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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Real Woman Behind the Unreal Man (Or: Truth and Death)

<< The novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, born 200 years ago today, was an unlikely fomenter of wars. Diminutive and dreamy-eyed, she was a harried housewife with six children, who suffered from various obscure illnesses worsened by her persistent hypochondria. And yet, driven by a passionate hatred of slavery, she found time to write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which became the most influential novel in American history and a catalyst for radical change both at home and abroad.>>

The author goes on to discuss how the character Uncle Tom of the novel’s fame has been reduced to a “spineless sellout” as a result of numerous dramatizations and re-tellings that somehow re-wrote and thereby deformed the “strong and morally courageous”, “muscular, dignified” dramatis persona that Uncle Tom really was. I was struck by how, in the process of attempting to “rescue” the “real Uncle Tom”, and thereby mark the birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the op-ed seems to quite gratuitously verbally assault the character of Uncle Tom's creator. The irony, of course, is that Uncle Tom was not “real” at all. Uncle Tom came to be only because the real woman Harriet Beecher Stowe gave him life. Well, happy birthday, Harriet the harried hypochondriac housewife and mother of Uncle Tom.

It is perhaps not surprising that the image of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom is so much larger than the memory of Stowe herself. Uncle Tom was, as the author of the op-ed points out, an icon of the anti-slavery movement. The problem, if there is one, is that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom has been transformed from a key figure in a complex allegory into a rough-hewn, unsubtle archetype that only scarcely represents the author’s creation. Uncle Tom is in this respect somewhat like Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein's creature (I won't call him a monster, that's part of his bad rap), who, in similar fashion, has been recast by popular culture as a dim-witted brute.

Harriet Beecher Stowe actually had a lot in common with Mary Shelley. Both women were part of socially and politically well-connected families with literary leanings. Both women balanced high-minded idealism and genius with the harsh realities of childbearing and illness. Both women created entire bodies of work that have been overshadowed by the Golem-like figures of Uncle Tom and Frankenstein's creature who were created by words and then ran amuck.

Like the author of the op-ed, I say let the “real” Uncle Tom live. To do so, we need to not only re-inscribe “truth” on his forehead but also give proper homage to his maternity.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Lea VanderVelde’s Mrs. Dred Scott —A Genre Bender?

There are many ways of writing about history. Three somewhat related genres within the larger historical enterprise are non-fiction history, historicized fiction and fictionalized history. Mrs. Dred Scot, to my read, manages to fall somewhere in the interstices of all three of these. Read more about this at Osgoode Hall's Institute for Feminist Legal Studies blog!