Missed Installment: Commentary by Barbara Hochman

A Missed Installment

Stowe missed the deadline for the installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that was to appear on December 18, 1851. The reason for the missed deadline is unknown. On Dec. 18, Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the Era, printed the following announcement: “We regret as much as any of our readers can regret, that Mrs. Stowe has no chapter in this week’s Era. It is not our fault for up to this hour we have nothing from her. As she is generally so punctual we fear that sickness may have prevented. We feel constrained to make this apology, so profound is the interest taken in her story by nearly all our readers.” Stowe had failed to meet her deadline twice before; the missed deadline for the December 18 issue was her last such inadvertency. But was it an accident?

I want to suggest that missing the deadline for this particular installment may have been a tactical decision on Stowe’s part, designed for a particular effect upon her readers.  Looking at the episodes that were published immediately before and after the number of the Era that appeared without an installment of the tale can help us decide whether my suggestion makes sense.

The number of the Era that appeared on December 11, the week before Stowe missed her deadline, included the description of Eva’s death.  The next installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared after a week of silence, on December 25– Christmas Day. This installment includes a lengthy exchange between St. Clare and Ophelia about salvation and sins of omission, accompanied by citations from the book of Matthew. St. Clare’s extended reflections on death and the last judgment signify his slow but steady groping toward faith, the outcome of a prolonged period of pain over the loss of Eva. Unlike his hysterical wife, St. Clare does not shed many tears when Eva dies; but he feels the loss most keenly. The gradual healing of St. Clare’s spirit, most clearly dramatized in the Christmas issue, prepares the ground for St. Clare’s sudden death in the following installment, on January 1.

In creating little Eva, Stowe drew on the familiar image of the beloved child who dies too soon, wise and prescient beyond her years– an image that circulated freely in antebellum print culture.   This well-known figure appeared as the subject of diverse texts – from obituaries through poetry and fiction – often in the National Era itself. Within the Era, as elsewhere, untimely death was repeatedly invoked to suggest that one must accept God’s decree and take comfort from the idea that a dead child has gone to a better place.  But while Eva herself is ready to die, confident that she is on the way to her heavenly “home,” Uncle Tom’s Cabin suggests that Eva’s own equanimity does not easily compensate those who survive her. Stowe often claimed that her own grief at the death of her baby Charley, taught her what a slave mother must feel at having her child taken away from her to be sold. Throughout Uncle Tom’s Cabin Stowe’s conviction that religious faith is hard to sustain when one loses a child informs descriptions of slave families torn apart as well as the representation of Eva’s illness and death. The figure of St. Clare plays a central role here.

Eva’s father is a significant presence for approximately two hundred pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Although St. Clare has been somewhat neglected by recent scholars, he was much appreciated by the 19th c reading public – not least for his spiritual struggles. After Eva’s death, “the whole world is as empty as an egg-shell” to St. Clare. As the narrator notes, only “the cold mechanical habit of living remain[ed] after all vital interest in it [had] fled.” Such words must have come as a relief to many antebellum readers for whom—as for St. Clare—reassuring formulas about the immortality of a dead child were less than persuasive. Like contemporary mourning manuals, tales of “consolation” in the National Era often emphasized that affliction would naturally and inevitably strengthen Christian faith. Stowe’s narrative, on the contrary, asserts the lack of any such “natural” or easy quid pro quo.  The story of St. Clare most clearly expresses this idea. At first he responds to his beloved daughter’s death with a sense of helplessness and despair; only with Tom’s loving care does he gradually begin to access other feelings, memories and beliefs. In the course of many chapters, St. Clare’s relation to both Scripture and slavery develops from a state of indifference to one of imaginative susceptibility.

Within the National Era St Clare’s suffering and turn to faith unfolded in the course of several episodes, just as Christmas 1851 was drawing near. When Stowe missed the deadline for December 18, the installment format itself ensured that readers would linger with St Clare’s pain and disbelief. Readers of the serial had an extra week to contemplate St. Clare, unable to pray while reading the Bible with Tom. “Tom, I don’t believe – I can’t believe – I’ve got the habit of doubting,” St.  Clare explains toward the end of the December 11 installment. “I want to believe this Bible – and I can’t.”  Tom rightly understands St Clare’s words as an appeal, and responds by asking his master to read the raising of Lazarus to him. He then urges St. Clare to pray. When St. Clare replies that “it’s all speaking unto nothing when I do,” Tom himself begins a prayer. Because “Tom thought there was somebody to hear whether there were or not,” St. Clare is swept along, on Tom’s “tide of … faith and feeling” until even the unbeliever feels close to the Heaven Tom imagines, and “nearer to Eva.” But at this point the installment of December 11 came to an end: “‘Thank you, my boy,’ said St. Clare, when Tom rose. ‘I like to hear you, Tom; but go, now, and leave me alone; some other time I’ll talk more.’ Tom silently left the room.”

On December 18, when the Era appeared with no episode of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the missed installment itself created a kind of hush as a temporal prelude to the climax of important changes in St. Clare. Readers may even have looked back at the previous episode, in the absence of a new one. When the narrative began again, after a week’s hiatus, readers learned that “St. Clare was in many respects another man. He read his little Eva’s Bible seriously and honestly, he thought more soberly and practically of his relations to his servants – enough to make him extremely dissatisfied with both his past and present course.”  In this chapter St. Clare contemplates the “sublime conception” of a Last Judgment, and sings the “Dies Irae,” from a book that belonged to his mother. (“She copied and arranged this from Mozart’s Requiem” he tells Ophelia). He begins to embrace the evangelical faith of his daughter. These developments  must have seemed all the more dramatic as a consequence of the extra time and space that marked off  St. Clare’s anguish and disbelief within the more characteristically crisp pace of events in the weekly sequence. It is tempting to speculate that Stowe purposely missed her deadline in order to intensify the effect of the Christmas installment.

Barbara Hochman

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

One response to “Missed Installment: Commentary by Barbara Hochman

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