Chapters 20 & 21: Comment by Jo-Ann Morgan

Chapter XX “Kentuck”

In chapter XX, “Kentuck,” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Harriet Beecher Stowe aims to the heart of a female audience with an aggressive challenge to the validity of patriarchy in nineteenth century America. Men, it seems, ineptly wielded power through over reliance on the pecuniary, with complete disregard for moral virtues.

Among the novel’s seeming endless parade of flawed white male characters, none outranks slaveholder Shelby, for whom Stowe barely contains her disdain. “Leisurely tipped back in one chair, with his heels in another, he was enjoying his after-dinner cigar.” By contrast, his wife Emily was “busy” sewing, an apt accompaniment to her tireless production of ideas for repurchasing the slave he had sold down the river, Uncle Tom. This man of the house is as condescending as she is indefatigable. “You are the finest woman in Kentucky, but still you haven’t sense to know that you don’t understand business—women never do, and never can.” With arrogant nonchalance he assures her that “Tom’ll have another wife in a year or two,” so Aunt Chloe, might as well ”take up with somebody else.” To the “the finest woman in Kentucky,” and even the less exalted reader, his failure to heed the “morality of the Bible” must have been nothing short of blasphemy.

The first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published by John P. Jewett of Boston in 1852, featured six illustrations by Hammatt Billings. The artist was hired again to create over one hundred new prints for a Christmas gift book. There, atop each chapter, an engraving showcases the main characters in the story to come. A decorative first letter launches the text, occasional prints highlight memorable scenes, and tiny vignettes ornament the endings.

Fig. 1 Engraving by Hammatt Billings, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Boston: John P. Jewett, 1853), 317.

For the “Kentuck” chapter, which became chapter XXI in the book, Billings portrayed the Shelbys as described. (Fig. 1) The languorous Shelby, feet up, cozy blanket over his lap, tips back in his chair as his industrious wife directs the conversation. However, the artist deftly conveys more about what Stowe likely intended. Below Shelby’s chair, a large slumbering dog, not mentioned in the text, provides none too subtle commentary on the ineffectual nature of his master. The addition of a dog to reinforce subtext is a popular genre convention in nineteenth century painting. Courtship scenes, as example, might show a dog with its tail between its legs as an unlucky suitor is being shown the door. Here the canine doppelgänger snoozes lazily, oblivious to what is going on. Also in the picture, figuratively and literally, is Tom’s wife Aunt Chloe. She too was not present during their conversation, but did of course eavesdrop. However, it is her cause that Mrs. Shelby champions and their collaboration will bring the plan to fruition, unencumbered by the worthless mister. Men mess things up and women have to take charge and set them right, a recurring theme in the novel.

Fig. 2 Engraving by Hammatt Billings, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Boston: John P. Jewett, 1853), 321.

As a side note, the other engraving Billings made for this chapter bears a striking resemblance to an oil painting by well-known American painter Winslow Homer, titled “A Visit from the Old Mistress” (1876). That this tiny print might have inspired a composition for a painting is an example of the popularity and wide-ranging impact that both written scenes and images from the story had on other artistic mediums.[1] (Fig. 2, Fig. 3)

Fig. 3 Winslow Homer, A Visit from the Old Mistress, 1876, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of William T. Evans (1909.7.28)


Chapter XXI “The grass withereth—the flower fadeth,”

If Chapter XX showcases an inadequate man, Chapter XXI, “The grass withereth—the flower fadeth,” offers an alternative. Uncle Tom, it could be argued, and Stowe seems to do just that, may be the best man in the novel. He is at the least an equal in wisdom and Christian goodness with the angelic Eva St. Clare. The two kindred spirits join in deep communion, pondering Bible verses, singing hymns. Eva and Tom, “she and her simple friend, the old child and the young one,” read together out in the garden. Stowe sees humanity in Tom, a Christian soul, a “soft, impressionable heart,” he possesses all the fine qualities to be found in women. But her words unman him, laden with designations of “faithful attendant” and “humble friend.”

