Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"Let Us Only Take It as We Should": The Role of Domesticity in Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Lot"

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"Let Us Only Take It as We Should": The Role of Domesticity in Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Lot"

Article excerpt

   And so I am to write a story--but of what, and where? Shall it be
   radiant with the sky of Italy? or eloquent with the beau ideal of
   Greece? Shall it breathe odor and languor from the orient, or
   chivalry from the occident? or gayety from France? or vigor from
   England? No, no; these are all too old--too romance-like--too
   obviously picturesque for me. No; let me turn to my own land--my
   own New England; the land of bright fires and strong hearts; the
   land of deeds, and not of words; the land of fruits, and  not of
   flowers; the land often spoken against, yet always respected; "the
   latchet of whose shoes the nations of the earth are not worthy to
   unloose."
   ("Uncle Lot" 4)

Harriet Beecher Stowe's prototypical regional piece, the 1834 "Uncle Lot," begins with melodrama and direct addresses to the reader. Originally titled "A New England Sketch," "Uncle Lot" is set in Newbury and concerns the title character's transformation as he faces his son's death and his daughter's marriage. After the double-voiced opening which establishes New England as a worthy locale for fiction, the tale moves to James Benton, the pleasant and handsome young minister of the village who courts Lot and Sally Griswold's daughter, Grace. Grace's sickly brother George completes seminary and returns to captivate his hometown congregation with sermons and, ultimately, to die, triggering changes in both Uncle Lot and James. These two who begin as antagonists end up allies, and James literally becomes part of Lot's family when he marries Grace. Stowe's characters and setting are regional, specific to Newbury, especially the eponymous Uncle Lot. At the same time, its plot resolution and narrator provide a frame of melodramatic commentary that complicates this regional tale.

Historically, academic criticism of "Uncle Lot" has followed one basic endeavor in separating the story's regional elements from its melodramatic ones, contending that the melodramatic elements so present in Stowe's piece are an unfortunate nuisance. (1) Most notably, Joan Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse's introduction to their 1992 American Women Regionalists anthology includes an extended discussion in which they argue, as many other regionalist scholars do, that this initial publication "differ[s] significantly" from other nineteenth-century women's writing in its "character[s], language, plot, and the relationship of the author or narrator to her material," giving regionalism a "distinctiveness" from other modes of writing in nineteenth-century America (xii). Stowe in particular, they claim, "develops a different kind of storytelling power" in her regionalist pieces, in contrast to her anti-slavery tales like Uncle Tom's Cabin (2). This essay proposes a different reading of Stowe's short story, one that does not focus on separating it from other American women's narratives. Instead, I will emphasize regional writing's affinities with domestic fiction, that other genre of women's writing that Fetterley and Pryse seek to separate from the regional.

When "Uncle Lot" first appeared in the Western Monthly Magazine, its melodramatic language was not unusual or distracting for contemporary readers (as it is for more recent critics). Female writers had already secured their reputation in American literature. From Susanna Rowson's 1794 Charlotte Temple on, women had been best-selling authors. Women's literature in America had become a force to reckon with in the publishing world; whether the heroine was a victim or conqueror, nineteenth-century America was interested in the message of women's fiction. Nineteenth-century individuals read newspapers and heard sermons with a rhetoric quite similar to these novels. Within their larger context, Stowe's literary devices reflect the everyday speech of their time. Even journalism employed the same rhetoric. In an 1824 Seneca Farmer newspaper, for example, an historical article covering the American Revolution describes a regiment fighting "that they might if possible recover some portion of the laurels of which they had this day been shorn" ("Revolutionary" 1). …

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