Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies

By Henry B. Wonham | Go to book overview

promoted, and helped to supply the terms for understanding the bloodshed of the Civil War.

Because of the centrality of Uncle Tom's Cabin to Stowe's canon (and American culture), the belief has persisted that Stowe valorized but one black response to slavery: the pacifist religiosity of Uncle Tom. From the late nineteenth century on, black novelists in particular have sought to contest and revise that dominant, and troubling, image of black heroism.43 In this essay I have been arguing that blacks' contestation of Stowe's racial politics began with the publication of her great best-selling novel, and that specific black responses, along with a range of other antebellum black discourses, ultimately impelled Stowe to rethink and revise her view of black heroism. Whether or not we view Dred as an alternative to or extension of Uncle Tom, it is important that we recognize not only his important place in Stowe's imagination and politics, but also the African-American interventions that helped to bring forth such a compelling figure.44 Stowe, more than most white writers of the time, was responsive to African-American texts and people, and she is deserving of greater recognition for her unusually brave engagements. But given the fact of her racialism, she should perhaps be viewed less as a transcendent than a representative white writer whose texts inevitably were shaped by what Morrison terms "the presence of Afro-Americans." In this larger sense, then, it is my hope that my reading of Stowe Dred will contribute to the ongoing project of both recovering and reconceptualizing the interplay between black and white voices and perspectives in antebellum culture.


Notes
1.
Toni Morrison, "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature," Michigan Quarterly Review 28 ( 1989): 3, 11, 18, 6. Reprinted, in part, in this volume.
2.
Not for nothing has Judie Newman suggested that A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin "might more properly be described as the key to Dred" ("Introduction" to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp [ Halifax, England: Ryburn Publishing, 1992], 14). For a suggestive reading of Dred in relation to antebellum black culture, see also Ellen Moers, "Mrs. Stowe's Vengeance," New York Review of Books, 3 September 1970, 25-32.
3.
Frederick Douglass' Paper, 29 April 1853, 3; Frederick Douglass' Paper, 6 May 1853, 2-3; Thomas F. Gossett, Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture ( Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985), 294; Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin; Presenting the Original Facts and Documents Upon Which the Story is Founded. Together With Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work ( 1853; rpt. Port Washington, New York:, Kennikat Press, 1968), 252. On Douglass and Stowe, see Robert S. Levine , "Uncle Tom's Cabin in Frederick Douglass' Paper: An Analysis of Reception," American Literature 64 ( 1992): 71-93.
4.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands, 2 vols. ( Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Company, 1854), 2:105, Stowe, "Anti-Slavery Literature," New York Independent, 21 February 1856, 1.
5.
See, for example, the critical accounts of Stowe's interactions with Jacobs in Jean Fagin Yellin , Introduction to Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl ( Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), xviii-xix; Karen Sánchez-Eppler, TouchingLiberty: Abolition. Feminism, and the Politics of the Body

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