Fig. 4 “Little Eva reading the Bible to Uncle Tom in the arbor.” Engraving by Hammatt Billings, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Boston: John P. Jewett, 1852), 63.

This chapter showcases Eva in one of the most touching scenes in the novel as she muses of heaven and shares with Tom her premonition of “going there.” Billings’ illustration of the scene, titled “Little Eva Reading the Bible to Uncle Tom in the Arbor,” was in the first edition. He reworked it slightly to fit onto the new format of chapter title page. (Fig. 4, Fig. 5) The question remains, of all the prints Billings made for the original edition and then the gift book, why has this scene been the most reproduced?

Fig. 5 Engraving by Hammatt Billings, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Boston: John P. Jewett, 1853), 324.

Billings’ visualization was widely appropriated right from the start. His engraving was used on a sheet music cover for Little Eva: Uncle Tom’s Guardian Angel (1852), words by John Greenleaf Whittier. African-American artist William Scott Duncanson was commissioned by James Francis Conover, editor of The Detroit Tribune to paint the exact scene. Theatrical productions used the scene on posters and playbills. In the absence of copyright protections, other publishers rushed to capitalize on the novel’s success. If they were illustrated, Tom and Eva in the garden were pictured.[2]

There is no denying the sentimental punch this moment delivers as Tom, and through him the reader, realizes Eva is not long for the world. Stowe had experienced the personal tragedy of losing a child to cholera in 1849, just before she began the serial. Shortly after the book was published, she shared her feelings in a letter to writer Eliza Cabot Follen.

“It was at his dying bed and at his grave that I learned what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her. In those depths of sorrow which seemed to me immeasurable, it was my only prayer to God that such anguish might not be suffered in vain.”

Child mortality rates were high in the nineteenth century, making the experience of reconciling loss something shared by many women. Stowe virtually eulogizes Eva in this chapter, which may have further expiated her lingering grief and resolve. And, judging by the popularity of this image of Eva revealing her fate to Tom, it clearly resonated with others.[3]

Fig. 6 “The Sea of Glass.” Lithograph, song sheet cover, by J. Brandard (London, 1852).

“Has there ever been a child like Eva? Yes, there have been, but their names are always on grave-stones, and their sweet smiles, their heavenly eyes, their singular words and ways, are among the buried treasures of yearning hearts. In how many families do you hear the legend that all the goodness and graces of the living are nothing to the peculiar charms of one who is not. It is as if heaven had an especial band of angels, whose office it was to sojourn for a season here, and endear to them the wayward human heart, that they might bear it upward with them in their homeward flight. When you see that deep, spiritual light in the eye, when the little soul reveals itself in words sweeter and wiser than the ordinary words of children, hope not to retain that child, for the seal of Heaven is on it, and the light of immortality looks out from its eyes.

Fig. 7 “Uncle Tom and Little Eva, in Stetson’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Photo card, ca. 1890s.

Nevertheless, the image is a complicated one, and all the more so because Tom himself changed so over the years. While that discussion is beyond the scope of this commentary, a look at Tom on sheet music in 1852 and then on a theatrical photo card from the turn of the century should convey the enigma. (Fig. 6, Fig. 7) Understanding why Tom, who starts out pictured as a dark-haired, manly father and head of household, became an elderly old man requires a look at the social and political history of late nineteenth century America.


[1] For a more detailed look at this connection between popular prints and fine art painting using the work of Winslow Homer see: Jo-Ann Morgan, “Winslow Homer Visits Aunt Chloe’s Old Kentucky Home,” Southeast College Art Conference (SECAC) Review 14:5, (2005) 439-451.

[2] For more on the history of this image see: Jo-Ann Morgan, “Picturing Uncle Tom with Little Eva–Reproduction as Legacy,” Journal of American Culture, 27:1, Blackwell Publishing (Feb. 2004): 1-24.

[3] For analysis of the evangelical Christian aspects of imagery in Billings’ 1853 edition see: “The Passion of Uncle Tom: Pictures Join Words to Challenge Patriarchy,” Jo-Ann Morgan, Uncle Tom’s Cabin s Visual Culture, (University of Missouri Press, 2007) 64-100.

 

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

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