August 28, 1851

Click on the image for a larger/readable version of the National Era

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

Transcription of Chapter 12

Chapter XII.—Select Incidents of Lawful Trade.


“In Ramah there was a voice heard—weeping, and lamentation, and great mourning; Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted”


Mr. Haley and Tom jogged onward in their wagon, each for a time absorbed in their own reflections. Now, the reflections of two men sitting side by side, are a curious thing—seated on the same seat, having the same eyes, ears, hands, and organs of all sorts, and having pass before their eyes the same objects—it is wonderful what a variety we shall find in these same reflections!

As for example: Mr. Haley, he thought first of Tom’s length, and breadth, and height, and what he would sell for, if he was kept fat and in good case till he got him into market. He thought of how he should make out his gang; he thought of the respective market value of certain suppositious men and women and children who were to compose it, and other kindred topics of the business—then he thought of himself, and how humane he was—that whereas other men chained their niggers, hand and foot both, he only put fetters on the feet, and left Tom the use of his hands, as long as he behaved well, and he sighed to think how ungrateful human nature was, so that there was even room to doubt whether Tom appreciated his mercies. He had been taken in so by niggers whom he had favored; but still he was astonished to consider how good-natured he yet remained!

As to Tom, he was thinking over some words of an unfashionable old book, which kept running through his head, again and again, as follows: “We have here no continuing city, but we seek one to come; wherefore God himself is not ashamed to be called our God; for he hath prepared for us a city.” These words of an ancient volume, got up principally by “ignorant and unlearned men,” have through all time kept up, somehow, a strange sort of power over the minds of poor, simple fellows, like Tom. They stir up the soul from its depths, and rouse, as with trumpet call, courage, energy, and enthusiasm, when before, was only the blackness of despair.

I mention this, of course, philosophic friend, as a psychological phenomenon. Very likely it would do no such thing for you, because you are an enlightened man, and have outgrown the old myths of past centuries. But then, you have Emerson’s Essays, and Carlyle’s Miscellanies, and other productions of the latter day, suited to your advanced development.

[Continue reading the full text of chapter 12 here.]

Commentary by Wesley Raabe

 Assistant Professor of Textual Editing and American Literature at Kent State University

The Era’s readers were probably eager to return to Tom’s story: we left him three weeks ago just after Haley had a set of handcuffs retrofitted at the blacksmith’s shop, at which young George Shelby gave him a symbolic dollar. 19th-century readers of sentimental fiction knew that the dollar would be significant later in the story, but we in the 21st century may see the episode as a plot contrivance. As Haley has only one prisoner, why would he lack appropriate handcuffs? To read this episode sympathetically demands attention to conventions for sentimental fiction, a genre concerned overmuch with tears, earnest religiosity, and beset womanhood. Today’s first-time readers of Stowe’s novel might open this serial installment with the expectation of mawkish sentimentalism, but critics recognize it as one of Stowe’s most powerful chapters. Even for experienced readers who know Stowe’s text from the Jewett edition, the serial text has a wrinkle, an intriguing passage that was omitted from the book.

But before looking at the serial chapter itself, let’s consider the prevalence of tears, the “sob story.”[1] Some readers may hold back tears when Tom fears that he might never see his children again. Others might do so when Mrs. Burr explores the drawer of her little Henry’s things: “And oh! mother that reads this, has there never been in your house a drawer, or a closet, the opening of which has been to you like the opening again of a little grave?”[2] Readers familiar with Stowe’s biography will know that Stowe lost a child about two years before she wrote these lines, and she probably memorializes her own little drawer, which held the memorials of her 18-month-old son. Two days after little Charley’s death, the grieving mother wrote to her sister-in-law Sarah Sruges Beecher. In the letter, Stowe relates a conversation with the daguerreotypist who took Charley’s deathbed portrait. She writes a strangely calm factual account of the cholera epidemic’s ravages but breaks suddenly into an anguished cry: “In Ramah there was a voice heard—weeping and lamentation and great mourning Rachel weeping for her children and would not be comforted because they were not—” (see image below). I use a transcription of the letter and a reproduction of Charley’s daguerreotype from Joan D. Hedrick’s biography as a class handout. To read the letter and to see the daguerreotype together is haunting: I cannot read it with dry eyes, nor can my students. Stowe’s repeated return to the death of the child transforms obsession into a form of courageous examination of self and society: to probe the deep wounds of Charley’s death, to will her story back again to the lost child, to associate her pain with slavery’s destruction of families, and to focus outrage on the abuses that the trade’s legal status permits. I invite you to consider this letter now because the same passage with which Stowe gave voice to her mourning for Charley (from Matthew 2:18, Jeremiah 31:15) serves as the epigraph that opens chapter 12.

[1] Jane Tompkins,“Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History,” Glyph 8 (1981): 84. Tompkins’s episode of Little Eva is the most famous tear jerker and still to come.

[2] Harriet Beecher Stowe, National Era, July 24, 1851.

[Continue reading the full text of Wesley Raabe’s commentary here.]

Click on the image to read the contents of Stowe's letter

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

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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