The Kentucky Model: Economics, Individualism and Domesticity in Uncle Tom's Cabin

Article excerpt

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin to change society. This most influential of American novels struck a nerve with her audience, judging by the voluminous and continuous sales. Any twentieth-century reader of the novel, however, has a somewhat different task of interpreting the novel than did much of her immediate audience. We are no longer slave-holders. The majority of our society does not express its theology in nineteenth-century categories or language, and the concept of domesticity-the family and home- has changed significantly since Stowe's time. Therefore, any late twentieth- century reader must face the fact that eisegesis is an easy trap into which one can fall. One can read into the novel holding its author accountable to an unimaginable and unfair standard of postmodern themes and stylistics. Rather than judging Stowe and her novel by race and sex criteria of our times, we should rather see her and her writing within the scope of her immediate culture.

I maintain that the task of interpretation is most successful if one follows a cultural model such as that put forth by Jane Tompkins or a new historicism approach followed by Gillian Brown. The new historicism approach requires that when interpreting one must consider the culture in question in its entirety. It rejects the idea of the autonomy of the text. Moreover, it recognizes that authors and cultures are complex, even contradictory. They are both "subversive" and "orthodox," and both of these "impulses" are to found within texts (Cadzow 535). Brown follows a similar approach to reach contradictory conclusions that Stowe is both racist and non-racist, patriarchal and anti-patriarchal (40-41,60). How can both be the case? It could be true if we remember the complexity of individuals who are involved in an all-inclusive web of social-political-emotional-spiritual dynamics within a society of people who have similar layers of entanglements. When considering fictional characters and their authors, readers too frequently compartmentalize them as though they are beings of a single dimension and somehow should be independent of the layers of cultural entanglements which are normally found within any society. Particularly in Stowe's work, the surrounding culture must be considered more fully. The clearer picture we have of her social context, the clearer we can be in interpreting her writing.

The religious and social milieux are inseparable in Stowe's worldview. She sees "history" in a soteriological/apocalyptical sense.1 The events of her world have significance to her and her contemporaries beyond issues of conduct. They are signs of the times. History is ultimately in God's hands, and the players on the stage of history are accountable to God. Therefore, there is a sense of urgency with her. The local and national items on the agenda demand immediate attention and radical solutions. Slavery cannot exist within a Christian society. It cannot be reconciled with a civilized worldview. The inconsistency of it, justified by economic considerations somehow supposed to be beyond the scope of individual responsibility, is unacceptable to Stowe. To this end, she goes a step further and radically interjects female heroism into the traditional male spheres of economics and politics. Brown suggests, ". . . nineteenth-century American individualism takes on its peculiarly 'individualistic' properties as domesticity inflects it with values of interiority, privacy, and psychology" (1). Brown's position, in summary, demonstrates the relationship between domesticity and individualism: "What I am calling domestic individualism thus denotes a self- definition secured in and nearly synonymous with domesticity" (3). This relationship exists within the context of the "masculine" marketplace (2).

If we read Stowe in this light, we feel her passion. Both male and female must work to end injustice; and females will often lead the way. Stowe's assertion that slavery violates the human dignity of Africans is coupled with a subtler premise that women are to be the active agents of change in correcting the evil of slavery. …