Chapter 29: Comment by Jo-Ann Morgan

Were the January 15, 1952 installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for The National Era less steeped in irony, Harriet Beecher Stowe addressing the reader as “innocent friend” might have assuaged northern subscribers of complicity with the goings on down South. “A slave warehouse!” she announces, where “husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and children” in bondage wait to be sold. The scenario transpires in New Orleans, but one “gentleman” who will profit by selling his inherited lot of human property resides in New York.

“[T]hese days men have learned the art of sinning expertly and genteelly, so as not to shock the eyes and senses of respectable society,” Stowe chastises. But it is not just blind Yankee mercantilism she indicts. The artful sin to which she alludes is indeed unspeakable; something proper women were not supposed to notice, much less mention. Destined for the auction block is a mother named Susan, a “mulatto woman…with soft eyes and a gentle and pleasing physiognomy.” Also for sale is her daughter Emmeline, “a young girl of fifteen…. a quadroon, as may be seen from her fairer complexion.” The reader well knew the subtext implicit in pale skin. In an earlier chapter Stowe remarks on another fair young woman. “Safe under the protecting care of her mistress, Eliza had reached maturity without those temptations which make beauty so fatal an inheritance to a slave.” Here in chapter twenty-nine the consequences of that aforementioned fatal inheritance are made squeamishly clear.

As the girl huddles with her mother, leering men pass by, touching her hair, admiring her soft hands. Her mother admonishes she must brush her pretty curls all back straight so that “respectable families” might wish to purchase her. But pious ladies, such as she whose attendant they had once been, were not habitués of slave markets. Here were vulgar men in checked clothing and palmetto straw hats– “great, burly, gruff men; little, chirping, dried men; long-favored, lank, hard men; and every variety of stubbed-looking, commonplace men.” They chew cigars and drool tobacco juice. In contrast, Stowe assures the reader, “the gentleman” who sells this mother and daughter “is a member of a Christian church in New York, who will receive the money, and go thereafter to the sacrament of his Lord and theirs, and think no more of it.” Is he then any less morally bankrupt that his crude southern brethren?

Fig. 1 Hammatt Billings, engraving Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Boston: John P. Jewett, 1852

A different slave market would be one of six illustrations by Hammatt Billings for John P. Jewett’s publication of the serial as a book later that year. Captioned “The Auction Sale,” that image accompanies the tragic story of an old slave named Aunt Hagar. (Fig. 1)

The image resembles a vignette Billings recently used on his masthead design for the antislavery newspaper The Liberator.[1] (Fig. 2) More apropos to Stowe’s sentiment about the evil of slavery and the vulnerability of young slave girls is his rendition of the sale of Emmeline for Jewett’s gift book version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Fig. 2 Hammatt Billings, masthead engraving, The Liberator, c. 1850

Billings’s biographer James F. O’Gorman, termed his depiction of Emmeline “a vested version of Hiram Powers’s naked Greek Slave,” referring to what was probably the most famous artwork of mid-century America.[2](Fig. 3)

Fig. 3 Original plaster of Greek Slave, 1843, Hiram Powers, photographer Hiram Powers papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

The carved marble sculpture was seen by as many as 100,000 viewers throughout 1847 and 1848 as it toured American cities, including Boston, where Billings likely saw it. Widely critiqued in the press, The National Era featured several commentaries, including in January of 1851 an unsigned entry written as if the sculpture herself was speaking:

I was carved from Parian, rather than from Ebony, that I might more effectually appeal to perverted justice and partial sympathy; but I am the representation of the captive and the forsaken everywhere….Whatever claim of justice I may secure for me, and those like me, are due to those equally oppressed in your very midst. …Though my skin were black as night, my soul would have the same aspirations, and need the same sympathies, my intellect would have the same laws and need the same development. Cease your sympathy for a slave in Constantinople, and go show kindness and justice to those over whom you have power.[3]

Fig. 4 Hammatt Billings, engraving Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Boston: John P. Jewett, 1853.

Paintings or sculptures of nudes were highly irregular in American art. To dissuade any prurient inclinations, Powers clothed his figure in the guise of classical Greek, bestowing an imprimatur of ideal beauty. And, she is imbued with redeeming Christianity, vouchsafed by the crucifix she holds. Billings posed Emmeline with hands clasped to one side, gaze lowered, and head demure. As was the beloved Greek Slave, the fifteen-year-old girl was perceived as modest, Christian, and innocent. (Fig. 4)[4]

Fig. 5 George Cruikshank, engraving Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, London: John Cassell, Ludgate Hill, 1852.

After exhibitions in American cities, Power’s popular sculpture was on view at the Crystal Palace in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851. That may account for why English artist George Cruikshank included “Emmeline about to be sold to the highest bidder” among his twenty-seven prints for the Uncle Tom’s Cabin that John Cassell, Ludgate Hill published in 1852. (Fig. 5) Little is known about who painted Slave Marketof around this same time, but it is highly possible the artist was thinking of Stowe’s young quadroon, such was the impact the novel and the unspoken horror it addressed had on mid-century readers and viewers here and abroad.  (Fig. 6)

Fig. 6 Artist unknown, Slave Market, c. 1850 The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

[1] James F. O’Gorman, Accomplished in All Departments of Art– Hammatt Billings of Boston, 1818-1874 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1998), 48. William Lloyd Garrison began publishing The Liberator, stalwart among anti-slavery papers, January 1, 1830 and never missed an issue for 1,800 weeks. Over a thirty-five year run, The Liberator had three mastheads. The second, designed by David Claypoole Johnston, debuted March 23, 1838 and included an auction scene. For the third and last masthead design of the 1850s, Hammatt Billings elaborated on Johnston’s auction design and added a central roundel wherein a slave kneels before Christ. See: Donald M. Jacobs, editor, Courage and Conscience: Black and White Abolitionists in Boston (Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 1993) 10.

[2] O’Gorman, 57.

[3] The National Era, Washington, D.C (16 January 1851) can be found at Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture, A Multi-Media Archive directed by Stephen Railton, Department of English, University of Virginia.

[4] Joy S. Kasson, Marble Queens and Captives— Women in Nineteenth Century American Sculpture (New Haven: Yale, 1990) 46-72.

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

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