Monday, January 11, 2010


"I have been the mother of seven children, the most beautiful and most loved of whom lies buried near my Cincinnati residence. It was at his dying bed and at his grave that I learnt what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her." That's Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1851, on the death of her son Charley, and the inspiration for her antislavery novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin." 

Whether or not Stowe really felt the same anguish as a slave mother is debatable. I doubt it. But she was an abolitionist, and did use her own grief to connect with the loss that slave mothers felt regularly. In writing the book, she told a friend that she aimed "to hold up in the most lifelike and graphic manner possible Slavery, its reverses, changes and the negro character." This is from an essay by Beverly Lowry on "Uncle Tom's Cabin," in the recently-released anthology, "A New Literary History of America," edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. To "hold up ... Slavery" for examination, Stowe used the central character of Eliza, who flees North with her baby to save him from bondage. 

If Stowe sought to engender sympathy for slaves on the part of her (mostly white) readers, then she succeeded in part because her story first appeared in serialized form. That's the intriguing contention of Beverly Lowry, who notes that 41 installments of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" appeared in the antislavery newsweekly "National Era" between 1851 and 1852. An astounding (for the time) 50,000 people read the story weekly, and its run helped increase the magazine's subscription list from 15,000 to 19,000. 

Lowry contends: "Because it is the very nature of serialization to stir up our impatience and to put our nerves on edge as we wait for the next episode, perhaps people then had time to imagine what it was like to be a slave, to feel what enslaved people felt, in particular a mother whose child was snatched from her arms and sold away.

"And as the story continued and readers waited to find out what happened next, the outrage of a nation was stirred beyond frustration and anger, into action. Say what we will in today's terms about Mrs. Stowe and her sketches. She did what she could at the time. And people paid attention." 

True enough, "Say what we will" about the story -- and goodness knows that people have said plenty over the course of nearly 160 years about its literary shortcomings and racist characterizations. Still and all, whatever power "Uncle Tom's Cabin" had to move people on its merits and in its time was, I'm inclined to agree, increased by its appearing in serial form. Suspense -- when we wait to find out what happens next -- is a state of wonder, anticipation, and speculation. In between installments of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," readers may have learned to appreciate the characters, and been prompted to imagine other futures for them to live into.  

Btw, here's a fascinating online multi-media archive, "Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture," which features historical notes, interpretive essays, film clips, songs, drawings and other materials about the novel and its place in U.S. cultural history.

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