Chapter 27 and 28: Comment by Wesley Raabe

A New Year, A New Augustine St. Clare, a New Marie?

On 1 January of 1852, the new year brought a new installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the discomfited Augustine St. Clare resumes his effort to postpone, if not forestall, the actions to which an awakened Christian conscience seems to call him, freeing his slaves. But he finds himself hounded by the relentless interrogations of his Vermont cousin, for whom “now,” what Stowe’s narrator in the previous installment calls “the present tense of action,” is the only moment in which a thing can be done. In the previous installment, St. Clare turned to his newspaper to fend off Miss Ophelia’s efforts to purchase Topsy, but he found her unyielding: “But I want it done now.…Because now is the only time there ever is to do a thing in.” One of Stowe’s frequent techniques is to repeat a word for thematic emphasis, so when the split chapter resumed on 1 January Stowe reminded her reader of the topic by Miss Ophelia’s pointed query to Augustine: “Well, are you going to do differently now?”

St. Clare initially appears to recognize that “now” might be a propitious moment for emancipation in the world, the nation, and his own household. Stowe’s Era readers would have been broadly familiar with the gathering signs of the times, as the Era followed such developments faithfully. When Stowe’s 18 December installment was missed, editor Gamaliel Bailey requested the readers’ forbearance with “long articles,” one of which was an international sensation, “the long speech of [Louis] Kossuth at the great Banquet at New York.” This is the international event to which St. Clare refers in this installment with regard to the emancipation of Hungarian serfs. A national matter that may have offered another sign for the times was the Christiana incident. A free black community harboring fugitive slaves in Pennsylvania successfully resisted an attempt by the Maryland slaveholder Edward Gorsuch to re-enslave men he claimed as his property. Gorsuch was killed in the violent exchange. A Quaker, Castner Hanway was charged with treason for aiding the fugitive slaves’ escape, but he was acquitted of the treason charges on 11 December. The reverberations of this incendiary incident, another test of the Fugitive Slave Act, promised to echo long but would fade into a historical footnote. Stowe’s readers may well have recognized the Harris family’s escape with the aid of a Quaker as an uncanny parallel to Christiana.[1] But if the international and national signs were propitious for the march toward greater freedom, domestic signs were decidedly negative, and Augustine St. Clare’s tentative resolution to emancipate his slaves—including Tom—appears to falter on this matter.

St. Clare’s inability to imagine freeing his slaves seems to turn mostly on his idea that neither the northern states nor the domestic households therein have sufficient means nor the appropriate social mores for former slaves to achieve true freedom. St. Clare’s idea of freedom for his servants is so tightly intertwined with continuing dependency that putative freedom is scarcely distinguishable from benevolent southern enslavement. In St. Clare’s mind, a profession or an education is not a matter for the freed slave to choose but a consideration for the master to undertake on the slaves’ behalf: “How many merchants would take Adolph, if I wanted to make him a clerk—or mechanics, if I wanted him taught a trade. If I wanted to put Jane and Maria to a school, how many schools are there in Northern States that would take them in?” St. Clare assumes that he is entitled to make the choices for his former slaves because they would remain domestic dependents. After Miss Ophelia acknowledges the presence of Northern prejudice, St. Clare’s plans for positive efforts are stymied. He flees from his household to a café where he will again peruse a newspaper, and this latest attempt to postpone doing something “now” proves permanent: St. Clare is stabbed with a bowie knife and dies, which condemns his slaves to more fearful terrors under the management of his wife Marie.

Readers familiar with the Jewett edition will notice that St. Clare misnames one of the chambermaids in the quotation from the Era above: Jane is paired with an unknown “Maria” rather than the usual “Rosa.” That error probably reflects Stowe’s original manuscript name for Rosa, and the name may offer a subtle hint as to why Marie St. Clare’s first act after her husband’s death is to have Rosa whipped. Though the name “Maria” never appears in the Jewett edition, it appears in this installment paired with Jane as it had one other time, in the 16 September installment. Rosa, the name under which Jane’s chambermaid double appears all other times, has been described in a manner to hint at sexual attractiveness: she flourishes her ear-drops and is described as “a bright, piquant little quadroon.” The “now” of Augustine St. Clare’s death is the moment in which Marie St. Clare dispatches her chronic invalidism, the time to have Maria-Rosa, the apparent double of Jane and secret double of Marie, whipped. In the serial text, because St. Clare’s death and Maria-Rosa’s whipping are juxtaposed in the same installment, the intimation that Marie St. Clare views Rosa as the now vulnerable sexual rival is almost inescapable.

[1] For the intersection between Stowe’s work and Hungarian revolutionary hero Louis Kossuth in the Era, see Larry J. Reynolds, European Revolutions and the American Literary Renaissance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 153-57. For an account of the Christiana events, see Thomas P. Slaughter, Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in Antebellum North. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). [Back]

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