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Sabine Broeck. One More Trip To the Quarters: Uncle Tom‘s Cabin Revisited With Toni Morrison

I begin at the end, with a quote from Beecher Stowe‘s “Concluding Remarks” to Uncle Tom‘s Cabin (hereafter UTC), a chapter that functions as her immediate address to her contemporary readership, unabashedly and shrewdly political, elegantly oratorical, a masterpiece of persuasion in its own right: an address that is not so much a writerly postscriptum as a call to mental arms, as it were. Beecher Stowe literally projects the American future, calling the entire American civitas to moral task lest social and individual doom will haunt the nation for generations to come. I quote:

Nothing of tragedy can be written, can be spoken, can be conceived, that equals the frightful reality of scenes daily and hourly acting on our shores, beneath the shadow of American law and the shadow of the cross of Christ. <...> But what can any individual do? There is one thing that every individual can do — they can see to it that they feel right [2. P. 404].

To feel right — a concept which we should not in all too facile manner dismiss as sentimental convention, as the mere fancy of a passively harbored emotion but rather accept as an explicitly active, even aggressive engagement with the despicable status quo of slave trade and chattel slavery — to make her audience feel right, by all means necessary, is what UTC is all about. Published first in serial installments in an anti-slavery paper in 1851, one year after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law, the novel not only joined in the heated controversy the abolitionist movement had instigated, it defined its terms to no small extent.

The book still (or should we say again?) holds its readers in thrall. Unexpectedly, when I taught the novel last year, students came to me after class, privately, somewhat embarassed to “confess” to have spent their nights in tears upon finishing their reading. But now we have gotten beyond an attitude of Hawthornesque detached contempt for the ‘mob of sribbling women’ — an attitude that had mutated into a quite finely drawn academic line safeguarding the study of serious matter, as in literature with a capital L, against the occupation with trivia, as in women‘s writing or whatever happened to fall out of reach of ‘The Serious’. So, by now, we should not be easily put off by the tears. After decades of feminist instruction about the “cultural work” of fiction, to use Jane Tompkins‘ by now notorious phrase, we have come to appreciate, without guilt, the energy of the novel‘s articulateness, its genre-rich versatility, its overwhelming ability, in other words, to move its readers to tears, and to feel right. Certainly, Roland Barthes did not have Uncle Tom‘s Cabin in mind when he introduced the useful and apt concept of the writerly text, a text that by its very intricacies, its contradictions and fullness keeps calling for successive re-readings and thus demands of the reader to write on in his or her imagination; but to me, the novel qualifies beautifully.

 

For those of you who haven‘t shed secret tears recently, I will recuperate the plotlines in very rough manner: A Kentucky slave owner, Mr. Shelby, finds himself in severe debts and decides to sell two slaves to save his plantation; faithful, strong Uncle Tom and beautiful mulatto Eliza‘s child Henry are to be deposed down river. Tom resigns himself to his fate as the devout Christian believer he is, Eliza takes her child one night and runs. Her husband before God, if not before American law, radically independent minded George Harris, another mulatto, also flees his master‘s humiliation. Through the help of benevolent white people, most of all the Quaker family name of Halliday, they are re‑united as a hardworking, exemplary family in Canada after a vexing series of trials and tribulations; eventually they end up settled in Liberia. Tom, after having first lived for a while with the St. Clare family in New Orleans and having enjoyed the friendship of his owner Augustine St. Clare and of the family‘s gorgeous little daughter Eva, has to suffer Eva‘s death from tuberculosis. He is sold at slave auction after St. Clare‘s sudden death by accidental murder in a café, before his soft-hearted master can bring himself to write his free papers. He undergoes a ‘Middle Passage’ as the pertaining chapter is aptly called, into the possession of a veritably gothic embodiment of the gruesome slave owner, Mr. Legree. Eventually, he dies — a determined non-violent resister — of a whipping at Legree‘s hands, refusing to betray his fellow slave Cassy, and to thus surrender his soul. His former owner Shelby‘s son arrives too late to reclaim him and to set him free, as promised, but swears to the dying Tom to free all his slaves instead. Which he does and then continues to work his farm with them as free laborers, teaching them “how to use the rights [he gave to them] as free men and women” [2. P. 399] not forgetting to give humble credit to Uncle Tom‘s sacrificial death, which inspired him to his humane deed.

