eyes of those who are at ease…. We shall never have all the materials for absolute truth on this subject till we take into account…the views and reasonings of those who have bowed down to the yoke, and felt the iron enter their souls…. We have seen how the masters feel and reason…. We must add also, to our estimate, the feelings and reasonings of the slave; and therefore the reader must follow us again to the fastness in the Dismal Swamp.”
The method—and the naïveté—derived from Scott, her favorite and most closely studied predecessor among novelists. She seems to have steeped herself in the writings of fugitive slaves and other documents of slavery; then she concocted from what she had learned and learned to feel an imaginary society of blacks, improbably colorful, and presented her creation as ideally representative of complex reality; that is, as “absolute truth.” Like Scott, she delighted in the prolific variousness of humankind, and she excelled, like Scott, in evoking varied types through different dialects: her slaves speak in a wide range of language, from darky to deacon. If the form of her fiction suffered—as Dred does—from these extremes of verbal contrast, Mrs. Stowe was willingly exchanging neatness for “absolute truth.”
Her individual characters were concocted from various sources in the same way. Dred, for example, derived his “character and views” from Nat Turner, but his education and formation “for some more than ordinary destiny” from Denmark Vesey. Vesey himself appears in the novel not only as a historic figure—Mrs. Stowe includes long quotations from the magistrates’ reports of the Vesey-led insurrection—but also as the fictional father of her imaginary Dred. (Dred’s name, incidentally, did not come as one might assume from the Dred Scott case, on which the Supreme Court handed down its decision the year after the publication of the novel, but from one of Nat Turner’s co-conspirators.)
The most striking female slave character in the novel, Milly, was primarily the creation of Mrs. Stowe’s maternal imagination. But at the end of the novel she is also grafted onto “an old colored woman in New York,” identified in a footnote, who was legendary for her charitable work among destitute city children, black and white.
“I see you have black and white here,” said Clayton, glancing around the circle.
“Laws, yes,” said Milly, looking complacently around; “I don’t make no distinctions of color,—I don’t believe in them. White chil’en, when they ‘haves themselves, is just as good as black.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe also shared with Scott, or derived from him, certain old-fashioned enthusiasms which appear particularly serviceable for the treatment of her special subject matter. For example, she was romantically snobbish about breeding and genealogy, and perhaps for that reason insensitive like Milly to “distinctions of color.” She traces her exceptional slave figures back through as many African generations as she can imagine—tribal chiefs, sorcerers, and whatnot—and glorifies at some length their black heritage: the “Eboe” strain in Harry Gordon, for example, or Dred’s maternal heritage from the Mandingos, “one of the finest of African tribes, distinguished for intelligence, beauty of form, and an indomitable pride and energy of nature.” (I was interested to learn, from Theodore Draper’s recent New York Review article on “The Father of Black Nationalism,” that Dr. M. R. Delany was said to have been a Mandingo on his maternal grandfather’s side.)4
Like Scott also, Harriet Beecher Stowe idealized and romanticized the Folk, attributing to it special powers and qualities happily impervious to “the hot and positive light of our modern materialism.” Primitive superstitions, supernatural visions, and magical practices—material from which many black authors of slave narratives shied away with understandable embarrassment—are familiar and beloved appurtenances of romance to Mrs. Stowe. For she can identify Dred’s gift of prophecy (derived from the historic Nat Turner) with “that mysterious and singular gift, whatever it may be, which Highland seers denominate second sight.”
As to the religious fanaticism which the historic Confessions of Nat Turner made the obligatory central characteristic of her title figure, this trait and the accompanying rhetoric, as alien to William Styron’s style as to Frederick Douglass’s, are Mrs. Stowe’s cup of tea. “Hast thou not eaten the fat and drunk the sweet with the oppressor,” Dred challenges the hesitant Harry Gordon,
“and hid thine eyes from the oppression of thy people? Have not our wives been for a prey, and thou has not regarded? Hath not our cheek been given to the smiter? Have we not been counted as sheep for the slaughter? But thou saidst, ‘Lo! I knew it not,’ and didst hide thine eyes! Therefore, the curse of Meroz is upon thee, saith the Lord.”
Mrs. Stowe’s gift for this sort of Old Testament rodomontade, which she rolls out rather effectively through page after page of Dred, probably derived less from Jonathan Edwards than from Walter Scott, who gave markedly similar speeches to fugitive Covenanters, embattled in the “wide and waste country” of the Highland moors of his fiction. For Mrs. Stowe’s Dred is partly, as Edward Wagenknecht has shrewdly noted, Scott’s Old Mortality “transferred to a Southern setting.”
