Big Books of American Literature: Alchemies of Mind
Day 13: Tuesday, February 23, 2006
Uncle Tom's Cabin (third quarter)

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" scene from
Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I.
Dir. Walter Lang. 1956.

What just happened? What are your reactions? observations?
Your thoughts? feelings about what you've just seen?

Today's topics: "Realness," its Relation to Reading...
and the Relation of them both to... Sacrifice (?!)

"Barometer" demonstrated a broad range
of your opinions about Stowe's novel
SPATIALLY/VISUALLY (if not audibly):
I was asking you to perform your views--
did you "really"?
How "accurate" was your performance?
How "scripted" was it?

In some ways, that game resembled the board games that
were 19th century materializations of Uncle Tom's Cabin
(with families separating and re-uniting)--
a perpetual "serialization" of the novel (thanks, Sky).

What might it mean to "realize" (materialize? make real?) this novel today?

Jackie danced in "A Common Sense" (more about that later!) and
Sky narrated the Racism Dance Theater Workshop's performance,
this past weekend, of Life Story, by Natalie Bishar,
"a project about stories that race our minds and mind our races":

"At Plenary last year I watched a protest where women stood strong and had a voice. It made me shudder, it evoked in me a need to move. By move I mean change; for me, dance is change in the body, mind and soul...the racism dance theater workshop came to be a space for dialogue about issues towards which we are colorblind, and those which we continue to deny or misinterpret...A year and a day ago, women stood at a microphone and dissented. This is my dissent."

The King and I also showcases a 20th century "realization" of the novel--
which might help us understand what works, what's "real" about the novel itself.

Joseph Haworth as Simon Legree

Yul Brenner as the King

In ""Poor Eliza," American Literature 70, 3 (September 1998): 635-668, Lauren Berlant argues that "building pain alliances" is what gets played out in The King and I, and traces the way in which "sentimentality makes the capacity for suffering the defining quality of what it is to be a citizen."

Berlant's bottom line:

"Uncle Tom's Cabin is an archive people come to out of a political optimism that the revolution in mass subjectivity for which it stands might be borrowed for the transformation of other unjust social institutions. The novel's very citation is a sign that an aesthetic work can be powerful enough to move the people who read it into identifying against their own interests."

Her critique: that the world of "feeling politics" it cites can justify ongoing domination, instead of resistance, passive empathy instead of social transformation.

In The King and I, the King thinks the play represents his modernity, but Tuptim uses it to script her complaint/criticize her imprisonment/declare her freedom. Following Baldwin (cfing other textual resistances to the "Uncle Tom" form), Berlant evokes Beloved, which replays Eliza's flight across the ice, BUT REFUSES TRANSCENDENCE/ REFUSES TO MAKE IDENTIFICATION WITH PAIN GRATIFYING.

Eliza Crossing the Ice

(Cf. also Carla Kaplan, "'Getting to Know You': Travel, Gender, and the Politics of Representation in Anna and the King of Siam and The King and I, Late Imperial Culture. Ed. Roman de la Campa, E. Ann Kaplan, Michael Sprinker:
abolition--> empire building
slave owners as saviors
binary of independence British manhood vs. victimized Eastern women in harem
(Tuptim's limitations justify Anna's freedoms/legitimate imperialism)
getting inside secret palace justifies Western invasion
grid of obligatory relations, w/ slavery on a continuum,
moving in and out of American narrative of freedom
escape doesn't work (concubine=slave=Christian martyr)
war w/ Japan, initiated military intervention in Korea, French Indochina
Anna begged to stay on, bring about "true progress"
Macarthur's stance in postwar Japan
presence of rational Western managagement
"getting to know you" is surveillance/precursion to military/cultural intervention)

Let's take this critique/these insights and use them to dig back into Stowe's novel.
What does it say about what is "real"
--and about what it means both to "see" and to be "seen"?

"I can't believe,--I've go the habit of doubting....Tom...this is all real to you!....I wish I had your eyes....I think there is reason to believe; and still I don't" (St. Clare, 262-263).

"You always bring me short up against the actual present; you have a kind of eternal now, always in your mind" (St. Clare, to Miss Ophelia 272).

True, there was another life,--a life which, once believed in, stands as a solemn, significant figure before the otherwise unmeaning ciphers of time (264).

A number of you had real problems with this set-up:

Emily: I can't help but feel that it would only add to the effectiveness of the book to include scenes of true, hard, mean slavery. That is certainly what would move me to act...[later:] For me, Uncle Tom's Cabin is way too Christian to be effective. Every call to action to end slavery revolves around and depends on Christianity. Stowe presents ending a missionary task....Eva is undeniably the Christ of slaves....Uncle Tom gazed on Eva "as the Italian sailor gazes on his image of the child Jesus"(243). She dies for the slaves, as Jesus died for sinners.... It's too much....everything Christian!'s too black and white, with little or no gray area. You're either Christian and kind, or a nonbeliever and basically evil....Darn propaganda.

Sky: UTC is still driving me nuts...many ...passages move me to anger at Stowe, in a pretty irrational way - my modern brain shouts out whenever it picks up something that feels too obvious, or too obnoxiously sentimental, or racist, or blatantly propagandist...sometimes she is so obvious....There is no middle ground!.... I just can't help wishing for something more substantial from the characters...this book is AWFULLY long for having so little personal development.