There are instructive plot sidelines like the fate of Cassy, scornful slave of Legree who in an act of lethal rebellion manages to get away from the horror of his abuse and turns out in due course of the plot, to be not only somehow descended from aristocratic ancestors but also to be Eliza‘s mother and as such spirited by the plot to finally embrace daughter and grandchild. Or the story of Topsy, the prototypical ‘pickaninny’, half comical — half threatening in her untouched blackness, being saved into goodness by saintly Eva‘s love and by the practically successful, if somewhat resistant ownership and education program of stoutly Christian Miss Ophelia who appears in the plot as embodiment of New England virtue, but also hypocrisy, herself reformed by her maternal care for Topsy.

 

Leslie Fiedler‘s claim that, “for better or worse, it was Mrs. Stowe who invented American blacks for the imagination of the whole world” [6. P. 26] may have been somewhat grandiose, but American culture, indeed, could not be imagined without its most enduring icon. 50 000 copies were sold within eight weeks upon publication as a book in 1852, 300 000 within a year, and 1 million in America and Europe combined by early 1853. The story survives to this day worldwide in more or less bad translations and simplifications of children‘s versions. Eric Sundquist summarizes the impressive list of Uncle Tom items in his introduction to a recent collection of New Essays on Uncle Tom‘s Cabin listing, besides popular films and an avalanche of hundreds of “Tom shows”: “The melodramatic apotheosis <...> appeared in consumable artifacts — dioramas, engravings, gift books, card games, figurines, plates, silverware and needlepoint” [9. P. 4]. As readers will know, American idiomatic language has been saturated with “uncle tomming”. Popular and literary rewritings and anti-texts have ranged from the early 20th century racist film Birth of a Nation through Gone With the Wind to Richard Wright‘s Uncle Tom‘s Children or Ishmael Reed‘s satire Flight To Canada. Reverberations are still detectable in black writing today: both, Beloved and The Color Purple, for example take up themes and unresolved questions from UTC.

The feminist rediscovery of the work in the 1980s sparked a small renaissance of the novel in criticism, ranging from Sundquist‘s aforementioned collection through Hortense Spillers‘s contribution to a late 1980s session of the English Institute on “Slavery and the Literary Imagination” to a 1994 anthology on The Stowe Debate. Like a prism, the debate about UTC has refracted cultural, social and political tidings in the United States: its influence was as palpable upon its appearance ( — helping to foster public sentiment against the Confederacy in the build‑up to the Civil War) as it was in the post Civil Rights Movement anger of black men. James Baldwin, for one, in “Everybody’s Protest Novel” [1] with little exaggeration and no patience at all, attacked Stowe for having robbed the black man of his sexuality and humanity in the public gaze of an entire century.

 

My paper, now, will consist of moves of reconstruction and deconstruction. I will first talk about UTC‘s enormous energy and determination to reform American society, however much that sense of purpose might be framed in terms of the Sentimental. I will then go on reading the novel in terms of the political effects of its melodramatic machinery in relation to the text‘s radical articulations. In a third step, I want to show how Toni Morrison, in her 1980s novel Beloved [8], has taken up the issues Stowe stirred up so successfully and has re‑written the old text, but with a twist.

 

Taking Care of Slavery: A First Class Kitchen Act

UTCs most programmatic momentum of domesticity is generated, literally, in Rachel Halliday‘s kitchen, even though white Mrs. Shelby in her secret support of Eliza‘s flight, and little Mrs. Bird in her successful manipulation of her husband‘s week spots to also side with the beautiful quadroon may figure here as cautionary embodiments of Beecher Stowe‘s particular brand of benevolent, active domesticity. How different Stowe‘s sentimental notions were from her sister Catharine Beecher Stowe‘s imperial designs in Treatise on Domestic Economy, the founding text of American domesticity as ideology, becomes triumphantly clear in UTC‘s celebration of Quaker calmness and dedication. Domesticity, in this setting, has nothing to do with either decorum, or with Victorian propriety as we know it. Rather, the overwhelming peace and contentment radiating from Rachel‘s hearth has a purpose outside the self-congratulatory, self-serving order and discipline of much 19th century domestic domain. The dictum of not to idle, at all costs to avoid shiftlessness — both demands being the utter absolutes in Miss Ophelias‘s righteous new England catechism — transforms, under the maternal gentleness of a model homemaker like Rachel, into the ample individual and social productivity of hospitality, shared work and even distribution of nourishment, mental and physical.