A similarly remarkable but no more inappropriate transformation, and another case study of the authentic romance, is the subject of one of the most fascinating passages in Patriotic Gore. Edmund Wilson traces the genesis of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written by Julia Ward Howe in a blind, presumably divine rush of inspiration similar to that described by Mrs. Stowe as the origin of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored….
Mr. Wilson demonstrates that Mrs. Howe’s unconscious memory drew both from Isaiah 63: 1-6—
…I have trodden the winepress alone;…for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments….
and also from one of Macaulay’s Songs of the Civil War (1824), a rhymed version of the same passage, adjusted to the circumstances of the Battle of Naseby—
And crimson was the juice of the vintage that we trod;
For we trampled on the throng of the haughty and the strong….
Thus, according to Mr. Wilson, “the cause of the North was associated by Julia Ward Howe not merely with God’s punishment of the enemies of Israel but also with the victory over the Royalists and Papists of Ireton’s Cromwellian army.”
Writing her hymn in 1861, Mrs. Howe may also have had in mind Dred’s most powerful exhortation to vengeance, which takes up much of Chapter XLV of Mrs. Stowe’s novel, published in 1856. There she has Dred elaborate upon the same passage from Isaiah, adjusting it, however, to his attack upon “the burden of the beasts of the South! The land of trouble and anguish, from whence cometh the young and old lion, the viper, and fiery, flying serpent!… I will tread them in my anger, and trample them in my fury, and their blood shall be sprinkled on my garments…. For the day of vengeance is in my heart….”5
Thus “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” should perhaps be considered the product of an even more richly mixed tradition: of associations with the Old Testament and Macaulay, with the cause of the North in the American Civil War and the Puritan side in the English Civil War; and also of associations with Nat Turner and Walter Scott and Harriet Beecher Stowe, with Scotch Covenanters and New England Puritans, with the cause of the black American in rebellion against slavery.
A belief in the possibility of and necessity for heroes was an essential aspect of Mrs. Stowe’s romanticism. It was as conventional in her time as it is foreign to our own, when lassitude and self-pity are the literary fashion, discernable in works otherwise so disparate as William Styron’s Nat Turner and LeRoi Jones’s Slave Ship. But the heroic spirit of a novel like Dred, however old-fashioned, at least accords with the experience of the fugitive and rebellious slave as it was written down by Mrs. Stowe’s black contemporaries. Nothing in Dred is so romantic as the self-image brilliantly created by Frederick Douglass6 in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845).
Harriet Beecher Stowe published long excerpts from it as part of her documentation in the Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where she recommended Douglass’s Narrative “to anyone who has the curiosity to trace the workings of an intelligent and active mind through all the squalid misery, degradation and oppression of slavery.” She seems to have drawn from this remarkable work many of the abolitionist themes which Professor Crozier prefers to assign to New England Puritan tradition. She also drew from Douglass’s self-portrait materials for her characterization of the heroic mulatto in her novels—George Harris in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Harry Gordon in Dred.
Mrs. Stowe has been accused of racism, by James Baldwin among others, because these elitist characters are “really” whites—that is, half-white in parentage, dignified in manner, and refined in speech. In other words, they are very much like Frederick Douglass. Probably a majority of slave narratives—certainly most of those I have read7—were produced by men of mixed racial background, who made the point that light skin facilitated escape from slavery. Several of the Negro narrators tell of passing through the South on their way to freedom disguised as masters, their darker-skinned friends and dependents accompanying them in the guise of their own slaves. (The most dashing of these stories is that of the white-skinned Ellen Craft who dressed as a man so that her dark-skinned husband could accompany her in the role of her slave.) In Dred, Harry Gordon seems to owe more of his personal distinction to his aristocratic Eboe blood, on his mother’s side, than to his aristocratic Scottish blood, on his father’s. His all-white half-sister and half-brother are respectively a ninny and a brute, while his half-white sister, as elitist a figure as Harry, is married to a white master and moves out of the slave-holding South to free territory in the West.
Frederick Douglass, as he reveals himself in the Narrative, seems no more like Nat Turner or Josiah Henson than Mrs. Stowe’s Harry Gordon resembles her Dred or Uncle Tom. Douglass writes with fire and elegance. His prose appears to be, somewhat like Lincoln’s, a romantic dithyramb on the oratorical style of the Founding Fathers, the source, Douglass said, of his own literary formation.
Douglass was not much of a Bible man. Indeed, Mrs. Stowe wrote to him to protest his denunciation of the time-serving, slavery-excusing American ministry, not because his attack was unjustified but because it was total, taking no account of exceptional men like the Beechers. (Her own attack on the American clergy grew far more severe and closer to that of Douglass in the pages of Dred, where her personification of various shades of ministerial hypocrisy and self-interest is one of the finest features of the novel. Inevitably, she documented her attack with an appendix eighteen pages long of authentic clerical declarations.)