Alison: I think the value of each character lies in seeing how each one moves the audience...Marie or Mr. Haley, are most useful not as new faces for old archetypes, but as characters that provoke reaction....if one wants to create action through media, real images and experiences are more stirring than fictious ones....Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote this book...hoping it would provoke great change, so she devised the most effecient way of communicating the evils of slavery...a dramatic seems as if the author did not trust her audience to be moved as strongly by realism she relied on myth....I wonder what impact the book would have had if it had been more realistic.

Marina: I agree with Emily in the fact that UTC is way too Christian....First with Moby Dick and now with UTC?! I hope this is not a trend...not a qualifier for the course that I did not know about....I would think...if Legree would treat me and everyone else this way then he deserves to is how I think some of the slaves should have reacted.

A proposal: that you been "framed."
Cf. this to the trick in The King & I:
using a set-in piece makes the frame seem "real"
(but the frame is framed, which is framed, which...)

Ken Osborn, "Infinite Regression," The Mirror Project

Let's think together about the relation of "the frame" to "the real."
And about the relation of "the real" to "reading."

In postmodern literary theory, to read is to "take down," to recognize that a text is a construction=not real (i.e.: don't be taken in!)

Judy Butler, "Is Gender Burning?": "'Reading' means taking someone down, exposing what fails to work at the level of appearance, insulting or deriding someone....For a performance to work...means that a reading is no longer possible...that the artifice works, the approximation of realness is achieved."

Cf. this with Uncle Tom's Cabin, which works very hard to convince you that you are participating in a real story, really visiting with real people; it's trying to take you in:

...thus ended the whole romance and ideal of life...But the real a novel, people's hearts break, and they die...and in a story this is very convenient, but in real life we do not die when all that makes life bright dies to us (133).

Marie: This seems to be the very essence of the novel, Tom, Eliza, George, and all the other slaves, constantly face heartbreak and loss, yet they have no choice but to continue on with their lives and duties and everyday pains.

What is "real" in Uncle Tom's Cabin?
What is the "real," when you are reading fiction?

Cf. Elaine Scarry, Dreaming by the Book (1999): the writers of fiction and poetry instruct the reader to construct and develop mental pictures....the images prompted through verbal descriptions in novels and poems "acquire the vivacity of perceptual objects"....Certain writers...possess an uncanny knack...for the perceptual sleight-of-hand..."the transparency of one [item] to verify the density of the other"....

the reader of imaginative literature is one who is willingly instructed to construct by the writer....Scarry so stresses the detail and precision with which writers construct their instructions to readers that it is hard not to think of her authors as...composers whose goal is to control the reader's perception of their worlds....the "whole work of moving pictures" aims toward a "mimesis of aliveness"...Scarry might object that the imagining we engage in while reading is far less constrained than that we are allowed as a filmmaker's sequence of images rush before our eyes, that in reading we are not subjected to the literal fulness of someone else's vision.There is always less immediate information in a verbal description than in any frame of film, and thus more freedom to supplement the description imaginatively.

Cf. this to third wave social change movements, as described by Rebecca Walker in "Being Real: An Introduction, " To Be Real (1995): "the writers here have done the difficult work of being real (refusing to be bound by an...ideal not of their making)."

Yet cf. this with Tompkins' identification of the spiritual world (that is, the ideal world) as the world of reality: the death of little the kind of incident most offensive to the sensibilities of twentieth-century academic critics...awash with emotion but does nothing to remedy the evils it deplores. Essentially, it leaves the slave system and the other characters unchanged....But the system of belief that undergirds Stowe's enterprise, dying is the supreme form of heroism. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, death...bring an access of power....Stories like the death of Little Eva are compelling for the same reason that the story of Christ's death is compelling: they enact a philosophy as much political as religious, in which the pure and powerless die to save the powerful and corrupt, and thereby show themselves more powerful than those they save. They enact...a theory of power in that the ordinary...view of what is simply reversed, as the very possibility of social action is made dependent on the action taking place in individual hearts. Little Eva's death enacts the drama of which all the major episodes of the novel are transformations: the idea...that the highest human calling is to give one's life for another...the ethic of sacrifice on which the entire novel is based....the power of the dying to redeem the unregenerate....The vocabulary of clasping hands and falling tears is one we associate with emotional exhibitionism, with the overacting that kills true feeling off through exaggeration. But the tears and gestures of Stowe's characters are not in excess of what they feel; if anything, they fall short of expressing the experiences they point to--salvation, communion, reconciliation....the choice is between actions that spring from "the sophistries of worldly policy" and those inspired by "the sympathies of Christ." Reality...can only be changed by conversion in the spirit because it is the spirit alone that is finally real.

Cf. this also with the epigrams from " A Common Sense"
(which Jackie danced this weekend):
I. The Slippery Slope
"The heavenly account of what we are constrains what we may legitimately seek to be."
II. The World Used to Mean Something
III. All This is What It Is
"We can make the sun stand still. We make a star as we make a constellation, by putting its parts together and marking off its boundaries."

For more on this, come back on Thursday for

Bill T. Jones, Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land (1990)

Finish the novel!
Second set of papers now on-line
Reminders re: paying for packets w/ Shawn,
writing conferences w/ me,
postings before you leave...
including a mid-semester evaluation: what's working, what isn't?

Return to Forum
Return to Syllabus