This ideal community, moreover, is not focused unto itself, but rather thrives on its sense of humane purpose: its resourcefulness and fearlessness bodied forth in their support of black runaways. The chapter is Stowe‘s declaration of love not only for the character of an old, wise and gentle woman but for an alternative society that preaches a gospel beyond the patriarchal and mercantile interest that dominated American society at large. Simon Halliday‘s „anti-patriarchal operation of shaving“ is thus only partially a neat domestic joke, it also functions metaphorically as some serious inversion of power. An ethics of communal gift and sharing, rather than individual wanting and taking underlies this germinal locus of anti-American activities like sitting down on equal terms and eating with black people as well as helping them escape to Canada. The Rachels and Simons, in Stowe‘s contention, are the models upon which a domesticated American society should be re‑formed. The corruption and moral decay of a white society sullied by its implications in the trade with and subjugation of fellow human beings may be overcome, if Americans would learn to accept the spiritual and physical empowerment generated by the complex harmonies of Rachel‘s home.

The flipside of this cleaning‑up‑act, however, appears as soon as we enter the black cook Dinah‘s kitchen in the St. Clare‘s mansion. A deep ambivalence tinges the narrator‘s judgment of the black woman: her domestic maternalism does not allow for an understanding of black agency, which would lay outside her religious providential order. An order to which Dinah‘s genially self-willed independence, her “leave me nigger alone attitude” as to white governance is diametrically opposed [2. P. 185 ff.]. It never occurs to the narrator that Dinah‘s “shiftlessness” might have a strategy, that bloodied silk handkerchiefs and nutmeg pieces in dinner tableware drawers might mean anything else than mental confusion, lack of organization or lazy disinterest. The narrator never asks herself the question why in the world a slave could be expected to keep their master‘s kitchen spotlessly spick and span in order? Or if Dinahs‘s scorn of “I don‘t want ladies around, a’hendering and getting my things all where I can‘t find them” [Lbid. P. 191] could and would be anything else than bad education by a disinterested, spoilt and lazy Southern belle like Marie St. Clare! St. Clare himself in his unromantic gaze on the feudal plantation system, comes a lot closer to the matter, seeing as he does that violent submission would be the only means to keep slaves from using every possible opportunity to undermine an imposition of order, since it was not in their interest to keep precision of time or place for a class of masters indulging leisure on their very backs, literally [2. P. 195 ff.].

Here domesticity gets run into its white ground, as it were; the consequence of Stowe‘s narrator‘s arguments collapses into racism. To hold up Tom as a “moral miracle” [2. P. 195] against Dinah is the point where the narrative betrays Stowe‘s own particular political purposes: her white woman‘s salvational perspective needs the cooperation of an Uncle Tom to perfect her maternal scheme; it has to dispense with the competitive irritation of black female independent, untouchable, unteachable and unimpressed ways of resisting white order. Stowe, we could say, not only little Eva, does want him! And her interest his quite oedipal.

In her narrative, ‘Negroes’ are like children, and the measure to judge them is their simplicity of purpose, their impressiveness of mind, their willingness to improve, but not necessarily to mature into too independent a hero, and their ability to emulate good white female ways (at which point they deserve Stowe‘s supreme compliment). The equation is that those childlike Negroes‘ stories need Stowe‘s authority just as much as children need motherly guidance.

At least that is what the plot implies — with complications arising from the fact that the novel‘s argumentative expositions offer entirely different and at times contradictory points of view. Which presently brings me to my second part:

 

George Harris, who?

 

The plot‘s workings on its black characters result in a strangely eroticized combination of appropriation and devotion. Stowe wants him: using the black body of Tom, who is, of course, but a representation of countless other black men, innocently childlike by the wits of the “romantic racialism” that dominated the abolitionist movement, as George Fredrickson has convincingly demonstrated. The narrator confidently assumes his plight in her own articulation, like a good mother will do for her son. The vision of humane relations between white and black people borne by the plot and its favored protagonists is a combination of Rachel Halliday‘s mature maternal wisdom, her sheer incredible capacity to organize and harmonize, and Eva‘s supposedly innocent desire to own her human environment in her selfless love [2. P. 255 ff.].

