Chapter 8: Comment by Joan Hedrick

Stowe uses this scene on the banks of the Ohio River to expose the hypocrisies, frauds, and lying inventions of slave-holding culture, much as  Twain, a generation later, will use the  southern culture river culture in Huckleberry Finn.  In contrast to the domestic scenes of the Shelby plantation, most of this chapter is set in the tavern to which Haley repairs after Eliza escapes his clutches.  The rituals and speech of this culture are decidely male.  Haley tells the man at the bar, “get us hot water, and sugar, and cigars, and plenty of the real stuff, and we’ll have a blow-out.”  In contrast to the pious objections of Mrs. Shelby to the sale of their slaves, Haley and the two professional slave-catchers he bumps into in the tavern, Loker and Marks, are single-mindedly devoted to slavery as a business.

As the men commiserate on the trouble slave “gals” make when their children are sold away from them, Haley claims to “b’lieve in religion”, and ruminates, “one of these days, when I’ve got matters tight and snug, I calculates to tend to my soul and them ar matters.”   Tom Loker snorts his skepticism: “run up a bill with the devil all your life and then sneak out when pay time comes!  Boh!”   Loker is so sure that Haley would lie in his accounts with “the devil himself” that he demands a $50 deposit before he will help catch Eliza and Harry.

Like the Duke and the King in Huckleberry Finn, Loker’s side-kick, Marks, prides himself on his powers of impersonation: “One day, I’m Mr. Twickem, from New Orleans; ‘nother day, I’m just come from my plantation on Pearl river, where I works seven hundred niggers; then again, I come out a distant relation of Henry Clay, or some old cock in Kentuck. . . . [I]f  thar’s a feller in the country that can swear to anything and everything, and put in all the circumstances and flourishes with a longer face, and carry ‘t through better ‘n I can, why I’d like to see him, that’s all!”  Stowe’s scorn for the values of these men is matched by the relish she takes in parading their views and their vernacular speech.

Linguistic antics of another sort shine in the second scene of this chapter.  Here the slave Sam, who has “assisted” Haley in his pursuit of Eliza while throwing all manner of delay into the chase, holds court with the other slaves in the kitchen, regaling them with his adventures.   Imitating the “sententious elevation” of the political oratory of the day, his mastery of hard words like “collusitate”  impress his audience and make his case.   While clearly drawing on the minstrel tradition, this scene portrays Sam not as a hapless buffoon but as a trickster.  Stowe acknowledges his real political skill:  he knows “on which side the bread is buttered” and assiduously curries favor and power within slave culture.  Thus in both the tavern and the slave kitchen, Stowe illuminates the interests of all parties.

Stowe skillfully and subtly layers this legal commerce over the Christian assumptions of her culture, embodied even in Haley’s greeting to the slave catchers:  “By the land!  If this yer an’t the nearest, now, to what I’ve heard folks call Providence.”   When Haley says to Tom Loker, “If you an’t the devil, Tom, you’s his twin brother,” Stowe remarks in her narrative voice, “Tom received the compliment with becoming modesty, and began to look as affable as was consistent, as John Bunyan says, ‘with his doggish nature.’”

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

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