Image and link courtesy of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center-Hartford, CT
Transcription of Chapter 14
“A young star! which shone
O’er life—too sweet an image for such glass!
A lovely being scarcely formed or moulded,
A rose with all its sweetest leaves yet folded.”
The Mississippi! How as by an enchanted wand have its scenes been changed since Chateaubriand wrote his prose poetic description of it, as a river of mighty, unbroken solitudes, rolling amid undreamed wonders of vegetable and animal existence.
But, as in an hour, this river of dreams and wild romance has emerged to a reality scarcely less visionary and splendid. What other river of the world bears on its bosom to the ocean the wealth and enterprise of such another country—a country whose products embrace all between the tropics and the poles! Those turbid waters, hurrying, foaming, tearing along, an apt resemblance of that headlong tide of business which is poured along its wave by a race more vehement and energetic than any the old world ever saw—ah! would that they did not also bear along a more fearful freight—the tears of the oppressed, the sighs of the helpless, the bitter prayers of poor, ignorant hearts to an unknown God—unknown, unseen, and silent—but who will yet “come out of his place to save all the poor of the earth!”
The slanting light of the setting sun quivers on the sea-like expanse of the river; the shivery canes and the tall, dark cypress, hung with wreaths of dark, funeral moss, glow in the golden ray as the heavily laden steamboat marches onward. Piled with cotton bales, from many a plantation, up over deck and sides, till she seems in the distance a square, massive block of gray, she moves heavily onward to the nearing mart. We must look sometimes among its crowded decks before we shall find again our humble friend Tom. High on the upper deck, in a little nook among the everywhere predominant cotton bales, at last we may find him. Partly from confidence inspired by Mr. Shelby’s representations, and partly from the remarkably inoffensive and quiet character of the man, Tom had insensibly won his way far into the confidence even of such a man as Haley.
At first he had watched him narrowly through the day, and never allowed him to sleep at night unfettered; but the uncomplaining patience and apparent contentment of Tom’s manner led him gradually to discontinue these restraints, and for some time Tom had enjoyed a sort of parole of honor, being permitted to come and go freely where he pleased on the boat. Ever quiet and obliging, and more than ready to lend a hand in every emergency which occurred among the work-men below, he had won the good opinion of all the hands, and spent many hours in helping them with as hearty a good will as ever he worked on a Kentucky farm.
[Continue reading the full text of chapter 14 here.]
Commentary by Philip McFarland
Author of: Loves of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Grove Press)
What a beautifully crafted chapter this is! And how well it
exemplifies the narrative virtues that help account for the
unprecedented success of Mrs. Stowe’s great achievement. For one
thing, the chapter—like the novel throughout—is full of action.
Chapter 14 sets a compact world in motion, flowing north to south down
the Mississippi and bound for New Orleans 160 years ago, when the
Crescent City at the mouth of the great river appeared poised to rival
New York as America’s greatest port. For by means of the Mississippi
River, New Orleans received, as the chapter tells us, the wealth and
enterprise of “a country whose products embrace all between the tropics
and the poles!”
A steamboat is bearing cotton to market. On board, much is happening,
as we learn through Stowe’s admirable lucidity and economy of style. A
slave has won the privilege of moving unshackled around the boat and,
with his little bit of literacy, has retreated to where he can piece
out the words and consolation of his prized possession, a Bible. A
child of five is flitting about the vessel, winning the hearts of
everyone, even the gruffest of the crew. The little white girl, Eva,
and the black slave, Tom, meet and learn each other’s names. Later the
little girl falls off the boat, and Tom leaps into the water and saves
her. The child urges her father, a wealthy southern gentleman, to
purchase her rescuer for their household; and after haggling a bit with
a trader who is bringing a coffle of slaves to sell in New Orleans, the
gentleman, St. Clare, does buy Tom. He means to make him his coachman,
an enviable position of ease for a slave, so that by the end of the
chapter, Tom’s fortunes have taken a sharp turn for the better.
These many happenings are rendered with great vividness. At the
start, in proposing to write her sketches of slave life that would
become Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Mrs. Stowe had presented herself primarily as
a painter. “There is no arguing with pictures,” the author wrote to
her editor, “and everybody is impressed by them, whether they mean to
be or not.” So her novel will show us this world in which so much is
going on, and let us hear what we see as well, and feel it, as in the
present chapter, where Stowe describes the turbid waters of the mighty
Mississippi as “hurrying, foaming, tearing along,” and shows us the
light “quivering” on the water at sunset, and the “shivery” sugarcane
along the shore, and the dark cypresses hung with “funereal” Spanish
moss. On board, amid cotton bales on the upper deck, Tom is pictured
poring over his Bible, having lifted his head from the page to gaze far
off at the fields back from the river and “the distant slaves at their
toil,” and at the “huts gleaming out in long rows”—slave cabins—set
apart from the plantation owner’s mansion. The scene on shore has
brought to Tom’s mind the Shelby mansion in Kentucky—his former
master’s dwelling “with its wide, cool halls”—and caused him to muse on
his own humble slave cabin, which fate has forced him out of. Now far
from Kentucky, Tom in his homesickness pictures “his busy wife,
bustling in her preparations for the evening meals,” and he imagines he
hears “the merry laugh of his boys at their play, and the chirrup of
the baby at his knee”—all that cheerful activity that he will never
return to or be part of again.
[Continue reading the full text of Philip McFarland’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!