One of the moments most significant for Stowe‘s ambivalence has thus arrived when Eva embraces Topsy, to physically transport the black child with her love out of the status of sinful wickedness — to Ophelia‘s utter disbelief and disgust, we must say. St. Clare intervenes: “If we want to give sight to the blind, we must be willing to do as Christ did, — call them to us, and put our hands on them” [2. P. 258]. Now, on the one hand, this scene reveals the rather severe implications of white benevolence and an almost unbelievable hubris by way of its allegorical equation of Negro and blindness. On the other hand, we cannot afford to overlook the scandal in the notion of “putting our hands on them”: a touching the black body in tenderness — utterly inconceivable even for the most advanced liberally minded white audience, figures as the ultimate taboo. To be able to break it even within the confines of racialist ideology, attests to the far‑reaching reformist implications of Stowe‘s literary scheming.

The novel‘s best hidden strength is that UTC contains — in all connotations of the word — the most advanced insinuations and arguments against the system of chattel slavery; the ideological influences of the Communist Manifesto, the revolutionary egalitarianism of Europe‘s uprisings, and the looming threat of the Haitian rebellion of Toussaint L‘Ouverture‘s troops (Republican rhetorics; Southern abolitionist Angelina Grimké‘s feminism — these rather secular components are as strongly represented as is the text‘s religious momentum. Stowe‘s decision for a sentimental plot and the characterizations appropriate to it, however, privilege her own Christian fervor as much as her motherly schemes. To reach the audience she wanted: all white American mothers, at least, she had to write a text that cannot but betray the titillating dynamics of its production for serial installments and absorbs all its own contrariness within its missionary zeal.

 

A most typical example of this containment is the chapter where Tom gets to know the old heartbroken slave woman “cross old Prue”, who tells him of her misery — this rendering of her story by the one who suffered it should be commanding undivided attention from the reader for itself — the chapter‘s structure, however, envelops and thus transcends it: the readers are to be engrossed with Eva‘s serenity, intruding upon Tom‘s empathy “radiant with delight”, only to turn the final attention of the chapter onto her heavy sighs and pale face [2. P. 199].

This chapter, like so many others, exemplifies that Stowe obviously capitalized on Angelina Grimké‘s and Theodore Weld‘s collected documents in American Slavery As It Is, on a series of slave narratives circulating in the abolitionist movement at her time, on the Cincinnati press information by and about black fugitives from the South, in sum: on a black discursivity that surrounded her in quite ample plenitude. Within her fiction, however, Stowe‘s one resisting radical, the same Harris of my subtitle whom a century-long history of public response has almost completely ignored — does not get permission by the plot to have any impact on his fellow slaves‘ destinies, nor on the abolitionist movement. In UTC it is the white Quaker family that teaches Harris‘ skeptical and alienated intelligence what home is, thus also leading him ‘home’ into religious belief. The Black Underground railroad, which in fact set standards for abolitionist white people to follow, if we only cast one glance at figures like Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman, does not figure in the novel. Harris, it seems, has to be de‑routed by the plot: dispatched safely to Liberia, on a mission as imperialistically American as it might be called black and proud before its time — leaving the New Englanders and the slave holding South to themselves and to white women as Beecher Stowe. But then again, just look closely at what he actually gets to “speechify”:

“Look at my face, — look at my hands — look at my body”, and the young man drew himself up proudly, “why am I NOT a man, as much as anybody” (You hear Sojourner Truth Seneca Falls Speech?) <...> I‘ll fight for my liberty to the last breath I breathe. You say your fathers did it, if it was right for them, it is right for me. [2. P. 187] <...> I have no wish to pass for an American, or to identify myself with them. It is with the oppressed, enslaved African race that I cast my lot. <...> The desire and yearning of my soul is for an African nationality” [Ibid. P. 393].

