Chapter 12: Comment by Wesley Raabe

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The Era’s readers were probably eager to return to Tom’s story: we left him three weeks ago just after Haley had a set of handcuffs retrofitted at the blacksmith’s shop, at which young George Shelby gave him a symbolic dollar. 19th-century readers of sentimental fiction knew that the dollar would be significant later in the story, but we in the 21st century may see the episode as a plot contrivance. As Haley has only one prisoner, why would he lack appropriate handcuffs? To read this episode sympathetically demands attention to conventions for sentimental fiction, a genre concerned overmuch with tears, earnest religiosity, and beset womanhood. Today’s first-time readers of Stowe’s novel might open this serial e-installment with some hesitation, but critics recognize it as one of Stowe’s most powerful chapters. Even for experienced readers who know Stowe’s text from the Jewett edition, the serial text has a wrinkle, an intriguing passage that was omitted from the book.

But before looking at the serial chapter itself, let’s consider the prevalence of tears, the “sob story.”[1] Some readers may hold back tears when Tom fears that he might never see his children again. Others might do so when Mrs. Burr explores the drawer of her little Henry’s things: “And oh! mother that reads this, has there never been in your house a drawer, or a closet, the opening of which has been to you like the opening again of a little grave?”[2] Readers familiar with Stowe’s biography will know that Stowe lost a child about two years before she wrote these lines, and she probably memorializes her own little drawer, which held the memorials of her 18-month-old son. Two days after little Charley’s death, the grieving mother wrote to her sister-in-law Sarah Buckingham Beecher. In the letter, Stowe relates a conversation with the daguerreotypist who took Charley’s deathbed portrait. She writes a strangely calm factual account of the cholera epidemic’s ravages but breaks suddenly into an anguished cry: “In Ramah there was a voice heard—weeping and lamentation and great mourning Rachel weeping for her children and would not be comforted because they were not—.” (The Stowe Center has reproduced Kirkham’s transcription of this letter: see here) I use a transcription of the letter and a reproduction of Charley’s daguerreotype from Joan D. Hedrick’s biography as a class handout. To read the letter and to see the daguerreotype together is haunting: I cannot read it with dry eyes, nor can my students. Stowe’s repeated return to the death of the child transforms obsession into a form of courageous examination of self and society: to probe the deep wounds of Charley’s death, to will her story back again to the lost child, to associate her pain with slavery’s destruction of families, and to focus outrage on the abuses that the trade’s legal status permits. I invite you to consider this letter now because the same passage with which Stowe gave voice to her mourning for Charley (from Matthew 2:18, Jeremiah 31:15) serves as the epigraph that opens chapter 12.

The chapter’s epigraph confirms Hedrick’s observation that Stowe’s grief for Charley was “one of the twin engines of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The other was a white anger.”[3] Stowe’s anger in chapter 12 is pointed at two pernicious cultural myths, that commerce elevates society’s morals and that slavery’s defenders have scriptural justification for troubling practices in the trade. The chapter’s plot is simple: Haley purchases slaves, including the son of the distraught mother Hagar, to complete the gang that began with Tom, and he boards a south-going steamboat. Prompted by their notice of Haley’s gang, women and ministers on the boat discuss feelings, race, and Christian scripture, an exchange that the “honest” Kentucky drover glosses for Haley’s benefit. When a woman Lucy comes aboard with a toddler, Haley informs her that she has been sold south and soon sells her child to another passenger. When Lucy rushes to the boat’s edge in hopes of seeing her husband, Haley slips the child into the hands of the purchaser. In unspeakable anguish while Haley explains, which the trader mistakes for calm, Lucy later leaps from the boat to suicide, and Haley records her life as his loss in an account book.

Plot events, however, are less important than narrative perspective. Stowe’s work has obvious faults—Gregg Crane with an earlier comment noted the romantic racialism that George Fredrickson identifies—but Stowe can arrest the reader’s attention until senses are acute to the pain that is the consequence of injustice. In this chapter she is at her best. We witness the callous indifference and down-their-nose disdain of Haley’s social betters. We witness Haley’s cruel separation of a mother from her child (not once but twice), his vapid rationalizations, and his annoyance at the financial reverses of trade. Uncle Tom is a privileged witness to Haley’s cruelty. If we share Tom’s perspective and see unspeakable cruelty in Haley’s acts, Stowe reminds us that Tom has not been properly trained to understand trade’s scriptural and legal underpinning, and Stowe’s text probes acutely the fissure separating legalistic logic and feeling. After Haley records his loss, the text breaks apart into a cacophany of disembodied voices. The narrator’s power to contain these incidents in language seems to break down, just as Stowe’s did when grief for Charley tore through her letter, as Lucy does when her stunned silence echoes the grief that was Stowe’s own: the author’s loss was a “troubled dream”; Lucy’s “mingled dreamily” with the sound of the boat. In the novel, the narrator reasserts agency and control to excoriate the hypocrisy of legislators. Stowe assumes the authority of the prophet Jeremiah to call the nation to account for its moral failure. Though a 21st-century reader sensitive to Stowe’s use of Tom should be troubled—are we complicit with Stowe’s conscription of Tom as our eyes, our witness to the cruelty?—these “incidents of lawful trade” (plural in the Era) remain cruel and inhumane. Law not based on moral justice will serve instead the expediency of trade. Stowe offers only one alternative: to be blind to injustice and inured to the psychological and spiritual desperation that leads the lowly to seek the promise of a reward in a world to come.

