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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Uncle Tom’s Cabin & Darcy’s Wet Blouse: From Stowe-mania to Austenmania, history repeats itself

I’ve been learning more about the life of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a woman who changed the world during her own lifetime (she published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, at age 42, at a time when women almost never had an impact beyond a very small local circle). That made me think of Jane Austen, who died thirty five years earlier, in 1817, just before she reached the age of 42, when she was arguably on the cusp of achieving real fame and fortune as an author, and also of making a wider impact on her society at large.

Given that I’ve now established that Stowe embedded a significant allusion to JA’s Pride & Prejudice in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that made me wonder how much Stowe, who, like Austen, was a dedicated scholar, knew about JA’s life, and how well she grasped from reading Jane Austen’s fiction her predecessor’s aspirations to change the fate of women in her world. At the very least, it appears to me that Stowe took inspiration from Austen’s novels, and dared to hope that she could tap into some of JA’s magic, and be the catalyst to righting a grave wrong by the force of her words and imagination.

On the theme of Stowe and Austen on parallel tracks, I just came across a very interesting op/ed piece from 4 years ago…
…by Prof. David S. Reynolds, entitled “Rescuing the Real Uncle Tom” in which Reynolds explained convincingly how Stowe’s “Uncle Tom” has gotten the bad rap it still has today:
“…..Today, of course, the book has a decidedly different reputation, thanks to the popular image of its titular character, Uncle Tom — whose name has become a byword for a spineless sellout, a black man who betrays his race.  And we tend to think of the novel itself as an old-fashioned, rather lachrymose affair that features the deaths of an obsequious enslaved black man and his blond, angelic child-friend, Little Eva.  But this view is egregiously inaccurate: the original Uncle Tom was physically strong and morally courageous, an inspiration for blacks and other oppressed people worldwide. In other words, Uncle Tom was anything but an “Uncle Tom.” Together Tom and Eva form an interracial bond that offers lessons about tolerance and decency.
Unfortunately, these themes were lost in many of the stage versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that inevitably sprung from its immense popularity. Indeed, Stowe’s novel yielded the most popular and one of the longest-running plays in American history. The first dramatization of the novel appeared in 1852, the year it was published, and countless others followed. By the 1890s, there were hundreds of acting troupes — so-called Tommers—that fanned out across North America, putting on Uncle Tom’s Cabin in every town, hamlet and city. Some troupes even toured internationally, performing as far away as Australia and India.  The play, seen by more people than read the book, remained popular up to the 1950s and still appears occasionally, including a staging last fall at the Metropolitan Playhouse in New York.
But as the story moved from the book to the stage, Stowe’s revolutionary themes were drowned in sentimentality and spectacle. Eva’s death was frequently a syrupy scene in which the actress was hauled heavenward by rope or piano wire against a backdrop of angels and billowing clouds. Uncle Tom, meanwhile, was often presented as a stooped, obedient old fool, the model image of a submissive black man preferred by post-Reconstruction, pre-civil rights America….”  END QUOTE

Those who follow my Austen ruminations will immediately realize why my attention was riveted by Reynolds’s account of how “[T]he play, seen by more people than read the book, remained popular up to the 1950s …But as the story moved from the book to the stage, Stowe’s revolutionary themes were drowned in sentimentality and spectacle…” 

Hmmm….. sounds an awful lot like the trajectory of modern Austenmania to me. Just look at the universe of fanfic and film spinoffs that has sprung from Darcy in a wet blouse in 1995. And read Austen fans Tweeting sappy lines from the film adaptations, words that Jane Austen never wrote (and never would have written) , etc etc.

And I am glad to be enlightened that just as many non-Janeites (mostly men) scorn an Austen that is a Victorian and 20th century myth as “chick lit”, and never give the real Jane Austen a fair reading---so too, Reynolds has explained how the exact same sort of distortion has apparently occurred with Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

And it’s easy to see how this racist Bowdlerization happened with UTC---the vast white American audience, still very racist well over a century after the end of the Civil War that Stowe “started”, wanted a safe, non-threatening Uncle Tom, and that’s what they were given by the entertainment industry. 

And the same with Jane Austen. As I’ve claimed a thousand times, no sooner was JA cold in her crypt at Winchester Cathedral than her family began to whitewash her true subversive radical feminism and Christianity---and, sadly, the Myth of Jane Austen they created has ruled the day since then—although I will give it my best shot to thoroughly debunk it.

So…if Stowe and Austen are sharing a cup of tea in heaven as I write this, and discussing their shared love of Shakespeare, I bet they’re both smiling, but with sadness, as Stowe reminds Austen that Stowe-mania preceded Austenmania by nearly a century and a half, and they commiserate over how hard it is to keep the truth alive after you’ve written it!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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