Many critics, like Russ Castronovo, have recently argued that most of abolition‘s articulations kept morally and strategically referring to America‘s revolutionary past as virginal origin [4]. That, I contend, was not UTC‘s severest problem, given its aggressive judgments on the very patriarchal and capitalist inception, not only corruption, of society. Stowe‘s trenchant indictment of American politics, South and North makes UTC‘s statements rather avantgarde by comparison, even though Stowe frequently puts them in the mouth of ineffectual, melancholic observer St. Clare. So, while the George Washington in shrill colors above Tom‘s bed is wicked satire, the text‘s ‘problem’, to me, lies in its author‘s decision to render almost ineffective, by the authoritarian plot dynamics, the plurality and radical force of its arguments. In other words, UTC does offer a rather democratic tour de force of the entire debate on and against slavery and — by its very orchestration of the various points of view — it should be regarded as a masterpiece of political didacticism. But, while the novel abounds with scathingly ironical commentary, bespeaking utter disrespect for any national political loyalties in the strict sense, Stowe‘s pious mission generates that deadly serious entitlement which emplots her main characters in a providential design of commanding human death.

 

The sheer cathartic (for white audiences) voyeurism of emplotting Uncle Tom and the would-be-determined-abolitionist Eva in their own tear-jerking death (however effective a strategy this was vis‑a‑vis prospectively abolitionist whites) fixed black people, and white feminism, in the iconicity of the beautifully dead captive, tied to the innocence of a child ultimately powerless in the here and now; and it reduced possible white female solidarity to a sacrificial phantasy. This reduction did have the advantage of successfully warding off the threat of the miscegenative, erotic undertones of Eva‘s relationship to and with Tom. The outrage of having a white girl pronounce, without further qualification, “I want him!” (even though that sentence “only” involves Eva‘s command to her father to buy the black man) must be rendered harmless by having them posture for a Victorian audience as “the old child and the young one”; so that “their soul” [2. P. 136 ff.] — note the singular! — may rejoice in shared wonder at the glories awaiting them, without raising too much worldly suspicion. A mature abolitionist woman, like Eva‘s namesake and very much alive Angelina Grimké neither fits into compelling melodrama, nor would a female character like her be commensurate with the Bible‘s claim: ‘Thou has hid from the wise and prudent, and revealed unto babes’. Stowe‘s indebtedness to Angelina Grimké did not reach farther than incorporating Grimké‘s work into her novel; white Southern adulthood — judged by the contempt poured on Marie St. Clare, is always already morally compromised and impotent. Accordingly, Eva may only want to die for what she considers her poor people.

Of course, it is hard at this point, to fathom such a claim other than as a hysterical combination of innocence and fantasized omnipotence, as in “she had vague longings to do something for them — to bless and save not only [her slaves] but all in their condition” [2. P. 264 ff.]. And we also cannot but wonder at the recklessness which with Stowe and her 19th century audience could put children to a meaningful death. Within its contemporary context, however, Eva‘s spiritual fervor, her sacrificial sense of purpose must be seen in light of the fact that infant mortality was a more than common factor to shape families‘ lives. It seems then quite an intelligent solution on Stowe‘s part to capitalize on women‘s emotions ready at hand in their own recollections about children lost to sickness.

However, the options of solidarity between an adult Eva and Cassy (including maybe even Dinah, Rachel Halliday, Mrs. Shelby and Mrs Bird in the circle) have to be exempted from the text just as aggressively as George Harris‘s libertarian self-confidence and black manliness has to be escorted to Liberia. Look at Cassy — my subtitle might have also been Cassy, who? Any enduring agency in the real world of abolition, beyond her gothic machinations upon Legree, seems not to have been imaginable; she has to be absorbed by the plot as the happy quasi-aristocratic grandmother, content with her re‑unified family.

 

While I do not intend to sneer at the rhetorical importance — for abolitionist purposes — to represent the immense joy of black families re-unified, put forward against both the material conditions preventing it, and the racist ideology that black people did not care for permanent attachments, and while I admire Stowe‘s consequence to not have Cassy punished for her indirect murder and other immoral actions, but to reward her instead with the gift of a family — I do question the plot restrictions Stowe felt compelled to put on this protagonist. Cassy, by force of her biography takes the most antagonistic and radical stance against slavery — having killed one of her children to prevent it from being owned and abused. Cassy‘s narrative, culminating in the dramatic “He sold me!” (he being her lover for several years and father of her children) compounded by: “He sold both those children!” [2. P. 333], her particular female complaint bespeaks Stowe‘s extensive knowledge of authentic black voices, even the female ones. To care, and dare to incorporate Cassy‘s story was appropriation, but also an authorial act rather more controversial than many male abolitionist writers‘ publications, who shied away from portraying sexual abuse of black women because of the Victorian propriety they felt bound to. As in so many other moments in UTC, the possibilities and options for a totally different novel are tangible, but Stowe decides not to expand them.