Stowe’s outrage reaches its satiric height in a passage that appears in the Era but not in the Jewett edition, the fifth paragraph of this installment. She berates sophisticated modern readers who have Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle as alternatives to Tom’s “unfashionable old book,” readers for whom Tom’s belief is a mere “psychological phenomenon.” The paragraph conveys in miniature Stowe’s assertion that beliefs about trade or law or religion are subject to corruption by self-interest, a lesson that applies regardless of the content of one’s belief. We can debate why Stowe removed the passage, but that is less important (to me) than to understand its significance for the Era’s readers. Whereas Tom’s faith is all that remains for him, Stowe claims that sophisticated readers can rationalize to ease their conscience about abuses of the slave trade: a Christian that Scripture approves, “cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be”; a student of economics that the slave is “merchandise,” a “thing” rather than a human being. An equation, human equals property, was the essence of the original subtitle of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the Era, “The Man that Was a Thing.” Stowe’s rebuke of these rationalizations is plain, but Stowe will also not tolerate liberal religious thinkers who rationalize the abuses of trade by seeing injustice as somehow banished from the nature of things, and I think it is here that we can intuit a reason for the plot contrivance of Haley’s inadequate fetters.

Stowe in the serial passage on religion as a psychological phenomenon addresses Emerson in particular. Concord’s bard in his essay “Character” celebrates the trader as “above tricks,” and he dismisses the materiality of the heroic slaves’ iron fetters:

Is an iron handcuff so immutable a bond? Suppose a slaver on the coast of Guinea should take on board a gang of negroes, which should contain persons of the stamp of Toussaint L’Ouverture: or, let us fancy, under these swarthy masks he has a gang of Washingtons in chains. When they arrive at Cuba, will the relative order of the ship’s company be the same? Is there nothing but rope and iron? Is there no love, no reverence? Is there never a glimpse of right in a poor slave-captain’s mind; and cannot these be supposed available to break, or elude, or in any manner overmatch the tension of an inch or two of iron ring? [4]

Emerson’s history is faulty: Toussaint L’Ouverture was captured and imprisoned. But in Emerson’s fantasy of trade L’Ouverture’s iron handcuffs are transformed metaphorically into poet William Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles.” The unqualified nonsense of Emerson’s thought on the slave trade could hardly be more plain, so we are fortunate to have sophisticated techniques to read such passages sympathetically. Lawrence Buell contends that Emerson’s thought “dwells somewhere between metaphor and metaphysics” and that to read from one perspective or the other will cause his ideas to “com[e] across as either muddleheadedness or exhibitionism”[5] Buell’s reading is admirable as a critical move, but Stowe’s rebuke is just, and her thought has broader significance in a world outside literary and cultural criticism: human beings suffer genuine harm when such nonsense is applied in the material world.

Stowe until late in the 20th century did not receive Emerson’s level of critical sympathy in literary scholarship. She has been belittled as a careless writer, who lacks literary sophistication and does not merit close study. Such a critical stance is a backhanded acknowledgment of Stowe’s mastery of her craft. Her work promotes the illusion of a transparent text, the Bible’s text and her own, so it is strange that sophisticated readers assume that she is unconscious of her own work at crafting the illusion. The Greek poet Homer’s errors are known as “nods.” Stowe nods spectacularly in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: note as one more prosaic fault her inability to count children. I doubt that she ever bothered to count the Burrs’ children, and she forgot briefly that the Shelbys have only one son. These “errors,” though, may reflect a deeper psychological truth: how does a mother count her children when a child has died? Stowe’s Charley? Mrs. Burr’s Henry? Eliza’s infants? Rachel’s children that “were not—.” No matter how deeply one ponders the paradox of counting children, the theme of injustice remains uppermost. Stowe is capable of finesse, but she can also strip away the frippery and invite you to imagine how being clasped in fetters—how losing a child—feels. Stowe in chapter 12 writes a primer on perceiving injustice, but in the serial she is also advising that Emersonian reading threatens to obscure recognition of social injustice, a primer from which even today’s society, both its traders and its critics, could benefit.

[1] Jane Tompkins,“Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History,” Glyph 8 (1981): 84. Tompkins discusses the episode of Little Eva, which is still to come.
[2] Harriet Beecher Stowe, National Era, July 24, 1851.
[3] Joan D. Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 201.
[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Character,” The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson ed. Alfred Ferguson and Jean Ferguson Carr, (Cambridge: Harvard-Belknap, 1983), 56.
[5] Lawrence Buell, Literary Transcendentalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973), 15. In his defense, Buell has also illuminated depths in Stowe’s thought: “Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Dream of the Great American Novel.” Cambridge Companion to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Ed. Cindy Weinstein. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 190-202.

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

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