Chapter 9 continued: Comment by Emily Todd

When I teach only excerpts from Uncle Tom’s Cabin in American literature surveys, I always teach Chapter IX.  I do so because the chapter dramatizes one of Stowe’s central arguments so well: the chapter stages how “private feelings” can—or, really, should—influence “public” action.  The debate between Mrs. Bird and her senator husband, as Gregg Crane suggests in his commentary about last week’s installment, ends with “Senator Bird’s ideas of law . . . re-grounded in the moral sense expressed by Mrs. Bird.”[1]  When she asks her husband about the recent legislation he helped to craft (the Fugitive Slave Act), she questions how anyone could support a law so “cruel and unchristian” that prevents people from giving shelter, food, and clothes to those in need.  Of course, the position she articulates at the beginning of the chapter is the one Senator Bird adopts when he breaks the very law he had help to write.  I know the chapter well and, in my teaching, I have charted a predictable course through it.

But when I read this week’s installment from the National Era, I discovered that it wasn’t quite the chapter I knew. For one, this week’s installment picks up in the middle Chapter IX.  The installment is the first chapter to have been split in two, a practice that Gamaliel Bailey used 10 other times during the run of the novel in the National Era. And there’s another change.  The characters I had come to know well have different names: Senator and Mrs. Burr, not Senator and Mrs. Bird.  (Wesley Raabe has suggested one possible source for the switch, but, as Susan Belasco Smith has noted, “no reason is known for the name change.”[2])   As readers of this blog, we experience Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and specifically this chapter, differently from how readers of the novel in book form might experience it.  A reader beginning the second half of Chapter IX, after a week has elapsed, encounters what is in effect a new chapter, one that illustrates the transformation of Senator Burr.  I have always taught Chapter IX through an analysis of Mrs. Bird’s persuasive powers, but the continued chapter shifts the focus to Senator Bird—or, rather, Senator Burr.

The chapter break would likely not have been Stowe’s decision.  According to Wesley Raabe, the National Era could not always fit in everything Stowe had written.  When a chapter did spill over, Raabe suggests, it was Bailey who decided where to break the chapter.[3]  So the chapter break is not significant for what it tells us about an authorial decision but rather for what it tells about readers’ experiences.  In this case, the chapter break focuses the reader’s attention on Senator Burr—not Mrs. Burr or Eliza but on a public figure with political power who ends up acting on his Christian principles.  This week’s installment highlights the possibility for political transformation through the journey of Senator Burr.

The opening paragraph to this week’s installment illustrates Mrs. Burr’s retreat from the center of the action, as Senator Burr himself advances and begins to contemplate making a move to aid Eliza and Harry.   After Mrs. Burr and Senator Burr “reëntered the parlor,” she immediately “sat down in her little rocking-chair,” while he “strode up and down the room, grumbling to himself.”  The reader focuses on Mr. Burr’s turmoil as he paces and considers the steps he should take to free Eliza.  He has a “reflective air” and “seemed to go off deep in meditation” and his meditations lead him to a plan but also to doubt.  After he has hatched his scheme for escape, he says, “But I’m thinking I shall feel rather cheap there, after all that’s been said and done.”  But Mrs. Burr reassures him and gives voice to one of Stowe’s claims in this novel:  “Your heart is better than your head in this case, John.”

As the installment continues, Senator Burr’s doubts ease, in part because he begins to see Eliza and Harry as members of his own family.   Eliza is, after all, dressed in Mrs. Burr’s clothes, and the senator has urged his wife to look through the belongings of the son they had lost—Henry—and to give those belongings to Eliza’s son Harry.   So Harry wears “his lost boy’s little well known cap,” while Eliza is “arrayed in a cloak, bonnet, and shawl, that had belonged to her benefactress.”

Senator Burr’s transformation becomes complete during his coach journey with Eliza and Harry to the home of John Van Trompe.  I am interested in the way that Senator Burr’s journey along muddy Ohio roads shares something in its telling with Eliza’s journey across the breaking ice on the Ohio River.  It’s meant to be funny—so it lacks the suspense or seriousness of Eliza’s escape—but the narration is similar nonetheless.  The narrator shifts to the present tense in describing the journey—“Carriage springs up with another bounce; down go the hind wheels”—and just as Eliza’s courageous leaping across breaking-up ice seems improbable, the passage through the deep mud and the logs askew also seems daunting and impossible.

As the coach bounces across the impassable roads, the distance between Senator Burr, Eliza, and Harry is bridged.  With every bump and rut, the three are tossed together.  Three times, the narrator describes the passengers as “Senator, woman, and child,” as they fall together into different parts of the coach.  They “tumble promiscuously on to the front seat” at one point, and then the “Senator, woman, and child, fly over on to the back seat.”  The word “promiscuously” is odd here, as though there is some boundary crossed in the tumbling, and another description underscores the crossed boundaries, when the characters are tossed by the rough coach ride “reversing their positions.”  Like Eliza’s journey across the ice, this journey through the muddy roads is transformative: it brings Senator Burr to the other side.  The distance that Senator Burr has tried to keep between himself and the fugitive slaves has collapsed.  He can no longer fail to see these fugitive slaves as human, as members potentially of his own family, as mother and child.  They are together “senator, mother, and child” who “revers[e] their positions” in the carriage.

The chapter ends with certainty (a handshake, money passing hands)–the doubt with which the installment opened has subsided.  This continuation of Chapter IX emphasizes what the chapter title had promised: the senator has become “but a man.”  So even though the chapter break is accidental, the July 31 installment frames the story anew, placing in the center of the frame Senator Burr.  Those who have studied Uncle Tom’s Cabin within the context of the National Era—E. Bruce Kirkham, Susan Belasco Smith, Barbara Hochman, Wesley Neil Raabe, Michael Winship, among others—have pointed out, in various ways, how a study of the serial publication in 1851-1852 reveals different “contexts [for] reading.”[4]  For me, re-reading the novel in installments in the summer of 2011 has brought about a new way of entering Chapter IX, one that re-orients me toward the arc of Senator Burr’s journey.


[1] Gregg Crane, Commentary on Chapter IX, July 24, 2011.

[2] Thanks to Wesley Raabe for sharing his unpublished article, which is taken from his dissertation.  See Wesley Neil Raabe, “Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: an Electronic Edition of the National Era Version” (Ph.D. Diss, University of Virginia, 2006): 122-127.  The quotation is from page 84 of Susan Belasco Smith’s “Serialization and the Nature of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in Nineteenth-Century American Periodical Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995): 69-89.

[3] See Raabe’s dissertation for more details.

[4] I am echoing the title of Barbara Hochman’s essay, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the National Era: An Essay in Generic Norms and the Contexts of Reading,” Book History 7 (2004): 143-69

 

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents


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