Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"There Is No Arguing with Pictures": Stretching the Canvas of Gender in the Art Portraits, Picture-Language, and the Original Illustrations in Uncle Tom's Cabin

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"There Is No Arguing with Pictures": Stretching the Canvas of Gender in the Art Portraits, Picture-Language, and the Original Illustrations in Uncle Tom's Cabin

Article excerpt

On March 9, 1851, three years after the Seneca Falls Convention called for equal rights for women, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a letter to Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the National Era, proposing her nascent story about slavery, gender roles, and religion as a serial and claiming, "My vocation is simply that of a painter.... There is no arguing with pictures, and everybody is impressed by them, whether they mean to be or not" (qtd. in Kirkham 66-67). Stowe's reference to pictures clearly refers in general to her painterly, detailed approach to storytelling which numerous critics have noted in their discussions of Uncle Tom's Cabin; (1) specific kinds of pictures also operate in this book, working in concert to command male and female readers--"no arguing" allowed--to stretch their view of gender roles and to take action in the spiritual realm, the household, and the world at large. While T.H. Huxley in 1865 linked the "'irrepressible' woman question" and the need for women's rights with the pressing questions regarding newly freed slaves--and the damage done to those in power who "can arbitrarily dominate over another" (68, 67), Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was the most influential text to make these connections in the ante-bellum era. Critics such as Ann Douglas, James Baldwin, Thomas Joswick, Lisa Watt MacFarlane, and Jean Fagan Yellin have found fault with the lack of effective anti-slavery action in the novel, yet the pattern of picture use in the original 1852 book version of the text reveals how the book itself--not only through the author's words but also through Hammatt Billings's illustrations and even their placement--provided readers, especially female readers, with a foundation for why and how they should both embrace and broaden their gender roles to act in "Christian" ways that would counter slavery and other evils. As Linda Grasso notes, Stowe and her female characters' "moral indignation [regarding slavery] is always in tension with gendered codes of middle-class respectability" (61); stretching gender roles rather than snapping them softens this tension. Stowe's picture use embraces "the cult of domesticity" and "sentimental power," yet good men as well as women have domestic and sentimental traits, just as picture use validates morally motivated action in the world as a gender norm for women as well as for men. (2) Picture use in Uncle Tom's Cabin highlights female characters who both embody and challenge the status quo, yet widespread cultural change required both genders to stretch their identities and counter "the separate realms and responsibilities" of middle-class gender roles (Green 93). Focusing on the original 1852 book version of Uncle Tom's Cabin as an historical agent that shook the nation, I will examine Stowe's use of art portraits (physical paintings, sketches, prints, and daguerreotypes in the narrative), picture-language (words and phrases that describe characters and places as art), and Billings's illustrations and the vignettes on the title page and covers and discuss how they may have "impress[ed readers] whether they mean[t] to be or not" with the novel's argument for a more caring, activist society in which women would be prominent. Since the illustrations are integral to understanding the role gender played in the agency of the original book version of the novel, I will discuss them in detail.

Jane Tompkins claims that the novel was "written for, by, and about women" and that it "has designs on the world" (124-25); the element of pictures is part of these "designs." While Sarah Robbins makes a convincing case for the 1852 novel's having a mixed gender audience, women's roles and female readership dearly are central to the tale. Tompkins places Uncle Tom's Cabin's gender concerns firmly in the tradition of the American jeremiad, which, in Sacvan Bercovitch's definition, is "a mode of public exhortation ... designed to join social criticism to spiritual renewal" (qtd. …

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