Thus Douglass applied the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence rather than that of the Old Testament to the Negro’s struggle for freedom. “Every man stood firm,” he writes, for example, of the eve of his escape with a group of fellow slaves; “and at our last meeting, we pledged ourselves afresh, in the most solemn manner, that, at the time appointed, we would certainly start in pursuit of freedom…. We went, as usual, to our several fields of labor, but with bosoms highly agitated with thoughts of our truly hazardous undertaking.”
Douglass makes the point, as Mrs. Stowe does also in both her slavery novels, that the political oratory heard throughout the South as well as the North on the Fourth of July was incendiary matter to the slave. “Haven’t I heard your Fourth-of-July speeches?” asks George Harris in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “Don’t you tell us all, once a year, that governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed? Can’t a fellow think, that hears such things?” And Nat Turner, though he assigned to heavenly portents and visions the timetable for his insurrection, also said, “It was intended by us to have begun the work of death on the 4th July last.”
The black man as romantic hero is Douglass’s theme as much as it is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s—and a literary creation on his part though in the form of autobiography, just as much as on hers. Douglass presents himself as resolute, virile, high-minded, industrious, courageous, self-made educationally and financially, and loyal to his family and his race. Nothing in Dred is more romantic than Douglass’s account of his victory in a fist-fight, a two-hour battle, with a brutal master. “This battle with Mr. Covey,” he writes,
was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood…. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery…. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.
The beating of the slave is the experience most often dramatized in Douglass’s Narrative, for it enables him to show both the brutality of the white master and the heroism of the black man. “You have seen how a man was made a slave,” he writes at the start of the Covey episode; “you shall see how a slave was made a man.” Mrs. Stowe’s most dramatic scenes, however, are often those which illustrate the heroism of the female slave—the most famous of these, of course, Eliza’s flight in Uncle Tom’s Cabin across the breaking ice of the Ohio River, her threatened child in her arms. “You’re a right brave gal,” says the man who helps her to safety on the Ohio shore. “I like grit, wherever I see it.”
As a woman Harriet Beecher Stowe knew best how to keep a family together in spite of illness, mortality, and very little money; as a woman she felt most the horror of the breakup of families: the slave sale which removed husband from wife, the degradation of women to whores, and especially the forcible separation of children from their mothers. This last she told again and again. It brought out her worst tendencies to bathos and her highest approach to tragedy.
A few words should be said about Mrs. Stowe’s attitude toward slavery, and they can be as few as those used by James Baldwin: she believed, he wrote derisively, “that slavery was wrong; was in fact, perfectly horrible.” Ironically, the best claim for Harriet Beecher Stowe as a writer of literature rests on the effectiveness with which her two slavery novels still prove that slavery is horrible. In these days of scrupulous historical reconstructionism, when slave systems are examined minutely for regional variations and economic tables scrutinized for evidence of the rise and fall of the “peculiar institution,” Mrs. Stowe’s shriek of moral revulsion still reaches our ears and shakes our hearts. This is a literary accomplishment, and one not common to the post-bellum fiction about slavery written by, for example, Mark Twain and Herman Melville.
Mrs. Stowe took her stand against slavery as a woman, as an American, as a Christian, and as a citizen of the progressive, middle-class nineteenth century. Reforms leading to gradual emancipation “are so evidently called for by justice and humanity, and the spirit of the age,” says Clayton’s mother in Dred, “that I can have no doubt that there will be a general movement among all good people in their favor.” Dred was written in part to show well-meaning liberals like the Claytons that their faith in the rationality or the prevalence of “good people” was misplaced; but it was a faith that Mrs. Stowe undoubtedly shared up to the event that inspired her slavery novels (and made civil war inevitable): the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850.
This law brought slavery into the North as a fact, not merely as an idea, because it placed a legal obligation upon the citizen of a free state to take responsibility for returning the fugitive slave to his owner—the same citizen who might be subscribing to abolitionist papers, reading slave narratives, hearing Douglass lecture, and assuming that slavery was as good as dead because it was against “the spirit of the age.” (Such a citizen was Henry David Thoreau, whose most impassioned political statement. “Slavery in Massachusetts,” was delivered on July 4, 1854.) From the North’s point of view, the Fugitive Slave Law was an escalation of slavery at a time when cessation appeared inevitable and imminent.
Harriet Beecher Stowe had of course no patience with justifications of slavery, and little interest in explanations of its rise and persistence, racial, historical, or providential. Instead, what she wrote into her novels was what she had the gift to feel: the horror that it was for a man or a woman to be a slave.
