Chapter 5: Comment by Wesley Raabe

Mrs. Shelby’s Contribution to Slavery’s Abuses (26 June)

Emily Shelby appears to mean well, but in this installment she is caught in circumstances beyond her control. Her husband Arthur Shelby, whose legal and financial authority extends over the entire household, which includes wife and children as well as slaves, bears the greatest responsibility for the abuses of slavery. She protests in this chapter that she has sought to “gild it over” with “kindness, and care, and instruction.”[1] She is already troubled that religious hypocrisy may excuse the abuses that law permits, and Arthur Shelby’s sale of little Harry and Uncle Tom stuns his wife and convinces her that her former idealism was foolish. Even if we intuit her emotions rightly, we may be too sympathetic to her defensive rationalizations, whether she appeals to social expectations, to economic circumstance, or to what I will call her maternal authoritarianism. Harriet Beecher Stowe provides numerous subtle clues, some in punctuation that was altered for the Jewett edition, that Mrs. Shelby has contributed significantly, if unconsciously, to the perpetuation of slavery and to its inevitable abuses of “living property.”

Her sin in chapter 5, the 26 June installment, is that she fails to transform thought into action with real economic effects. She is “hurriedly and abstractedly fingering her gold watch” as she protests that she has no “jewelry of any amount”; however, due to what may be a punctuation error in the newspaper, her speech is not marked as continuing aloud. She may muse to herself about possibilities: “would not this watch do something—it was an expensive one when it was bought.” The punctuation error, which is scarcely detectable, may signal that Stowe’s manuscript was not clear about when Mrs. Shelby again addresses her husband. In the Jewett edition, she speaks aloud when she appeals to her husband—a question mark follows “something.” She continues without a response: why? how long does she wait? does his silence close the discussion? In the book printing, a comma follows “expensive one”: there she may rationalize that the watch has not retained its value.[2] Regardless of whether she responds to her husband’s silence (book) or thinks to herself (serial), she asserts that she could sacrifice but does not do anything—which for Stowe is a cardinal sin. Mrs. Shelby has other jewelry, the rings that Aunt Chloe in the previous installment had said were “sparklin”: the stones are so numerous as to resemble dew on lilies. Readers also learned in the slave cabin of the mistress’s “new berage” (a dress of silky or gauzelike fabric), another household expense to assure that Chloe’s mistress can continue to “kinder sweep it into a room” in the manner to which she is accustomed. The economic costs for Mrs. Shelby to meet her social expectations, as the wife of a gentleman planter, seem as immutable as law.

But that’s an illusion. People may confuse what they need with what they want, in Stowe’s day as well as our own. In her son and grandson’s 1911 biography it is said that Stowe’s husband Calvin hoped with the profits from Uncle Tom’s Cabin that she would be able to buy a silk dress. Did Mrs. Shelby or Stowe “need” a silk dress? Do you “need” an iPhone? The pro-slavery Southern critic, Louisa McCord, who was nonetheless a sharp-eyed reader, mocked Stowe’s assumption that a Southern gentleman like Mr. Shelby could not put together a meager thousand dollars. Did McCord find a fault? Or did Stowe outwit McCord? [3]

If readers focus on Mrs. Shelby, rather than her husband as McCord did, she has an additional fault that contributes to slavery’s abuses, an unmistakable maternal authoritarianism toward her servants. She reassures Eliza that Mr. Shelby would not sell Harry: he “never means to sell any of his servants as long as they behave well.” In the Jewett edition, a comma follows the word servants, and it sets off the subsequent phrase as an aside. In the serial, which has no comma, the mistress’s casual acknowledgment of the cause-effect connection between bad behavior and being sold south is chilling. Finally, Mrs. Shelby’s response to Eliza’s grief after the death of two infant children is emotionally cold: the young mother’s feelings are “so intense as to call for gentle remonstrance from her mistress, who sought with maternal anxiety to direct her naturally passionate feelings within the bounds of reason and religion.” Mrs. Shelby remonstrance may not be coercive, but should she decide that Eliza’s grief is excessive, she through her husband has the legal authority at her disposal to rid herself of the irritation, even if neither she nor Eliza contemplates the option now. But as Stowe’s work stresses, even kindhearted slaveowners do things that they would not have previously contemplated because circumstances change and the law permits.

In a coming installment, the work’s most intriguing politician and servant, Sam, will decide whether he should act to support his master’s desires or his mistress’s. Sam, whose particular talent is “knowing which side the bread is buttered,” has to choose, and he chooses to side with one whose authority he believes is ultimately more powerful in the household. That Sam manipulates circumstances to his own advantage is treated as a source of humor, but readers enthralled with Sam’s layers of deception may miss a deeper truth: to improve his lot he must try to manage the forces that control his fate in slavery. If Mr. Shelby’s power over Sam’s condition is stronger than his wife’s, perhaps Sam will choose to serve his master rather than his mistress. But new readers of the serial will have to wait to find out whether Sam believes his “masser” or his “missis” is the better side to butter.

[1] Mrs. H[arriet]. B[eecher] Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin: or, Life among the Lowly, National Era, June 5, 1851–April 1, 1852.

[2]   Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin: or, Life among the Lowly, 2 vols. (Boston: John P. Jewett; Cleveland: Jewett, Proctor, and Worthington, 1852), 1:25, 1:59.

[3] Charles Edward Stowe and Lyman Beecher Stowe, Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Story of Her Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), 148. Louisa S. McCord, “Art. III—Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Southern Quarterly Review, January 1853, 90-91.

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

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