December 18, 1851

Stowe’s final missed installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the National Era

Commentary by: Barbara Hochman

Professor of Literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Author of Uncle Toms’ Cabin and the Reading Revolution: Race, Literacy, Childhood, and Fiction 1851-1911.

Stowe missed the deadline for the installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that was to appear on December 18, 1851. The reason for the missed deadline is unknown. On Dec. 18, Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the Era, printed the following announcement: “We regret as much as any of our readers can regret, that Mrs. Stowe has no chapter in this week’s Era. It is not our fault for up to this hour we have nothing from her. As she is generally so punctual we fear that sickness may have prevented. We feel constrained to make this apology, so profound is the interest taken in her story by nearly all our readers.” Stowe had failed to meet her deadline twice before; the missed deadline for the December 18 issue was her last such inadvertency. But was it an accident?

I want to suggest that missing the deadline for this particular installment may have been a tactical decision on Stowe’s part, designed for a particular effect upon her readers.  Looking at the episodes that were published immediately before and after the number of the Era that appeared without an installment of the tale can help us decide whether my suggestion makes sense.

The number of the Era that appeared on December 11, the week before Stowe missed her deadline, included the description of Eva’s death.  The next installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared after a week of silence, on December 25– Christmas Day. This installment includes a lengthy exchange between St. Clare and Ophelia about salvation and sins of omission, accompanied by citations from the book of Matthew. St. Clare’s extended reflections on death and the last judgment signify his slow but steady groping toward faith, the outcome of a prolonged period of pain over the loss of Eva. Unlike his hysterical wife, St. Clare does not shed many tears when Eva dies; but he feels the loss most keenly. The gradual healing of St. Clare’s spirit, most clearly dramatized in the Christmas issue, prepares the ground for St. Clare’s sudden death in the following installment, on January 1.

In creating little Eva, Stowe drew on the familiar image of the beloved child who dies too soon, wise and prescient beyond her years– an image that circulated freely in antebellum print culture.   This well-known figure appeared as the subject of diverse texts – from obituaries through poetry and fiction – often in the National Era itself. Within the Era, as elsewhere, untimely death was repeatedly invoked to suggest that one must accept God’s decree and take comfort from the idea that a dead child has gone to a better place.  But while Eva herself is ready to die, confident that she is on the way to her heavenly “home,” Uncle Tom’s Cabin suggests that Eva’s own equanimity does not easily compensate those who survive her. Stowe often claimed that her own grief at the death of her baby Charley, taught her what a slave mother must feel at having her child taken away from her to be sold. Throughout Uncle Tom’s Cabin Stowe’s conviction that religious faith is hard to sustain when one loses a child informs descriptions of slave families torn apart as well as the representation of Eva’s illness and death. The figure of St. Clare plays a central role here.

[Continue reading the full text of  Barbara Hochman’s commentary here.]

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