Her account of the slave’s experience was inevitably a partial one, and it has been objected that she overemphasized the house slave and ignored the field hand. The objection is somewhat off the point of Mrs. Stowe’s concern: that the slave was a man considered as a thing with a money value, and that southerners were engaged as were all Americans in the race for the Almighty Dollar. Not some Faulknerian doom, then, nor aboriginal racial hostility, nor some aristocratic fatality, but the familiar motive of property interest kept the system humming in all its routine horror. Clayton’s friend Russell makes the point harshly and cynically in Dred:
“Those among us who have got the power in their hands are determined to keep it, and they are wide awake. They don’t mean to let the first step [to emancipation] be taken…. They’ll die first. Why, just look at it! There is at least twenty-four millions of property held in this way…. These men are our masters; they are yours; they are mine; they are masters of everybody in these United States.”
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin the theme of the slavery Dollar is sounded from the very first scene, where Mr. Shelby sells Uncle Tom down the river, against every instinct, every principle, every personal feeling, just because he is in debt to Haley, the slave-trader. That is, he needs the money—a motive recognizably prosaic and, as Mrs. Stowe handles it, all the more horrible for that. The trader, Haley, pops up again and again in the novel as a kind of American chorus, with grotesquely comic insistence. (The influence here is Dickens rather than Scott.) “All’s equal with me,” says Haley; “li’ves trade ’em up as down, so I does a good business. All I want is a living, you know, ma’am; that’s all any on us wants, I s’pose.” Later:
“If I make pretty handsomely on one or two next gangs,” he thought, “I reckon I’ll stop off this year; it’s really getting dangerous.” And he took out his pocket-book, and began adding over his accounts….
And, still later, after one of Haley’s articles of slave-merchandise throws herself in the river, “the trader sat discontentedly down, with his little account-book, and put down the missing body and soul under the head of losses.”
In Dred—it is a measure of the difference between the two novels—Haley’s role is taken by the lawyer Mr. Jekyl, a shrewder and more enterprising man than the mere slave-trader. The money question is brought up in genteel fashion by the rich young spark, Mr. Carson, a visitor to the Gordon plantation from New York.
“What do you call your best investments, down here—land, eh?” he said to Mr. Jekyl.
Mr. Jekyl shook his head.
“Land deteriorates too fast. Besides, there’s all the trouble and risk of overseers, and all that. I’ve looked this thing over pretty well, and I always invest in niggers.”
“Ah!” said Mr. Carson, “you do?”
“Yes, sir, I invest in niggers; that’s what I do; and I hire them out, sir,—hire them out. Why, sir, if a man has a knowledge of human nature, knows where to buy and when to buy, and watches his opportunity, he gets a better percentage on his money that way than any other. Say, now, that you give one thousand dollars for a man,—and I always buy the best sort, that’s economy,—well, and he gets—put it at the lowest figure—ten dollars a month wages, and his living. Well, you see there, that gives you a pretty handsome sum for your money. I have a good talent of buying. I generally prefer mechanics…. I own two firstrate carpenters, and last month I bought a perfect jewel of a blacksmith….”
The “hired out nigger” looms large in Mrs. Stowe’s cast of slaves: women hired out as cooks and needleworkers, men as skilled mechanics—like George Harris, for example, who invents a machine for cleaning hemp while hired out to work in a bagging factory. Mrs. Stowe’s footnote identifies the source for this episode as the achievement of a young Kentuckian Negro, but she must also have had the Narrative of Frederick Douglass in mind. For Douglass became a skilled calker when hired out to a Baltimore shipyard, and he writes movingly of his pride in his work, independence, and earning power, as well as bitterly of the destination of his wages. Every cent was turned over to his master each Saturday night “—not because he possessed the slightest shadow of a right to it; but solely because he had the power to compel me to give it up.”
When maternal imagination, Christian spirit, and Yankee sense of the value of a dollar come together to bear on the black experience in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fiction, her finest work as a novelist results. In Dred this is Chapter XVI, “Milly’s Story,” where the old slave woman, illiterate and wise, tells in dialect of her life with Nina’s Aunt Harriet, who sold Milly’s fourteen children one by one to pay her debts. Douglass and other narrators also tell of slave women maintained as breeders of slave merchandise, but Mrs. Stowe was able to exploit the full horror of the story, in all its emotional and economic detail, from the woman’s point of view.
