August 14, 1851

Image and link courtesy of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center-Hartford, CT

Textual Transcription of Chapter 11:

Chapter XI.—In which Property gets into an improper state of mind.

It was late in a drizzly afternoon, that a traveller alighted at the door of a small country hotel in the village of N——, in Kentucky. In the bar-room he found assembled quite a miscellaneous company, whom stress of weather had driven to harbor, and the place presented the usual scenery of such reunions. Great, tall, raw-boned Kentuckians, attired in hunting-shirts, and trailing their loose joints over a vast extent of territory, with the easy lounge peculiar to the race—rifles stacked away in the corner, shot-pouches, game-bags, hunting dogs, and little negroes, all rolled together in the corners, were the characteristic features in the picture. At each end of the fireplace sat a long-legged gentleman, with his chair tipped back, his hat on his head, and the heels of his muddy boots reposing sublimely on the mantel-piece—a position, we will inform our readers, decidedly favorable to the turn of reflection incident to Western taverns, where travellers exhibit a decided preference for this particular mode of elevating their understandings. Mine host, who stood behind the bar, like most of his countrymen, was great of stature, good-natured, and loose jointed, with an enormous shock of hair on his head, and a great, tall hat on the top of that. In fact, everybody in the room bore on his head this characteristic emblem of man’s sovereignty; whether it were felt hat, palm leaf, greasy beaver, or fine new chapeau, there it reposed with true republican independence. In fact, it appeared to be the characteristic mark of every individual. Some wore them tipped rakishly to one side—these were your men of humor, jolly, free-and-easy dogs; some had them jammed independently down over their noses—these were your hard characters, thorough men, who, when they wore their hats, wanted to wear them, and to wear them just as they had a mind to; there were those who had them set far over back—wide-awake men, who wanted a clear prospect, while careless men, who did not know or care how their hats sat, had them shaking about in all directions. The various hats, in fact, were quite a Shakspearean study. Divers negroes in very free-and-easy pantaloons, and with no redundancy in the shirt line, were scuttling about, hither and thither, without bringing to pass any very particular results, except expressing a genuine willingness to turn over everything in creation generally, for the benefit of mass’r and his guests. Add to this picture, a jolly, crackling, rollicking fire, going rejoicingly up a great wide chimney, the outer door and every window being set wide open, and the calico window-curtain flopping and snapping in a good stiff breeze of damp, raw air, and you have an idea of the jollities of a Kentucky tavern.

[Continue reading the full text of Chapter 11 here.]

Commentary by Hollis Robbins

 Professor of Humanities at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University

After the pathos of Uncle Tom’s sale and departure, Stowe’s narrator, in an anthropological and jovial mood, stops at another Kentucky tavern. As in the first chapter, “In Which the Reader Is Introduced to a Man of Humanity” (which proves to be equally satirical), Chapter 11 opens on a scene of men drinking in the afternoon, complete with spittoons, swearing, and swaggering.  Harriet! I cry aloud, when I teach this chapter.  Have you been slumming? How do you know so well “the jollities of a Kentucky tavern”?  How are you so familiar with the preferred posture of loose-jointed western travelers who rest their boots on the mantle while they discourse?   How do you know so well the best adjectives to describe the color and sounds of tobacco-juice in flight? Have you not heard of the women’s sphere?

The last time we were in a tavern, Chapter 8, the narrative emphasis remains squarely on the conversation between the drinkers: how best to “manage” slaves, particularly “gals.” Here, the focus is on the tavern and local color.

In introducing the scene, Stowe’s narrator reprises her previous tongue-in-cheek use of the word “species” (to describe “gentlemen”), using “race” to describe “Your Kentuckian of the present day.”   These individuals illustrate “the doctrine of transmitted instincts and peculiarities.”  Stowe read widely and voraciously; she was most likely familiar with the social and evolutionary theories of Herbert Spencer and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, both of whom suggested that social forces could play a role in the development, evolution, and acquisition of wholesome human traits and characteristics. Stowe scholars such as Philip Kowalski are examining the prevalence of such theories in antebellum America.[1]

Into this tavern walks a round, carefully dressed traveler.  Stowe’s narrator regularly emphasizes physical appearance.  Typically the outside of a character mirrors the inside, as with Eliza, whose moral strength is manifested in her beauty and neatness.  Here, the “overly fussy and particular” newcomer, who he behaves much like Stowe probably would have behaved had she been offered some chaw, seems unlikable at first. Wilson’s fastidiousness takes on an air of cowardice.  Stowe would like us to understand that even though Wilson is decent enough man, he hasn’t exhibited any moral courage.  He is too fidgety, fuzzy, and confused, with a mind like a bale of cotton, we are later told.

[1] Cultural genetics: Theories of inheritance and nineteenth-century American literature

by Kowalski, Philip J., Ph.D., THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AT CHAPEL HILL, 2007, 236 pages; 3289062

[Continue reading the full text of Hollis Robbin’s commentary here.]

How did Stowe connect this chapter to real-life stories? Find out here!

Check out the top news stories, this week in 1851, here!

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