Chapter 11: Comment by Hollis Robbins

After the pathos of Uncle Tom’s sale and departure, Stowe’s narrator, in an anthropological and jovial mood, stops at another Kentucky tavern. As in the first chapter, “In Which the Reader Is Introduced to a Man of Humanity” (which proves to be equally satirical), Chapter 11 opens on a scene of men drinking in the afternoon, complete with spittoons, swearing, and swaggering.  Harriet! I cry aloud, when I teach this chapter.  Have you been slumming? How do you know so well “the jollities of a Kentucky tavern”?  How are you so familiar with the preferred posture of loose-jointed western travelers who rest their boots on the mantle while they discourse?   How do you know so well the best adjectives to describe the color and sounds of tobacco-juice in flight? Have you not heard of the women’s sphere?

The last time we were in a tavern, Chapter 8, the narrative emphasis remains squarely on the conversation between the drinkers: how best to “manage” slaves, particularly “gals.” Here, the focus is on the tavern and local color.

In introducing the scene, Stowe’s narrator reprises her previous tongue-in-cheek use of the word “species” (to describe “gentlemen”), using “race” to describe “Your Kentuckian of the present day.”   These individuals illustrate “the doctrine of transmitted instincts and peculiarities.”  Stowe read widely and voraciously; she was most likely familiar with the social and evolutionary theories of Herbert Spencer and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, both of whom suggested that social forces could play a role in the development, evolution, and acquisition of wholesome human traits and characteristics. Stowe scholars such as Philip Kowalski are examining the prevalence of such theories in antebellum America.[1]

Into this tavern walks a round, carefully dressed traveler.  Stowe’s narrator regularly emphasizes physical appearance.  Typically the outside of a character mirrors the inside, as with Eliza, whose moral strength is manifested in her beauty and neatness.  Here, the “overly fussy and particular” newcomer, who he behaves much like Stowe probably would have behaved had she been offered some chaw, seems unlikable at first. Wilson’s fastidiousness takes on an air of cowardice.  Stowe would like us to understand that even though Wilson is decent enough man, he hasn’t exhibited any moral courage.  He is too fidgety, fuzzy, and confused, with a mind like a bale of cotton, we are later told.

After another barroom conversation on the treatment of slaves (“Treat ‘em like dogs, and you’ll have dogs’ works and dogs’ actions.  Treat ‘em like men, and you’ll have men’s works;” “Bright niggers isn’t no kind of ‘vantage to their masters”), harkening the reader back to Chapter 8, another well-dressed man enters.  We must like him, the description tells us:  his eyes are expressive, his aquiline nose is “well-formed,” his finely formed limbs feature an “admirable contour.”   He’s darkened his eyes and face, ironically, but we know he’s George Harris.   His thoughtful and pointed dialogue with Wilson in a private room, his familiarity with the holes in the Biblical arguments for slavery, his willingness to use violence to keep his freedom, offer depth to his heroic physical appearance.

More important to Stowe’s vision than George’s passionate and virile manhood is George’s respect for women.  His mother, he says, was a saint.  His sister was a saint.

The first British edition of 1852[2] featured a wood engraving by George Cruikshank entitled “Persecuted Virtue” illustrating George’s memory of his sister being whipped.  The image shows a kneeling woman from the back, her head to the side, naked to the waist, a vague outline of her breasts apparent.  She is nearly white.  It is a curious choice for an illustration, since the scene depicted is a memory, not an event. The caption quotes the text: “She was whipped for wanting to live a decent Christian life.”   Readers of early editions had become so accustomed to images of shirtless male slaves that this image is triply shocking.

Finally, George tells Wilson that his master asked him to sleep with another woman!  The outrage!  Stowe’s female readers certainly smiled.  George Harris is a faithful man.  No multiple wives for him.

Readers of the National Era were aware of Mormon polygamy and its connection to slavery in summer of 1851.  A few months after this number appeared, the Era offered the following blunt analysis (October 2, 1851):

THE SOUTHERN PRESS says that paganism, polygamy, and promiscuous intercourses among the sexes, exist now in Utah, New Mexico, and California, and threaten to become permanent, because slavery is excluded from those countries! We suppose it regards slavery as a great Christianizing instrumentality, and as a complete bar to promiscuous intercourse!

Three years later, the May 18, 1854 edition of the Era reported abolitionist Gerrit Smith’s remarks to the House of Representatives on May 4, regarding Southern opposition to polygamy during the debate about Utah land grants and slavery in the territories.  Smith argued that given the lack of civil standing, slaves in the South were practicing polygamy:  “I am ready to stipulate in advance, that if the gentleman from Virginia can show that there is a legally married slave in all the South. I will give up all my oppositions to slavery. The slave is incapable of any contract — even that of matrimony. The slaves, after they have passed under the ceremony called marriage, can, as well as before it, be sold from each other, and separated forever.”

Later in her career, Stowe took a more active role in opposing polygamy, penning the preface to Mrs. T.B.H Stenhouse’s 1874 memoir of Mormonism, “To Tell It All.”[3]  Stowe writes, 23 years after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “Our day has seen a glorious breaking of fetters.  The slave-pens of the South have become a nightmare of the path….Shall we not then hope that the hour is come to loose the bonds of a cruel slavery whose chains have cut into the very hearts of thousands of our sisters – a slavery which debases and degrades womanhood, motherhood, and the family?”

Thus Chapter, 11, “In Which Property Gets Into an Improper State of Mind,” begins in a raucous, testosterone-rich, tobacco-stained Kentucky tavern, ends in a private room, with two men sobbing together as they ponder the trials of womanhood under slavery.

[1] Cultural genetics: Theories of inheritance and nineteenth-century American literature by Kowalski, Philip J., Ph.D., THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AT CHAPEL HILL, 2007, 236 pages; 3289062

[2] 1852 First British Edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin published by John Cassell.  Illustrations by George Cruikshank

[3] Stowe, Harriet Beecher, “Preface,” p. vi, “Tell it All”:  The Story of a Life’s Experience in MormonismAn Autobiography.  T.B.H. Stenhouse, Hartford, Conn.: A.D. Worthington & Co., 1875.  P. vi.

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

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