Sojourner Truth and Margaret Garner may have existed in real life, as have Frederick Douglass and countless other potential heroes of an abolitionist tale — and Stowe certainly knew of them — characters formed on their images would have, however, completely exploded both Stowe‘s plot design, and contingent on it, the maintenance of white discursive control over abolition. Cassy may go to the severest moral extremes a 19th century audience would follow, and she may even get away with it, but only in a plot owned by its blackness could she have also figured as an enduring public subject.

 

Thus, the real problem to me is not Uncle Tom, who has been quite unjustly accorded the fatal reputation of representing spineless and mindless subservience. Rather, it is rooted in the submission of all sincere characters, black and white, however much intelligence, courage, manliness or female virtue they may and do muster to take care of their own immediate lives, to a plot driven by white melodramatic interest to keep them separate and in check. They are portrayed without the context of an organized black community, that might even assume leadership in the fight to end slavery, and they are not allowed to authorize their own destiny except on the safe shores of Africa or in purposeful death. George Harris may exist in the pages of the novel, and he may display to us great eloquence and a fulminant articulation of his period‘s most vexing contradictions, but he may not discourse with Cassy or Tom, Rachel or even Eva, may the plot forbid! The authorship of abolition, in the sense of its authority, rests completely with Beecher Stowe.

 

Beloved: Emancipation as Risk      3 ур

Morrison's point, by contrast, is not to argue for her characters humanity by sounding their goodness, but almost the opposite; by making them take responsibility for who and what they are. That way, she may have them embody “contrary instincts”; they do not have to be angels to figure in her text; and instead of dying a flawless martyr‘s death, they have to deal with the farthest limit of human possibility: a mother taking the life of her child. In the extremes of this story — a fictionalization of an actual case (Margret Garner) that was recorded in the annals of abolitionists‘ reporting — Morrison tries to sound the meaning and consequence of a question she asked at many Nobel prize readings: What does it mean to finally own yourself?

The novel takes of at a crucial crossroads of novelistic plotting and ethical challenge: a moment that Stowe saves herself and her readers from confronting by a most prototypical sentimental ‘deus — ex‑machina’: Eliza manages to get away with her child (and the author‘s gift for her daring his a reunited family and personal peace) The one act of crossing the river successfully takes her out of the orbit of slavery. Morrison shows that crossing the river is only the beginning. By a strategy of cross-reading it becomes obvious that Morrion‘s characters in Beloved may all productively be positioned as skillful re‑readings of the character (and plot) foils Stowe so pervasively familiarized:

·     There are Cassy, a black version of the madwoman in the attic who may enjoy a free life by the sleight of her author‘s providence and beautiful good Eliza, magically saved — Elsa, a woman with a similarly brutalized personal background who has to liberate herself from her history by her own wits, self-respect and energy and Sethe, haunted by a history just like Cassy's that prevents her to enjoy freedom before she will have come to terms with her life as a slave and her self-willed murder as a free person.

·     Eva, backing up Tom‘s sacrifice by her own death — Amy the whitegirl, making a black generation, appropriately and well (helped herself!).

·     Rachel, the white redeemer — Baby Suggs, Sethe's mother-in‑law, the black community enabler who is — despite her name — NOT holy in the sense of Rachel‘s teeming perfection.

·     George Harris, in all his radicalism displaced to Liberia — Paul D, discovering what freedom and citizenship means in the domestic (in the sense of home and nation) realm.

·     Topsy, perennial child to be saved by stern New England discipline — Denver, entering History on her own account, by attending a white college.

·     Tom, the perfect martyr — Stamp Paid who does not die for others, but subversively schemes in the underground railroad without being elevated to heroic no‑fault status.

