Down in Earth’s Dust
The Politics of Judgment in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
JOSHUA D. BELLIN
IN HER INTRODUCTION TO the 1878 edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote that “the story can less be said to have been composed by her than imposed upon her.”1 But this illusion of authorlessness or powerlessness—she would come to claim that God had written the book—is at odds with the passionate declaration with which Stowe is said to have commenced her novel, at her sister-in-law’s urging: “I will write something. I will—if I live!”2 These two moments in the mythos of Uncle Tom’s Cabin illuminate two conflicting energies within the novel itself: the power of the individual human will and the powerlessness of the individual in a universe controlled by God. In its attack on slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin fluctuates between these two alternatives, dramatizing not only the struggle of humans seeking to respond to and resist the slave system, but also the struggle of humanity seeking to negotiate and comprehend its proper role in God’s design.
Structurally, Uncle Tom’s Cabin mirrors its deeply divided sympathies. This doubleness arises from and is driven by Stowe’s relentless pairing of characters, events, and views. Stowe produces, among countless pairs, two St. Clares in Augustine and his twin, Alfred; two Christs in Tom and Eva; two little children in Eva and Topsy; two plots in Tom’s journey South, deeper into