Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"Enslaving You, Body and Soul": The Uses of Temperance in Uncle Tom's Cabin and "Anti-Tom" Fiction

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"Enslaving You, Body and Soul": The Uses of Temperance in Uncle Tom's Cabin and "Anti-Tom" Fiction

Article excerpt

A people corrupted by strong drink cannot long be a free people.

--Benjamin Rush, "An Inquiry Into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors"

Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of P--, in Kentucky.

--Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin

"Let Every Man Mind His Own Business," one of Harriet Beecher Stowe's early short stories, begins with two young, recently-married couples, as three of their number press a lone dissenter, Edward Howard, to sign the temperance pledge. At one point in the belabored conversation, Edward's wife exclaims:

   This tiresome temperance business! One never hears the end of it
   nowadays. Temperance papers--temperance tracts--temperance
   hotels--temperance this, that, and the other thing, even down to
   temperance pocket-handkerchiefs for little boys! Really, the world
   is getting intemperately temperate. (1)

She is, of course, not entirely serious, and dutifully plays her part in her husband's ensuing fall and reclamation. However, her flippant remark does echo what critics have, in recent years, begun to discover about temperance. Unlike abolition, temperance was a well established, thriving reform movement in 1852, and had been so since at least the 1830s. By the time Stowe penned her "Life Among the Lowly," contemporary readers, parishioners, and theater-goers alike were quite familiar with another class of degraded souls: slaves to the bottle, rather than the planter. Scholarly focus on abolition and women's rights has obscured the vast range and influence that temperance activism had in antebellum America. Indeed, much literary criticism of Stowe's era fails to account for--or even notice--temperance at all, though in reach, scope, and longevity it was the dominant reform movement of its day, especially in the middle classes.

Carol Mattingly notes that "the largest group of rhetorically active women in nineteenth-century America was comprised of temperance women," and this claim resonates strongly with John Frick, who observes that "In the first half of the nineteenth century, no single issue--not even the abolition of slavery--had a greater capacity for arousing the American passion than did the cause of temperance." (2) Temperance societies such as the Washingtonians and the Sons (or Daughters) of Temperance multiplied in every major town and city, both North and South, claiming tens of thousands of members. In 1842, 11 percent of Baltimore's free population, and 7 percent of New York City's, were members of the Washingtonians, and Ian Tyrell conjectures that "probably hundreds of thousands of American women supported the temperance movement" during this same time period. (3) These numbers demonstrate what sway this phenomenon had in the America of the 1840s and 1850s: temperance was widely disseminated, and manifest in all aspects of American life.

Temperance was not a political and social movement only, however; it was also immensely popular entertainment. As implied by Stowe's delightful self-commentary in "Let Every Man," there were temperance tracts, sermons, songs, paintings, short stories, novels, plays, and so forth produced almost ad infinitum. Temperance stories were printed in daily newspapers from New York to New Orleans, and temperance plays sold out theaters. William H. Smith's play The Drunkard "was probably America's most successful play" before George Aiken's adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin succeeded it, and Uncle Tom was later shaken--albeit temporarily--from this perch by William W. Pratt's Ten Nights in a Bar-room. (4) Before, during, and after the wild success of Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist novel, another discourse of reform absolutely saturated American society.

The tropes, figures, plots, and characters of temperance reform were so pervasive--and, one must suspect, so powerful and persuasive--that other nineteenth-century reform movements drew upon them, perhaps even unconsciously, when articulating their own concerns. …

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