January 22, 1852

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

Transcription of Chapter 30

Chapter XXX.

“Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look upon iniquity. Wherefore lookest thou on them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devourest the man that is more righteous than he.”—Heb. i, 13.

On the lower part of a small, mean boat on the Red River, Tom sat—chains on his wrists, chains on his feet, and a weight heavier than chains lay on his heart. All had faded from his sky—moon and star; all had passed by him, as the trees and banks were now passing, to return no more—Kentucky home, with wife and children, and indulgent owners—St. Clare home, with all its refinements and splendors—the golden head of Eva, with its saint-like eyes—the proud, gay, handsome, seemingly careless, yet ever-kind St. Clare—hours of ease and indulgent leisure—all gone; and in place thereof, what remains?

It is one of the bitterest apportionments of a lot of slavery, that the negro, sympathetic and assimilative, after acquiring in a refined family the tastes and feelings which form the atmosphere of such a place, is not the less liable to become the bond slave of the coarsest and most brutal—just as a chair or table, which once decorated the superb saloon, comes at last battered and defaced to the bar room of some filthy tavern or some low haunt of vulgar debauchery. The great difference is, that the table and chair cannot feel, and the man can—for even a legal enactment that he shall be “taken, reputed, adjudged in law to be a chattel personal,” cannot blot out his soul, with its own private little world of memories, hopes, loves, fears, and desires.

Mr. Simon Legree, Tom’s master, had purchased slaves at one place and another in New Orleans, to the number of eight, and driven them handcuffed, in couples of two and two, down to the good steamer Pirate, which lay at the levee, ready for a trip up the Red River.

[Continue reading the full text of chapter 30, here.]

Commentary by Sarah Meer

Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Cambridge

Stowe’s epigraph to this chapter directs us to the complicit witness who is denounced near the end: ‘wherefore lookest thou upon them who deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue…?’. The gentleman whose conscience is apparent in his, ‘listening to the conversation with repressed uneasiness’, is such an onlooker, and so he is denounced by another character:

it is you considerate, humane men, that are responsible for all the brutality and outrage wrought by these wretches; because, if it were not for your sanction and influence, the whole system could not keep foothold for an hour.

For Stowe, this applied not just to decent Southern planters, but to American society itself: national complicity, crystallised by the Fugitive Slave Law, had been her original spur to write the novel.

Stowe also seems to have considered this chapter important for its introduction to the profit-centred philosophy of the very worst slaveowners. When, after the novel’s success, she published a factual book, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to elucidate her claims in fiction, she produced evidence for the mindset that  she gives to Legree in this chapter. In this instalment, Legree makes the horrifying boast that he intentionally works his slaves beyond human endurance; he has calculated that working people to death is more cost effective than sparing them to work another day: ‘Use up, and buy more, ‘s my way’ because ‘it comes cheaper in the end’. The Key gave real-life examples of Legrees, reprinting an account of slaves on a sugar plantation working eighteen to twenty-hour days, seven days a week, for two to three months at a time.[1] The Key also confirms that it is no accident that the boat that takes Tom up the Red River in this instalment is called ‘Pirate’. Later in the novel, Stowe will observe that the international slave trade is ‘considered as piracy’ in American law, but that a domestic trade that is just as terrible ‘is an inevitable attendant  and result of American slavery’. Accordingly, in The Key, Stowe calls her character ‘Pirate Legree’, and in this chapter he is taking slaves away from their families on a boat, just as international slave traders removed people from their homes in other lands.[2] In later book editions of the novel, this chapter was subtitled ‘The Middle Passage’, making explicit the comparison with the Atlantic journeys of slave ships.

But for one contemporary reader the most compelling aspect of the chapter was not its staging of the question of complicity, nor the horror of the economic argument for using human beings like machines.


[1] Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (London: Clarke, Beeton, 1853), 74

[2] Stowe, Key, 69. The comparison with the international slave trade is made in the “Concluding Remarks” published at the end of the novel.

[Continue reading the full text of  Sarah Meer ‘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 1852, here!

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