Chapter 27: Comment by Jeannine DeLombard

Taking Possession

This fascinating chapter opens by marveling that, even in the wake of a loss so intense as that of the angelic Little Eva, “the hard, cold, uninteresting course of daily realities move on,” requiring the bereaved not only to “eat, and drink, and sleep, and wake again,” but to “bargain, buy, [and] sell” as well. For, as is so often the case in what would become Stowe’s bestselling sentimental novel, inner feelings are not as separable from the outside world of commerce as they might appear.

Indeed, as we move closer to St. Clare’s perspective in the subsequent paragraph, we begin to perceive the inextricability of his intertwined financial and emotional investments: “All the interests and hopes of St. Clare’s life had unconsciously wound themselves around this child. It was for Eva that he had managed his property; …to buy, improve, alter, and arrange, or dispose something for her, had been so long his habit, that now she was gone, there seemed nothing to be thought of, and nothing to be done.” That the father experiences the daughter’s death in such terms speaks less to the sensitive Southern gentleman’s corruption by the masculine world of business than to the fact that, in the course of daily realities, property makes us who we are.

St. Clare, “well versed in the forms of law,” would have understood property not physically, as a set of objects, but metaphysically, as a cluster of rights. Seen in this light, property is as much about relations among persons as between persons and things. When we are told that St. Clare, Marie, and Ophelia “took possession of the parlor” after tea, we read the phrase in its figurative sense, as an indication that the couple and their cousin have physically occupied the domestic space in question. But a key aspect of St. Clare’s legal ownership of the mansion would be his right to exclude others – including, perhaps, his female relatives – from access to the parlor or any other part of the house. It is precisely the owner’s right to exclude that leads an “enraged” Topsy to kick and fight “valiantly for what she considered her rights” when her fellow slave Rosa seeks to extract from her dress the object concealed in its bosom. And it is Topsy’s inability to maintain such rights in the face of Miss Ophelia’s peremptory “order” that threatens to open not just the “little parcel,” but the enslaved girl’s body, to inspection under her master’s gaze. Even Tom, who partakes of neither St. Clare’s legal literacy nor Topsy’s defiant feistiness, understands that property is primarily about social relations rather than material goods – this is why he would “rather have poor clothes, poor house, poor everything, and have ‘em mine, than have the best, and have ‘em any man’s else.”

An appreciation for this social, relational aspect of property helps us to see how, in losing his heir, St. Clare loses not only his sense of purpose (“nothing to be done”) but his sense of inner selfhood (“nothing to be thought of”). As legal scholar Margaret Jane Radin explains, “if an object you now control is bound up in your future plans or in your anticipation of your future self, and it is partly these plans for your own continuity that make you a person, then your personhood depends on the realization of these expectations.”[i] Upon Little Eva’s death, St. Clare may retain his wealth – including Tom, Topsy, and Rosa – but, deprived of his plans for its future disposition, he no longer has a reason for living.

Thus, it is not just Bible-reading that turns the grieving St. Clare into “another man,” but his renewed “interest” in defining himself through property management. “Dissatisfied with both his past and present course,” St. Clare attempts to regain control over his life by taking the initial “legal steps” toward relinquishing his ownership of Tom. Yet here again, as with his original purchase of Tom (in response to Little Eva importuning in Chapter XIV, “do buy him!… I want to make him happy”) and Miss Ophelia’s insistence on taking immediate legal possession of Topsy (“that all I am trying to do not be undone”), even the most benevolent disposition of slave property consolidates white, as opposed to black, personhood.

To appreciate this point, we need only turn to Tom and Topsy, whose circumstances in this chapter dramatize sociologist Orlando Patterson’s insight that “the slave was not a slave because he was the object of property, but because he could not be the subject of property.”[ii] Rosa’s misapprehension of Topsy for “stealing” what turn out to be non-fungible relics of Eva prompts Miss Ophelia’s demand that St. Clare deed Topsy to her on the spot. Yet this mere change of ownership does not reposition Topsy in the web of property relations. As someone else’s property (it matters not whose), Topsy can no more claim control over her future than over the chattels she can hold only physically and thus temporarily. Even as it increases the likelihood that she will be “take[n] to the free States, and give[n]… her liberty” rather than “hustled off to auction” in the South, Topsy’s transfer from one owner to another affirms the personhood of Miss Ophelia and St. Clare at the expense of her own. For they are the ones who set that future in motion through their coordinated disposition of her as an article of property.

Topsy’s predicament was all too familiar to Maryland slave-turned-abolitionist author Frederick Douglass. In his second personal narrative, published some three years after this Christmas Day installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in the National Era, the emphatically proprietary author of My Bondage and My Freedom presents his initial motivation for escaping from slavery as a desire to be a continuous character in the story of his own life – a person, in short. “The thought of only being a creature of the present and the past, troubled me, and I longed to have a future,” writes Douglass in the chapter he cannily titled “The Run-away Plot.”[iii]

Little surprise, then, that Tom’s future should become a matter of dispute between the mild-mannered slave and his equally good-natured master upon the latter’s proposal to liberate his bondman. After announcing “I’m going to make a free man of you; — so, have your trunk packed, and get ready to set out for Kentuck,” St. Clare admonishes the “soft, silly boy,” “Go home to your wife and children, and give my love to all”  — making it clear that his assumed control of Tom’s future is coextensive with his right to dispose of the enslaved man as he sees fit, even through emancipation. That Tom remains in bondage despite St. Clare’s good intentions (and his first, tentative “legal steps”) is evident from the imperative in which the well-meaning master continues to address his soon-to-be-freed slave.

That Tom, once freed, might just be in a position to plot an alternative life story not only for himself but for his erstwhile master is evident when he verbally rejects St. Clare’s plans for Tom’s sentimental reunion with his family by stating his own intention to defer that homecoming in order to provide the white man with much-needed spiritual guidance.  Here, Tom’s piety may give him the moral authority to contradict the man who holds him as property, but in practice only self-ownership would enable him to wrest control of his life plans from St. Clare. Then, in the reversal that Tom anticipates, the former slave would be in a position to direct his quondam master‘s future by ensuring his everlasting life.

As with the practical Miss Ophelia, “Now” may be “all the time” any of us have “anything to do with” here on earth, but, Stowe reminds us in this and the following chapters, the way in which a person, especially a slaveholder, disposes of his property in the present could be as crucial in shaping others’ lives in the here and now as it would be in determining his own in the hereafter.


[i] Margaret Jane Radin, “Property and Personhood,” Stanford Law Review 34.5 (May 1982): 968.f his life plans f

[ii] Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 28.

[iii] Frederick Douglass, Autobiographies, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Library of America, 1994), 305.

 

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