Readers Take a Look Inside Life in
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Image and link courtesy of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center-Hartford, CT
Textual Transcription of Chapter 4:
Chapter IV.—An Evening in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The cabin of Uncle Tom was a small log building, close adjoining to “the house,” as the negro par excellence designates his master’s dwelling. In front it had a neat garden patch, where every summer strawberries, raspberries, and a variety of fruits and vegetables, flourished under careful tending. The whole front of it was covered by a large scarlet bignonia and a native multiflora rose, which, entwisting and interlacing, left scarce a vestige of the rough logs to be seen. Here also in summer various brilliant annuals, such as marigolds, petunias, four o’clocks, found an indulgent corner in which to unfold their splendors, and were the delight and pride of Aunt Chloe’s heart.
Let us enter the dwelling. The evening meal at the house is over, and Aunt Chloe, who presided over its preparation as head cook, has left to inferior officers in the kitchen the business of clearing away and washing dishes, and come out into her own snug territories, to “get her ole man’s supper;” therefore, doubt not that it is her you see by the fire, presiding with anxious interest over certain frizzling items in a stew-pan, and anon with grave consideration lifting the cover of a bake kettle, from whence steam forth indubitable intimations of “something good.” A round, black, shining face is hers, so glossy as to suggest the idea that she might have been washed over with white of eggs, like one of her own tea rusks. Her whole plump countenance beams with satisfaction and contentment from under her well-starched check’d turban, bearing on it, however, if we must confess it, a little of that tinge of self-consciousness which becomes the first cook of the neighborhood, as Aunt Chloe was universally held and acknowledged to be.
A cook she certainly was, in the very bone and centre of her soul. Not a chicken or turkey or duck in the barn yard but looked grave when they saw her approaching, and seemed evidently to be reflecting on their latter end; and certain it was, that she was always meditating on trussing, stuffing, and roasting, to a degree that was calculated to inspire terror in any reflecting fowl living. Her corn cake, in all its varieties of hoe-cake, dodgers, muffins, and other species too numerous too mention, was a sublime mystery to all less practiced compounders, and she would shake her fat sides with honest pride and merriment as she would narrate the fruitless efforts that one and another of her compeers had made to attain to her elevation.
The arrival of company at the house, the arranging of dinners and suppers “in style,” awoke all the energies of her soul, and no sight was more welcome to her than a pile of travelling trunks launched on the verandah, for then she foresaw fresh efforts and fresh triumphs.
Just at present, however, Aunt Chloe is looking into the bake pan, in which congenial operation we shall leave her till we finish our picture of the cottage.
[Continue reading the full text of Chapter 4 here.]
Commentary by David S. Reynolds
Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
This chapter dramatizes what Stowe saw as several positive characteristic of black people: their devotion to family, friends, and God; their strength, good humor, and zest; their special capacity for passionate, imaginative religious expression; and their eagerness to be close to white people who reach out to them.
Stowe emphasizes here the domestic side of enslaved blacks. In doing so, she challenges the then-prevalent view of blacks as subhuman beings indifferent to home and family. Jefferson had argued that black men were oversexed brutes who didn’t mind being separated from their families because “love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient.” Another Southerner, George Frederick Holmes, claimed that the typical enslaved man had no scruples about taking a new wife on each plantation, since “the negro, in fact, is proverbially a Lothario. He is seldom faithful to his vows. He loves to rove.” Many white Americans felt similarly. Even an abolitionist like Theodore Parker could declare, “Lust is [black men’s] strongest passion: and hence, rape is an offence of too frequent occurrence. Fidelity to the marriage relation they do not understand and do not expect, neither in their native country nor in a state of bondage.”
Stowe tries to refute such notions throughout Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She makes marital fidelity between blacks the driving force of her novel’s two main plots: the thrilling escape to Canada of the slave couple Eliza and George Harris after they learn that their son is to be sold to a slave-trader; and the tragic separation of the enslaved Uncle Tom from his family when he is sold by his Kentucky master into the Deep South.
To accentuate the strength of Tom’s family attachments, Stowe in this chapter describes in intimate detail Tom’s immediate domestic surroundings: his cabin’s well-tended garden, its patriotic and religious pictures over the fireplace, and the close-knit family of five presided over by Tom’s wife, Chloe. Stowe suggests that, contrary to popular belief, enslaved blacks could be wholeheartedly committed to the same cult of domesticity that was an ideal among middle-class whites of the era. Stowe coauthored with her sister, Catharine Beecher, The American Woman’s Home; or, Principle of Domestic Science, one of countless domestic manuals of the time that reinforced woman’s role as a homemaker. In her portrait of Chloe, Stowe shows that homemaking need not confine women in a passive, inferior role but instead could be an empowering experience that allowed for practicality, efficiency, and independence. Modern scholars have identified this nineteenth-century sense of female empowerment as “domestic feminism,” a notion enforced by Chloe, who is so confident about her homemaking skills that she verges on being cocky and even rebellious, as when she reports having once dismissed her domestically inept mistress, Emily Shelby, from the kitchen.
[Continue reading the full text of David S. Reynolds’ commentary here.]
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