Chapter 30: Comment by Sarah Meer

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. A plantation mistress herself in South Carolina, and a passionate apologist for slavery in essays in Southern periodicals, Louisa McCord attacked Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a furious article in the Southern Quarterly Review. She reserved particular scorn for a moment in Stowe’s depiction of Legree in this chapter, when he offers for inspection a fist, ‘come jest like a stone’ by beating his slaves.[3] McCord notes that Stowe claimed in her ‘Concluding Remarks’ that her brother had witnessed something similar while working as a clerk in New Orleans: ‘“He actually made me feel of his fist, which was like a blacksmith’s hammer, or a nodule of iron…”’. McCord casts doubt on this event on two counts, the first being that the story smacks of the kind of tale Southerners tell gullible Northerners about slavery, since there is no horror that such visitors will not believe. Her second cavil is that Stowe’s brother claimed that the vicious slaveowner described his own fist as ‘calloused’: McCord finds it scarcely credible that a Southerner would use such an ugly word: ‘that elegant word “calloused’ being one entirely new to our dictionary, and savouring, we think, much more of Yankee clerk origin and Noah Webster, than of Southern birth.’[4] McCord was quite right to deduce, here and elsewhere, that Stowe’s acquaintance with ‘elegant’ Southern society was extremely limited, but her distorted focus on this vignette is interesting, because the calloused fist itself mimics the way slavery marks, even damages, those who profit from it. In her portrait of Legree’s plantation, Stowe would go on to show a whole society brutalised by Legree’s warped authority, in which no soul is more lost than that of the master. McCord’s missing of the point with her sneer at Stowe’s vocabulary suggests her own deadened sensitivity, her indifference to the image of a man’s hand transformed into a hammer or a nodule, as machine-like as the treatment of slaves ‘used up’ without respite. McCord’s example of the horrific stories told to Northern travellers for a joke (‘baskets full of ears and noses cut and pulled from the negroes by way of punishment and torture’) is similarly telling, a grotesque imagining that betrays a callousness of mind, rather than fist.

What I am struck by, reading the chapter this time, is the stripping from Tom of his clothes. Not for the first time in the novel, Tom’s respectability is emphasised: he is wearing ‘his best broadcloth suit’ (fine twilled woollen or cotton cloth), and a ‘stock’, that band of material at the neck that is also worn by priests below their clerical collar (not inappropriate, given the spiritual leadership that Tom manifests throughout the novel). Legree leaves Tom only the ‘old pantaloons and …dilapidated coat’ that he uses for stable work, the crew of the steamer buying up the rest, with laughter at the idea of black men ‘who tried to be gentlemen.’ This episode stages very acutely a class conflict that we have seen many times in the novel, in which slave characters manifest bourgeois values in their dignity and respectability, which the system of racial slavery takes pains to destroy. Stowe signals Tom’s character in the quality of the cloth he wears, and equates the removal of his good clothes with the start of Legree’s assault on Tom’s dignity.

This sets up echoes for me of a number of mid nineteenth-century writers, both in Britain and the United States.

Thomas Carlyle was no friend to the antislavery cause, but his joky philosophical treatise on clothing, Sartor Resartus, draws attention  to the role of clothes in society in a way that helps explain how Tom’s clothes suggest that he ‘tried to be a gentleman’. In nineteenth-century Britain, and to a lesser degree in the U. S., class, rank and occupation were signified in everyday dress to an extent we may barely be able to imagine now. Carlyle describes the differences between the leather aprons of builders, and the metal ones of blacksmiths; it was not just judges who were marked out by wigs, priests by collars, or soldiers by uniform, but servants by livery, students by mortar boards, and agricultural labourers by smocks.[5] ‘A gentleman’ was identifiable at a glance.

Only a couple of years after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Henry David Thoreau, himself one of Carlyle’s American readers, would make the implications of Sartor Resartus democratic: ‘It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if men were divested of their clothes’.[6]  But while Stowe conflated respectability and a good suit to emphasise Tom’s treatment, Thoreau felt such conventions were artificial and wasteful. He complained about his own acquaintances who thought it too undignified to wear patched trousers (‘it would be easier for them to hobble to town with a broken leg than with a broken pantaloon’), and he pointed out the nonsensical demands of fashion (‘When I ask for a garment of a particular form, my tailoress tells me gravely, “They do not make them so now,” … as if she quoted an authority as impersonal as the Fates…’).[7]

Meanwhile, in Britain, another of Carlyle’s disciples had taken a more practical interest in clothing in society. Charles Kingsley produced a series of newspaper articles investigating the exploitation of tailors, in conditions which included starvation wages, foul accommodation , and contracts effectively trapping the tailors permanently in the workplace. The articles were republished as a pamphlet, ‘Cheap Clothes and Nasty’ and Kingsley also dramatised these injustices in a novel, Alton Locke: Tailor and Poet (both 1850). Yet another British novelist, Elizabeth Gaskell, had drawn attention to the situation of cotton mill workers in Manchester (in Mary Barton, 1848).

Next to these other writers, Stowe’s clothes-stealing scene looks less radical, and it is perhaps particularly curious that she did not make the connection in the chapter between the clothes and the cotton industry’s dependence on slavery. Moreover, even as she wrote, concerns were developing about garment production in America, as well as Britain. Thoreau would complain of the U. S. ‘factory system’ that:

The condition of the operatives is becoming every day more like the English; and it cannot be wondered at, since, as far as I have heard or observed, the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched.[8]

In other words, the living hell of the cotton plantation, on which human lives were being ‘used up’ in pursuit of profit, was merely the very worst end of a benighted continuum of suffering. Even Tom’s ‘best broadcloth suit’ might have been implicated at some stage of its production. Yet, even if the clothes incident is less politically charged than the calloused fist or the complicit observer in this chapter, the emptying of Tom’s trunk might give the modern reader the most pause for thought. For clothes manufacture is still troublingly implicated in breaches of human rights. The word that Kingsley’s tailors used for their exploitation, ‘sweating’, lurks in the still current term ‘sweatshops’. The sweatshops may be located in different parts of the world now, but we have not yet stopped people being ‘used up’ so that ‘corporations may be enriched’.


[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.

[3] Louisa S. McCord, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Southern Quarterly Review 7 (January 1853):81-20; in Richard Lounsbury ed., Louisa S. McCord: Political and Social Essays (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 245-280, 248.

[4] McCord, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, 249.

[5] Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, (Fraser’s Magazine, 1833-4).

[6] Henry David Thoreau, Walden ([1854], Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), 65.

[7] Thoreau, Walden, 64, 67.

[8] Thoreau, Walden, 69.

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