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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Not Too Late to Read the Book -- Either One

Two days after finishing my reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for our August reading group discussion, it was my privilege and pleasure to meet (in my very own bookstore, no less) Joan D. Hedrick, the Pulitzer-winning biographer of Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. Here is an interview with Hedrick on Stowe from the Library of America that provides a short introduction to the iconic American writer’s life and work.

My conversations with Joan, following my evening bookstore event featuring Barbara Stark-Nemon, left me eager to read the biography, and I finished it this morning, having devoured the story morning and night, compelled from the first page.
In the northwestern corner of Connecticut the roads rise gradually through heavily forested hills toward the town of Litchfield, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s birthplace. Like much of her writing, Litchfield bears the strong stamp of geography and local culture. This is emphatically a New England town.
I’m hooked. I appreciate a “strong stamp of geography and local culture.”

But no, I should be more honest. I was hooked before I even got the book, by Joan’s telling me (and this is a strong thesis running through the biography) that it was largely owing to the rise of American literary critics like Henry James – actually, pretty specifically Henry James – that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was demoted to something less than literature, making it now one of the least-read of famous American novels. Everyone knows the title, some characters' names ("Uncle Tom" in a stereotype that hardly begins to do justice to his character in the book), and a few scraps of the story, but it’s presumed to be “old-fashioned," rather than a classic novel. Joan asked me how our reading group happened to choose Stowe’s book to read. Well, one person suggested it, and we all agreed.

And so, owing to a fortuitous coincidence, I moved quickly from the novel to the biography.

In the New England and the West (i.e., Ohio) of Stowe’s young womanhood, writing had not yet become professionalized but was practiced by both men and women, often as what Hedrick calls “parlor literature,” read aloud to groups gathered in the parlor, groups not yet separated by gender as they would be in the later Victorian age. This was an important formative element in the making of Harriet Beecher Stowe the writer.

Stowe’s years in Cincinnati, on the Ohio side of the river dividing a free from a slave state, gave her an orchestra seat on the fugitive slave issue, and passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, signed into law by President Millard Fillmore, tipped her once and for all into the antislavery camp. The death of her beloved Charley, perhaps the most dearly loved of her seven children, was a profound grief, inspiring Stowe’s descriptions of a slave mother like Eliza threatened with the loss of her child.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in March of 1852, “sold 10,000 copies within the first week and 300,000 by the end of the first year.” Hedrick quotes from a review in the London Times, later reprinted in the New York Daily Times, that the $10,000 the author received in the first three months of sales was
...the largest sum of money ever received by any author, either American or European, from the sale of a single work in so short a period of time.
One of Stowe’s gifts as a writer, Hedrick says, was her ability to address readers in an intimate voice. Another was her ability to introduce characters with distinctive regional voices of their own. Subsequent developments in American literature, however, made of professional writers’ clubs an entirely male affair, and reviews by Henry James in the Nation took a “professional approach to book reviewing” went several steps further: Books, to be considered literature, or art, now had to abjure anything the critic might label sentimentality, earnestness, and moralism. Strangely, for someone priding himself on “objectivity,” James apparently found it possible to pass judgment on a book, if written by a woman, without reading it: “It was a woman’s book and he knew the type,” Hedrick comments dryly.

As the mother of seven living children who also suffered numerous miscarriages, and as a daughter and sister often drawn into family schemes for setting up schools, it is amazing that Harriet Beecher Stowe managed to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin at all, let alone other books and numerous published articles and private letters. She did, of course, have servants. And, crucially, her husband and children depended on her income to keep the household out of debt.

In her later work, Hedrick notes that Stowe had recourse to a male narrator’s voice, losing in the process her own natural advantages as a writer. She was also prone to rushing into print without taking the time to revise and rewrite that even her husband counseled her would help her work. So it is likely that the obscurity of Stowe’s other novels today (“Did she write anything else?” is a frequent question when one mentions her or UTC) is an accurate measure of their worth. But the same cannot be said of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Yes, parts of Uncle Tom’s Cabin reflect the author’s prejudices, but the same might be said of the majority of novelists who hide their bias in the voice of an omniscient narrator. And yes, the author makes religious appeals to the reader. But how does either of these features of her writing affect a reader’s sense of her characters as living, breathing human beings? Can anyone read this novel and not be caught up in the characters’ lives, their hopes and joys and fears and sorrows?

Hedrick neither romanticizes her subject nor tears an idol to shreds. She does not oversimplify the personality of Stowe or her culture and time. What emerges from this history of Harriet Beecher Stowe is the complicated portrait of a complex woman, determined to exercise her gifts but often blown off-course by the winds of personal conflict, social fads, finances, criticism (whether deserved or otherwise), and, as is true of almost all of us, contradictions within her own character.

If you read the novel first, you will want to read the biography, of which I barely began to scratch the surface in this post. If you begin with the biography, on the other hand, you will quickly reach for the novel. 

Don't forget: this Thursday our guest at Dog Ears Books will be Luisa Lang Owen, reading from Casualty of War: A Childhood Remembered. We will convene at 7 p.m. in David Grath's gallery, but enter please through the bookstore.


Barbara Stark-Nemon said...

What a great post, Pamela... can't wait to read the biography...

P. J. Grath said...

Many thanks for the introduction, Barbara.