Chapter 10: Comment by Kenneth Warren

By the time Stowe reached the tenth chapter of her novel she was firmly in control of her fundamental critique of the nation’s “peculiar institution,” a critique that boiled down to the conclusion that to own slaves was to sell slaves, and to sell slaves was to break up families.  Accordingly, to look upon a slave-owner, no matter how benign that individual might consider himself, and no matter how kindly he might feel towards the human chattel he possesses, is to look upon the face of a slave-trader.  The face of Arthur Shelby is the face of Haley, who responds brutally to young George’s effort to shame him for purchasing Uncle Tom by pointing out that the slave trader and plantation-owner constitute opposite sides of the same coin.  Selling slaves is no “meaner” than buying them, and Stowe’s narrator underscores this equivalence of buying, owning, and selling when she concludes the chapter on an ironic note by mentioning Haley’s wish to “prevent the necessity of any unpleasant scenes.”  Coming at the end of an episode that is nothing if not an extended scene of unpleasantness, and at a moment when the novel’s setting is about to move southward where one unpleasant scene will follow another with astonishing rapidity, Haley’s sham sympathy deepens the echo between him and Mr. Shelby.  Although the plantation owner is conspicuously absent as Tom is being carried away, he—like the slave-trader—also hopes to avoid “unpleasant scenes.”

There is, however, a small difference between Shelby and Haley worth keeping in mind. Shelby, by his absence, acknowledges that the transfer of Tom into Haley’s hands cannot avoid being an unpleasant scene while Haley, having become so inured to the emotional distress he inflicts on a daily basis, obtusely persists in believing that the feelings of the property he buys and sells are not, properly, a matter worthy of consideration.

Against Haley, the chapter provides an explanation of why the feelings of the enslaved matter so much, along with an example (through Mrs. Shelby’s visit to Uncle Tom’s Cabin) of what sympathy between “the high and the lowly” can accomplish.  As many a critic of Stowe’s novel has noted, the story’s appeal on behalf of enslaved blacks rests not merely on proving to its white readers that blacks have the same emotional capacity as whites—a point Stowe makes earlier in the novel when Senator Bird and Mrs. Bird come to the aid of Eliza.  In that chapter the sympathy between the white couple and the black mother derives from their shared status as parents.  To understand what Eliza is going through, the Birds simply have to recognize that Eliza is subject to the same emotions they would feel in her place.   Indeed, in order to understand Eliza’s distress they merely need to recall the loss that they themselves have experienced as parents.  But when Haley takes possession of Uncle Tom, Stowe takes this emotional relationship between blacks and whites one step further. According to her narrator, the feelings of blacks are not merely identical to those of whites. Rather, she asserts, “the instinctive affections of that race are peculiarly strong,” which is to say, different, from what whites would experience in the same situation. Appreciating this difference is necessary if Stowe’s readers are fully “to appreciate the sufferings of the negroes [sic] sold south.”   Racial distinctions of the sort that Stowe asserts here constitute what the historian George Fredrickson has termed, “romantic racialism,” a notion insisting that blacks differed from whites in ways that were positive rather than negative.  Romantic racialists “projected an image of the Negro that could be construed as flattering or laudatory in the context of some currently accepted ideals of human behavior and sensibility.”[1]  In Frederickson’s delineation of this idea, Stowe’s depiction of blacks in her most famous novel stands as an exemplary case.

Stowe’s belief that blacks suffered from dislocation and familial separation even more than would whites in similar situations is, however, only part of what this chapter wishes to convey.  Another goal is to teach readers how they themselves should feel in the face of injustice.  For this lesson, the tears shed by Mrs. Shelby when she visits the grieving family are instructive.   When Aunt Chloe’s sons bring her the news that Mrs. Shelby is coming to the cabin, the reader might be inclined to agree with Aunt Chloe’s initial reaction that Mrs. Shelby’s presence is pointless.  After all, Tom has already been sold, and nothing Mrs. Shelby can do will change that dreadful fact.  Aunt Chloe’s words—”She can’t do no good; what’s she coming for?”—seem entirely appropriate.    But from the standpoint of the novel, Mrs. Shelby’s tears are far from ineffectual.  They melt “away all the heart-burnings and anger of the oppressed” thereby creating a community of feeling among the “high and the lowly.”   Given that an absence of feeling permits Haley to treat people as property, and that Shelby’s assertion of his rights as a property owner lead inevitably to a betrayal of his feelings of humanity for Tom, shared feelings between the high and the lowly are hardly besides the point.

Of course, an astute reader might also be tempted to say that the anger of the oppressed should have been nurtured and encouraged rather than dissolved away in tears, and that it is Aunt Chloe who responds most authentically when she remonstrates with Tom about whether any aspect of what is happening to them is worthy of being described as merciful.   Even Stowe’s account of blacks as “naturally patient, timid and unenterprising,” acknowledges that faced with the horror of being sold down south many slaves attempted bold escapes.   And when black abolitionist and novelist, Martin Delany, attempted to represent a large-scale slave insurrection in his novel Blake, or the Huts of America, published serially, on the eve of the Civil War, he took a shot at Stowe’s faith in a community of feeling.   In that novel, Delany’s hero, Henry Blake crisscrosses the slave states in an effort to get slaves to see that their liberation must come by their own hands.  He experiences success almost everywhere except in Kentucky where, as his hero laments, an “expectation of getting freed by their oppressors” prevailed so much among the enslaved blacks in it was almost impossible to rally them to act on their own behalf.[2]   So much for the efficacy of a “community of feeling.”  Blake’s expression of frustration with the passiveness of Kentucky slaves was more a critique of Stowe’s novel than an assessment of the attitudes of the slaves in that state.  But even as a commentary on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Delany’s novel asserted rather than contradicted the truth that lay at the core of Stowe’s fiction.    For both writers it was long past the time to end the moral evil that was American chattel slavery, and the mere fact that Delany was moved to write a novel against slavery testified to his acknowledgment of the power of Stowe’s fictional work.

There is one thing that every individual can do, — they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race.

[1] George Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (Middletown, CT:  Wesleyan University Press, pp. 101-102.  See pp. 110-120 on Stowe’s romantic racialism.

[2] Martin Delany, Blake, or the Huts of America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970), p. 127.

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

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