Big Books of American Literature: Alchemies of Mind
Day 11: Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Uncle Tom's Cabin (first quarter)
*Second Set of Papers to Return
*Have you paid for your packet?
($20 to Shawn Covington in English Office)
*Have you had a writing conference w/ me?
(One is required before you leave for break...)

"Freedom is a feeling." --Rebecca Walker well do you think feelings work
as a guide to political action?
Where does "feeling right" get us...?

Adina: Over and over again, she seems to be asking the reader, "What would you do?" ...I can imagine a northern readership sympathizing with Eliza and acting to help real people who might be in her shoes.

Alison : I want to know how many rabid abolitionists resulted from reading this book. ..I guess my task is... to observe her methods and uncover what made this story so influential.

Chris : Stowe does not want to dance around the issue. Slavery is against humanity, against being American and against God. [She calls her characters and her readers to be] brave and truly Christian.... the burden of morality...takes a lot of sacrifice and self discipline...driven by a desire to bring...the true kingdom of God to the world....The task will not be easy... the act of tearing down a society...Yet, it is the responsibility of those who are called on.

Re-presenting last Thursday's lecture on
"the verbal icon"

(valorizing the object)

"reader-response theory"

(celebrating the transaction)


(being moved to act)

Jan Trembley, Alumnae Bulletin, "Icon" and "Klein Bottle"; also Hoberman Sphere

Another game, as a follow-up to "Fishbowl," called "Barometer":
get you to take a stand--everybody up!

(If you agree with this passage, move towards it;
if you disagree, move towards the stairs.
If you are unsure, locate yourself in the middle....)

James Baldwin,
"Everybody's Protest Novel,"
Notes of a Native Son (1949)
Uncle Tom's Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous,virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty. Uncle Tom's a catalogue of violence...what constriction or failure of perception forced Mrs. Stowe to so depend on the description of brutality--unmotivated, senseless--and to leave unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what is was, after all, that moved her people to such deeds. How is it that we are so loath to make a further journey than that made by Mrs. Stowe, to discover and reveal something a little closer to the truth?...truth, as used here, is meant to imply a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment. This creature is...something resolutely indefinable, unpredictable. In overlooking, denying, evading his complexity--which is nothing more than the disquieting complexity of ourselves--we are diminished and we perish; only within this web of ambiguity, paradox, this hunger, danger, darkness, can we find at once ourselves and the power that will free us from ourselves. It is this power of revelation which is the business of the novelist, this journey towards a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims.... we find ourselves bound...first without, then within, by the nature of our categorization...the failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.
Jane Tompkins,
Sentimental Power:Uncle Tom's Cabin
and the Politics of Literary History,"
Glyph (1978)
the popular domestic novel of the nineteenth century represents a monumental effort to reorganize culture from the woman's point of view...this body of work is remarkable for its intellectual complexity, ambition, and offers a critique of American society far more devastating than any delivered by better-known critics such as Hawthorne and Melville....the enormous popularity of these a reason for paying close attention to them. Uncle Tom's Cabin was the first American novel ever to sell over a million copies, and its impact is generally thought to have been incalculable....Uncle Tom's the summa theologica of nineteenth-century America's religion of domesticity:...the story of salvation through motherly love....the sentimental novelists...gave women the central position of power and authority in the culture the inability of twentieth-century appreciate the complexity and scope of a novel like Stowe's...stems from their assumptions about the nature and function of literature. In modernist thinking, literature is by definition a form of discourse that has no design on the world. It does not attempt to change things, but merely to represent them, and it does so in a specifically literary language whose claim to value lies in its whose stated purpose is to influence the course of history...which therefore employ a language that is...common and not qualify as works of art. Literary texts such as a sentimental novel, which make continual and obvious appeals to the reader's emotions and use technical devices that that are distinguished by their utter conventionality, epitomize the opposite of everything that good literature is supposed to be....

There is a clear stand off
between Baldwin and Tompkins (and among us?)
on this matter of emotion--
but a local critic gives us a possible resolution...??

First: a little cultural background.
What do you know of sambo? Of blackface? Of paired portraiture?

From "The Story of Little Black Sambo" (1899)

From a 1900 minstrel show poster,
showing the transformation from white to "black"

"The wall over the fireplace was adorned with...a portrait of General Washington, drawn and colored in a manner which would certainly have astonished that hero, if ever he had happened to meet with its like" (Ch. 4, "An Evening in Uncle Tom's Cabin," p. 18).

