Chapter 17: Comment by Sarah Robbins

This is one of several chapters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin where we see Stowe providing an alternative model of black male heroism in the character of George Harris. I use the term “alternative” with caution, because I think it’s too easy to set up George as a kind of direct opposite to the novel’s title character, Uncle Tom. In that vein, within this chapter, Stowe includes the important detail that George is in his twenties. (That is, he’s understandably going to be somewhat less circumspect than middle-aged, mature Tom, who feels protective responsibility not only for his own family but for all who are part of the Shelby plantation community.) Over the course of the novel, Stowe does allow George several fiery outbursts against slavery, as a counterpoint to Tom’s patient suffering, and George has already told Eliza, back in Chapter 3, that he will work to transplant his family to Canada.  Still, Stowe also emphasizes that George does not embrace violence for its own sake. So when we see George facing the challenge of separation from family here, Stowe is careful to cast his physical resistance as a defensive move: the chapter, after all, is “The Free Man’s Defense.” For instance, in the scene where Marks, Loker, and their drink-emboldened allies start to charge up a hill to attack George, his family, and two others being sought by the slave-catchers, George urges the wavering Quaker Phineas not to participate in the fight.  Similarly, although George verbally challenges his enemies with an impassioned speech, and shoots Tom Loker with such force that the others run away, afraid, the exchange of gunfire is initiated only because the bounty team seeks to seize the vulnerable Eliza, Harry, and Jim’s old mother.  Earlier in the chapter, Stowe had the Quaker Simeon Halliday remind young Harris about the potential spiritual hazards of violence.  Then, after Loker is seriously injured and abandoned by the other slave catchers, Stowe has Eliza persuade George that they should carry their wounded enemy to another Quaker home for medical treatment, since “‘after death comes the judgment’” (for both Loker and her husband, presumably). Riding toward the place where Dorcas, an echo of the kindly Rachel, will indeed both nurse Loker and support the Harrises’ continued efforts to reach Canada, Stowe even has George express relief at Phineas’s assessment of Loker’s wounds as survivable. Phineas predicts: “‘[H]e’ll get over it, and maybe learn a thing or two by it.’” And George responds: “‘I’m glad to hear you say so…. It would always be a heavy thought to me, if I’d caused his death, even in a just cause.’” George has no desire to embrace the Christian martyrdom for which Uncle Tom is destined, but neither is young Harris a fiery revolutionary like the Dred of Stowe’s later book, where she seems more open to a Old Testament-like violent resistance against slavery than in her first anti-slavery novel.[1]

If George does have a character reference point, it may be as politically framed as Biblical. In common with young George Shelby, he bears the first name of the first president, like so many 19th-century American men. And much of the language associated with George Harris links to the Founding Fathers and their vision of liberty. It is a vision far removed from the reality of hypocritical slave owners and supporters of slavery alike, George Harris’s words often remind us. So, for instance, Stowe has George declare that his one wish is to have his family free from tyrannical oppression; and she grants him a bitter speech condemning the pseudo-Christianity of Americans who buy and sell slaves in a country supposedly based in freedom for all. Earlier, in Chapter 3, George’s defiance of his cruel master’s supposed “rights” echoed Patrick Henry’s famous speech, as young Harris insisted to Eliza: “‘I’ll be free, or I’ll die.’” George repeatedly highlights the irony of the  slave’s position within a so-called democracy, as well as the hypocrisy of Americans who refuse to aid the anti-slavery cause. Accordingly, in Chapter 17 Stowe includes an aside pointing to the contrast between the way many of her fellow citizens would greet “fugitives escaping from Austria into America” as embodying “sublime heroism,” whereas for “a youth of African descent, defending the retreat of fugitives through America into Canada,” she observes sarcastically, her countrymen have been “well instructed and [rendered] patriotic” so as to refuse “to see any heroism in it.” If Tom prompts write readers’ spiritual guilt by being a better Christian, George is a better would-be citizen, embracing the ideals of the Republic’s purest vision.

For readers of Stowe’s day, of course, another example of political heroism evident in this chapter is the righteous Quakers. While rejecting direct violence as a response to injustice, they nonetheless provide a powerful model of resistance in their principled violation of the Fugitive Slave Law, since they actively facilitate the escape efforts of the Harris family and others. This is a call to Stowe’s initial 1850s’ readers, certainly, voiced in the quiet arguments of Simeon but also in the politicized domestic generosity of figures like Rachel and Ruth, quietly cooking for the escapees, thereby breaking an unjust law.[2] Stowe’s lively and humorous Phineas Fletcher, meanwhile, helps leaven the serious tone running through this chapter and so much of the whole narrative. Little wonder that George Aiken, when adapting the blockbuster novel into his super-popular dramatic version, would expand on the comic possibilities of the Phineas character, while also mining the “action” elements of this chapter for compelling on-stage melodrama[3]. By the end of the chapter, were we hearing “The Free Man’s Defense” read aloud in a family setting like so many of those who first encountered Stowe’s text in the Era serialization,[4] we might well have been ready for the restful pause offered by this installment’s ending, in “a neat farm-house, where the weary travellers were received to an abundant breakfast.”

Many more episodes, focused on the Uncle Tom storyline, will intervene before we finally encounter the Harris family again, in Chapter 37. I have often wondered if Stowe might have originally intended to return to George, Eliza and Harry sooner. Did she herself get caught up in the New Orleans setting; the fascinating characters of Augustine St. Clare, Eva, Ophelia, and Topsy; then the Gothic horror of Legree’s plantation? How might the novel’s reception among many of today’s readers, who often find Tom’s patient suffering so frustrating, be different if George Harris had more time on the page?[5] We can applaud the neat contrast of Tom’s going farther and farther South, while the Harrises push to reach Canada in the far North, where they can have freedom in this life. But it is Tom’s experiences—and the spiritual version of heroism he embodies—that will dominate the remainder of the novel, from this chapter forward.

[1] For a thoughtful overview of Dred’s character, see Robert S. Levine, introduction to Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, ix-xxx-ii (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2006). For additional discussion of the novel and contemporary responses, see my Cambridge Introduction to Harriet Beecher Stowe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, xx), 61-75.

[2] On Stowe’s reaction to the Fugitive Slave Law as prompting her writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, see my “Gendering the History of the Antislavery Narrative: Juxtaposing Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Benito Cereno, Beloved and Middle Passage.”  American Quarterly 49.3 (September 1997): 531-573, which also describes the original publication context of Stowe’s serial in the National Era.

[3] For insightful discussion of the many play versions of Stowe’s narrative, including George Aiken’s, see Linda Williams, Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[4] Alberto Manguel, in A History of Reading (New York: Penguin, 1997), discusses the common practice of oral reading (and the associated habit of listening to texts in such sites as nineteenth-century gatherings) in a chapter entitled “Being Read To” (109-24). See also the “Parlor Literature” chapter of Joan Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 76-88.

[5] Tom, not George, is the title character. But placing more emphasis on George Harris might have promoted a different response to the novel from such readers as James Baldwin, whose incisive 1949 essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” remains one of the most powerful critiques of Stowe’s text and its associated portrayal of Tom as a troubling version of black masculinity. For a related discussion of issues associated with Stowe’s representations of African Americans, see Sophia Cantave, “Who Gets to Create the Lasting Images? The Problem of Black Representation in Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in Approaches to Teaching Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ed. Elizabeth Ammons and Susan Belasco (New York: MLA, 2000), 93-103.

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

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