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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s astonishingly Austenesque PRIDE in being kindly judged by those who should have held PREJUDICE against Uncle Tom’s Cabin



Diane Reynolds responded to my previous post as follows: “Arnie, you really took off on Stowe. I'm impressed! I am particularly interested that Stowe obviously is alluding to The Merchant of Venice--as with Austen, there's a tendency to write Stowe off as a littler scribbler, when her novel is full of bitter irony and allusion and anger. It's not simply sentimental pablum.”

Thanks, Diane! And of course I agree with every word you wrote, above.

Diane also wrote: “I don't know enough about Stowe to know what she read--but like Austen she seems to have read everything, which would make it possible she'd read ... Austen. I can see parallels between Mr and Mrs Bennet and Mr and Mrs. St Clare, but Mrs. St Clare in particular is so much darker a character than Mrs. Bennett that I hadn't initially made a connection. Mrs. Bennet is driven by fear. Mrs. St Clare is simply mean--the kind of person who knows the tables won't turn and who takes full advantage of her power in cruel ways. Unlike Mrs. B, she has nothing to worry about. Mr Clare and Mr Bennet are more alike--basically decent people who are yet too careless and lazy to make proper provision for the people dependent on them.”

Excellent summary—but my firm position on the presence of a genuine allusion is that there needs to be just enough parallelism to make it clear that an allusion was intended, but not so much as to bind the later author to a slavish imitation of the original source. And in this case, where Stowe was (obviously) writing a book that was intended by her to be extremely overt in its political polemicism, much much much more so than P&P, I think it’s perfectly fine that her Mrs. St. Clare is so much less sympathetic character than Mrs. Bennet, while the situation is more complicated with their husbands.

Speaking of whom, I think you’ve spoken too quickly about Mr. St. Clare—after my research today, I am firmly in the camp that believes his character was meant by Stowe to be like a Rorschach Test for the reader –extremely ambiguous—very sympathetic in many ways, and yet, when you think about it—not so much, by a long shot. In a way, he’s even worse than the real bad guys, because he has real sensitivity and awareness, and so the moral burden is much higher on him--he SHOULD have freed his slaves a LOT sooner—he doesn’t have the excuse of being a primitive, violent thug. He knows better than to be a key cog in the vast Satanic machinery of slavery in the South.

Diane also wrote: “Being more cautious than you, I would love more of a smoking gun, like a letter,  to say that Stowe did indeed read P&P. But this is fascinating.”

Diane, you’re going to think I made this next part up, because it is almost (from my perspective) too good to be true—except it is true, and I have hinted at it already in my Subject Line, which perhaps raised your curiosity as to what I was referring to.

It was when I started doing some digging into Stowe’s composition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the strong interest in Jane Austen’s life and writing that I was certain I would eventually uncover more evidence of, that I found the following:

UTC was published in 1852, and sold 10,000 copies right away, an unprecedented accomplishment. But did you know that in 1853, in the midst of that astonishing success, she published something she called  A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin—a companion to the novel---and you REALLY should browse in it:
It may seem on the surface to be what it purports to be—a kind of bolstering of the novel with real world evidence—but when you begin to realize that Stowe was heavily influenced by Jane Austen-who wrote hoaxing April Fool’s Day letters to Crosby and to James Stanier Clarke—then it dawns on you that this “Key” is like the charades in Emma, or the kinds of sophisticated literary hoaxes that Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding wrote!

So, go with me on this—Stowe’s Key has chapters, among others, about Mrs. St. Clare AND Mr. St. Clare. Interesting, right, vis a vis those two characters being Mrs. And Mr. Bennet with Southern accents.

And guess what—in another chapter, which Stowe mysteriously entitled “The Spirit of St. Clare”, who of course, as I’ve claimed, is the “Mr. Bennet” of UTC, we read the following amazingly Austenesque introduction:

“Ch. XIV: The Spirit of St. Clare
The eneral tone of the press and of the community in the slave States, so far as it has been made known at the North, has been loudly condemnatory of the representations of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Still, it would be unjust to the character of the South to refuse to acknowledge that she has many sons with candour enough to perceive, and courage enough to avow, the evils of her "peculiar institutions." The manly independence exhibited by these men, in communities where popular sentiment rules despotically, either by law or in spite of law, should be duly honoured. The sympathy of such minds as these is a high encouragement to philanthropic effort. The author inserts a few testimonials from Southern men, not without some PRIDE in being thus kindly judged by those who might have been naturally expected to read her book with PREJUDICE against it.”

Do you see that giant wink at Jane Austen hidden in plain sight in that last sentence? 

…PRIDE… &  ....PREJUDICE!!!!

That is surely Stowe’s way of tipping her hat to Pride & Prejudice in code, in a chapter named for the character in UTC who is at the heart of the veiled allusion by Stowe to P&P!

That is NOT a coincidence!

But that’s only a hoaxing warmup….right after we read that, we read the following letter, which I really do believe was a complete hoax on Stowe’s part—and your first clue is the name of the person who is supposed to have written it. His name just happens to be the identical name to that of the man whose “letter” written 76 years earlier goes by the name of “the Declaration of Independence”—a “letter” which was at the foundation of the institution of slavery in the United States. And that was a man who, exactly like Mr. St. Clare, (in)famously owned slaves but also raised children sired by him upon his slave wife Sally Hemings-of course I am talking about THOMAS JEFFERSON!:

“The Jefferson Inquirer, published at Jefferson City, Missouri, October 23, 1852, contains the following communication: UNCLE TOM'S CABIN.
I have lately read this celebrated book, which, perhaps, has gone through more editions, and been sold in greater numbers, than any work from the American press, in the same length of time. It is a work of high literary finish, and its several characters are drawn with great power and truthfulness, although, like the characters in most novels and works of fiction, in some instances too highly coloured. There is no attack on slave-holders as such, but, on the contrary, many of them are represented as highly noble, generous, humane, and benevolent. Nor is there any attack upon them as a class. It sets forth many of the evils of slavery, as an institution established by law, but without charging these evils on those who hold the slaves, and seems fully to appreciate the difficulties in finding a remedy. Its effect upon the slave-holder is to make him a kinder and better master; to which none can object. This is said without any intention to endorse everything contained in the book, or, indeed, in any novel, or work of fiction. But, if I mistake not, there are few, excepting those who are greatly PREJUDICED, that will rise from a perusal of the book without being a truer and better Christian, and a more humane and benevolent man. As a slave-holder, I do not feel the least aggrieved. How Mrs. Stowe, the authoress, has obtained her extremely accurate knowledge of the negroes, their character, dialect, habits, &c., is beyond my comprehension, as she never resided—as appears from the preface—in a slave State, or among slaves or negroes. But they are certainly admirably delineated. The book is highly interesting and amusing, and will afford a rich treat to its reader. THOJMAS JEFFERSON. “

I will be posting a followup tomorrow with my sense of the ramifications of this extraordinary circumstance—which is rendered all the more extraordinary by the presence in Mansfield Park of a patriarch owning a slave plantation named Thomas, whose estate has a “white house” in which resides the woman who is like a de facto wife to him, and who (perhaps) was the mother of one or more of his biological children.

It would be an enormous understatement to state that Harriet Beecher Stowe was quite the discerning Janeite.

Is that a good enough smoking gun for you?  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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