George Washington by Gilbert Stewart

Josiah Henson (1789-1883)

Now you're ready for Tina's reading!

Tina Zwarg, "Fathering and Blackface in
Uncle Tom's Cabin, Novel (1989)
By far the most stunning aspect of Stowe's description of Uncle Tom's cabin is her account of...a portrait of George Washington in blackface...With the image of a "colored" George Washington, Stowe enters into a parody of origins...presumed to be at the center of all social contracts....Stowe herself participates in a kind of "blackface" production with her novel.... Black Sam...embodies the subversive possibilities of blackface released by the portrait of George Washington....the explosive imperative of marginality becomes explicit whenever a character like Sam takes "control" of the narrative....His humor distinguishes him from Tom, whose sobriety and "dignity" become the tools of his destruction....the entire text works the confluence of slave and women as they are reified by the culture."Gals" who, like Sam, first ironize and then utilize their knowledge of this process are precisely the figures who will escape its final control. The radical nature of Stowe's feminism resides in the fact that its "character" need not be restricted by gender or color. Black Sam is nearly the perfect embodiment of Stowe's feminism since he is such a thorough construct of the social codes through which he travels and maneuvers....Sam exploits and revises our preconceptions about the stereotype of the Sambo in the same way that he exploits Haley's preconceptions about women as contrary--by being contrary....

Uncle Tom at Home

[Let's read aloud Ch 6, p.42, re "bobservation," and
Ch. 8, p. 66, re "collusitating the great principles of persistence"]

Adina: almost a clown character.
Sam's oratory parodies even as it follows the play of Emerson's well-known essay "Self-Reliance...a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"...through Sam, Stowe...explicates the appeal of blackface...the extraordinary and dangerous reading of white culture from which it derives....Stowe pitches the powerful entertainment value of blackface against its racist consumption by superimposing upon it the figurative "appeal" of Emerson's work. With this bizarre caricature, turning the father of American literature into a "sambo," while simutaneously painting him in blackface, Stowe shows how the appeal of Emerson's writing emerged from the complex cultural "reading" it supplied...a "sort of patriarch" more interested in shaking and displacing those foundations....a complex maneuver..that goes a long way toward explaining the extraordinary appeal of her novel...

Uncle Tom and Aunt Chloe at Home

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Extraordinary Appeal??

Laura S: I have yet to be moved to..."righteous indignation"...I wonder if part of my inability to really FEEL the narrative is a necessary defense mechanism in the face of this country's there a way to force myself to really feel the story? Or is it necessary, for my own psychological health, to retain some distance from a topic so truly horrible?

Adina: if I were unaware of the realities of slavery, I might feel more sympathy and, to borrow a word from Laura, "indignation"...I have read much more gruesome accounts of slavery...I am also preoccupied with the idea that this extremely racist....

Steph : I agree with what Adina said - there seems to be so much interwoven racist attitudes that Stowe herself perpetuates....The biggest shock has been how obvious the agenda of this book is...inserting abolitionist speeches into the mouths of the white female characters! How could a 19th century audience not see this work (and disregard it?) as a blatant piece of propoganda? it taught as one of the major causes of the Civil War?

Alison : I found the first thirty pages of this book particularly hard to swallow, as everything in my liberal, 21st century mind wanted to hate Harriet Beecher Stowe for every line or thought uttered by the characters....The words made my skin crawl. I realized I probably would have been the exact target audience for this story and that weirds me out. She makes points that clearly resonate with my opinions but to be so obviously manipulated...did it really work?

Read the second quarter of Stowe's novel for Thursday
(through Ch. 19, p. 206 in the Norton edition)
and if you haven't yet posted your responses this week, please do so.

Here's a prompt:

Tom Learns of his Sale

Darwin famously said, "Crying is a puzzler." (I.e.: he couldn't figure out the adaptive use value of crying...) And if the point of studying the world is to change it, and/or the point of representing the world is to change it....well? What is the use-value of crying?

See, for a local illustration, Mrs. Shelby's visit to Uncle Tom's cabin on the eve of his departure: "for a few moments they all wept in company. And in those tears they all shed together, the high and the lowly, melted away all the heart-burnings and anger of the oppressed. O, ye who visit the distressed, do ye know that everything your money can not worth one honest tear shed in real sympathy?" (Ch. 10, "The Property is Carried Off," p. 84).

What's the worth of those tears? On the basis of what sort of calibration?

Go to on-line forum.

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