What is brilliant about Milly’s telling is her wisdom about woman’s condition, white or black. The misfortunes of her mistress weave through Milly’s tragedy, as cause and counterpoint. Aunt Harriet’s husband drinks and wenches—“Mr. Blair, he was a high fellow”—and then one day is killed in a fall from his horse, when too drunk to hold the bridle, leaving his wife ill provided for, and with three young children. Milly overhears Harriet’s uncle recommend that she find a husband for “that black girl Milly, of yourn”—
“…that must be attended to, ’cause that girl’s children will be an estate of themselves. Why, I’ve known women, to have twenty! and her children wouldn’t any of ’em be worth less than eight hundred dollars. There’s a fortune at once. If dey’s like her, dey’ll be as good as cash in the market, any day. You can send out and sell one, if you happen to be in any straits, just as soon as you can draw a note on the bank.”
So Milly’s body, her love for the man she marries, her babies, and her maternal heart are turned into ready cash—year after year, child after child. Miss Nina, to whom the story is told, cannot believe that someone she knows (“—a lady born, too, and my aunt—“) could trade in human lives for the sake of money; but then Nina is young and a reckless spendthrift, dependent on her slave brother Harry to manage her estate and pay her debts. “Ah, ah, honey,” Milly must patiently explain, “it was de most natural thing in de world,” for Miss Harriet was desperate for money, what with Mas’r George’s bills, and Mas’r Peter’s and Miss Susy’s.
Stories of slave women kept sane with the promise that they would be allowed to keep one child are common in slave narratives; as is the breaking of the promise. Milly’s youngest is the brightest, the most “spirity” of them all, to Milly’s concern. This son, Alfred, teaches himself to read (“How many white boys did you ever see would take de trouble?”), works as a child around the house, grows older and is sent into the fields, to which he takes badly. One day Milly is sent to town to do an errand, and, on her return, not finding her boy,
“I went to de house, and dere sat Miss Harrit by a table covered with rolls of money, and dere she was a-counting it.
“Miss Harrit,’ says I, ‘I can’t find Alfred. Ain’t you seen him?’ says I.
“At first she didn’t answer, but went on counting—fifty-one, fifty-two, fifty-three….”
The news of Alfred’s death—shot for his impudence by his new master’s overseer—turns Milly mean and violent. She curses her mistress for “selling my chil’en, all de way ‘long, to pay for your chil’en”—“but I was in Egypt den,” she explains to the frightened Nina, amazed to see fire and wrath in the eyes of the faithful old slave woman. For the Milly Nina knows best, the Milly of Dred, has got religion; she is the spokesman in the novel for Evangelical Christianity, the religion Mrs. Stowe professed. It is Milly’s function in the novel to head off the rebellion Dred almost succeeds in carrying to its bloody conclusion just before his death in the Dismal Swamp. It is Milly’s words which break the spell of Dred’s long exhortation to trample on the serpent and crush the grapes of wrath. Vengeance is the Lord’s, says Milly, “Leave de vengeance to him. Vengeance is mine—I will repay, saith de Lord.”
Modern readers, who do not share Milly’s faith or that of her author in the might of the Lord, are inclined to believe that Harriet Beecher Stowe had no interest in vengeance. The nineteenth century knew her better, and read her differently.
September 3, 1970
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. ↩
NYR, March 12, 1970. ↩
The third stanza of “The Battle Hymn” may also have been inspired by this passage. In the fifth stanza, where Mrs. Howe’s association of lilies with the birth of Christ puzzles Mr. Wilson because he knows no source for the idea in the Gospels, she may also have taken a cue from Dred: a passage in Chapter XXX where “the wild, exquisite poetry” of the legend of the birth in the manger is associated with “an immortal lily.” ↩
Fugitive slave, leading black abolitionist, public speaker and editor, confidant of John Brown, organizer of the underground railroad, recruiter of Negro troops, and foremost spokesman for the American Negro until his death in 1895. ↩
I have looked through a number of the recently reprinted slave narratives, though of course nowhere so many as Mrs. Stowe must have read. All of these, notably the three Great Slave Narratives edited by Arna Bontemps (Beacon Press, 1969); and the three edited by Gilbert Osofsky in the collection unattractively entitled Puttin’ on Ole Massa (Harper & Row, 1969) are invaluable historical documents. But none I have seen approaches so closely a literary classic as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, available in an elegant 1967 reprint by Harvard’s Belknap Press, with an introduction by Benjamin Quarles, and in several inexpensive paper editions. Literally thousands of slave narratives were published in the pre-Civil War years, but most of them, as Professor Quarles points out, “were ghostwritten by abolitionist hacks”—a disappointing example of the latter being the Autobiography of the Reverend Josiah Henson, from which HBS drew the character of Uncle Tom, and for a late edition of which she supplied a preface. ↩