Narrative in the Professional Age: Transatlantic Readings of Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

By Jennifer Cognard-Black | Go to book overview

Chapter Two

"The Wild and Distracted Call for Proof"

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Lady Byron Vindicated and the New Professionalism

IN A CARTOON FROM THE OCTOBER 1869 MERRYMAN'S MONTHLY, HARRIET Beecher Stowe wields a huge quill and conjures Lord Byron in the shape of a satyr. Byron rises on a dark cloud from a great black inkwell; a snake at Stowe's feet reads "scandal"; a horned toad sits on copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin and Dred; and a human skull as well as a jarred fetus rest on a shelf in the background. The caption reads, "Mrs. H-B-S-'s Great Incantation. Who have we here?-The great poet Byron or the D-l?" 1

The surface critique is obvious: the cartoonist equates Stowe's writing with witchcraft. More subtly, however, the parody targets three specific attributes that had comprised Stowe's authorial ethos ever since the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin: her tripartite position as woman, Christian, and American activist for abolition. 2 The Christian critique is the most apparent. An emissary of the D-1 (his propinquity made manifest in the serpent that names her writing practice sandal), Stowe's art transforms Byron from a great poet into a Satanic incarnation. In other words, Stowe's own writing is not great; it can only defile and debase the great. In turn, the elements of witchcraft, especially the pickled fetus, insinuate that Stowe's womanhood has gone awry. Rather than nurture and protect the republic's children, her writing or sorcery kills them, polluting the domestic idyll. And, indeed, the entire portrait is not just magic but black magic: the stuff of Stowe's art, her ink, drips thick and black; and the representative productions of this art, Uncle Tom's Cabin and Dred, are Stowe's two slavery novels. By inference, the sketch racializes all of Stowe's writing, suggesting that her treatment of Byron is inflected by a quintessentially American quality-threatening, sinister blackness.

This British cartoon is but one response to Stowe's article "The True Story of Lady Byron's Life." 3 Published simultaneously in the September 1869 issues of the Atlantic in America and MacMillan's in England, this piece initiated a transatlantic media blitz so virulent and wild that Oliver Wendell Holmes called it the "Byron

-63-

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Narrative in the Professional Age: Transatlantic Readings of Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • List of Illustrations ix
  • List of Cited Collections xi
  • Acknowledgments xiii
  • Introduction 3
  • Chapter One - "You Are as Thoroughly Woman as You Are English" 27
  • Chapter Two - "The Wild and Distracted Call for Proof" 63
  • Chapter Three - "A More Living Interest" 87
  • Chapter Four - "Proclaiming the Royal Lineage to the Average Mind" 117
  • Afterword 149
  • Notes 151
  • Bibliography 193
  • Index 205
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