 

Morrison‘s goal is to problematize a recognition of what personhood might mean: the option to choose between good and evil without the presence of an omniscient narrator/author who knows best as Mama knows best, as well as to decide for yourself what your ethical coordinates shall be — and force the readers into the same dilemma: Is the only choice Sethe had that between letting the family be abducted into slavery again and killing the children (and probably herself!), and if so, what would you have done? This question is a challenge to all other characters in the novel, since they are all one way or another touched by Sethe‘s murder, and by the ghost of the dead child. Thus, the personal dilemmas the characters have found themselves in in their own respective biographies function as but a preparation for them, and for the readers. Do they (we) find it in their (our) heart not to leave let Sethe alone, but to help her free herself of history‘s ghosts. By taking her characters (and readers) to this moral watershed Morrison has almost aggressively deconstructed the Uncle Tom mythologies of selfless suffering, absence of subjectivity and agency and childlike trust in higher authorities (be it the friendly master, God or the author herself) that Stowe has planted in American cultural memory.

 

As I hope I have demonstrated, there is much more to Stowe‘s novel than meets everybody‘s immediate memory of being ‘trivially’ moved; accordingly, we should direct our attention to the fact that and why white Americans have, in their response to UTC, over and over again, accepted its offer to have the cake and eat it, as it were; to feel right and still to maintain domination and privilege. The American good-willing public needed iconographic embodiment of slavery precisely of Uncle Tom‘s kind, wanted to remember a white woman‘s discursive power rather than the slave narratives. The acclaim Morrison has won for her work attests to the change Black writing after the Civil Rights Movement, and Beloved most of all, has helped to effect. While Leslie Fiedler‘s could rightfully remark in Love and Death in the American Novel that: “of the complex novel created by Mrs. Stowe, America has chosen to preserve only the child‘s book” [5. P. 264], white and black audiences after the 1980s have been obviously willing not only to engage the ‘inside’ of the Middle Passage and slavery, and thus to lift the veil of white Victorian society’s racist politeness but also to imagine a self-authored African-American agency reaching far beyond Stowe‘s prescriptions.

If abolition and the Civil War, for all its murderous effects, offered the American ‘civitas’ a chance to not only emancipate black people (in itself still a paternalistic gesture) but to relinquish discursive and material control and to accept African-Americans‘ self- authentication and subjectivity as sine‑qua‑non of any possible kind of American community, in its powerful iconicity UTC has worked against that impetus. If, as David Brion Davis in his Slavery and Human Progress has argued, “New World Slavery provided Protestant Christianity with an epic stage for vindicating itself as the most liberal and progressive force in history” [3. P. 129], Beecher Stowe provided some of the most crucial stage directions, assigning white abolitionist women a savior role — an act of both incredible hubris, and effectivity. Thus, even though weeping at UTC‘s impressive iconic power is neither ridiculous nor in and by itself a compromising move, we need to look at the text‘s legacy with dry eyes and novels like Beloved help to clear the focus.

 

 

But wait, I have a post scriptum: How do we read, in that context, the fact that Oprah Winfrey was able to popularize Beloved to literary stardom beyond anybody's wildest imaginations and made it a fantastically promoted movie recently? Is that a reason to rejoice, or does that only go to show that Americans still and again entertain a consumptive relationship to African-American's plight — so that black soul may be just as much a market commodity as black being was under slavery?

 

References

 

1. Baldwin, James. “Everybody’s Protest Novel” Ammonds, ed. UTC, pp. 532—537.

2. Beecher Stowe, Harriett. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Elisabeth Ammons, ed., New York / London: 2010 (1852).

3. Brion Davis, David. Slavery and Human Progress, New York: Oxford UP, 1984.

4. Castronovo, Russ. “Radical Configurations of History in the Era of American Slavery”. Michael Moon, Cathy Davidson, eds. Subjects and Citizens, Durham: Duke University Press, 1995, pp. 169—194.

5. Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel, New York: Stein and Say Publishers, 1960 (1966).

6. Fiedler, Leslie. The Inadvertent Epic: From UTC to Root, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.

7. McDowell, Deborah and Arnold Rampersad, eds. Slavery and the Literary Imagination. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

8. Morrison, Toni. Beloved, New York: Knopf, 1987.

9. Sundquist, Eric. ed. New Essays on Uncle Tom‘s Cabin, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

10. Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs. The Cultural Work of American Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989 (1985).

 

 

Sabine Broeck,
Doctor of Philology, Professor
University of Bremen, Germany
American Cultural Studies /American Literatures and Cultures / Black Diaspora /Gender

E-mail: broeck@uni-bremen.de