Friday, October 30, 2009

Looking Backwards

“…you can set in your window anywhere in Harlem and see plenty… But back windows ain’t much good for looking backwards nohow. I always did believe in look out front—looking ahead…”

The Sweet Flypaper of Life

Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava

The Harlem photographer Roy DeCarava may be best known for one of the photographs that appeared in his 1955 collaboration with Langston Hughes. decarava_graduationGraduation captures a black girl in a white dress walking along a Harlem street. It is a photograph of opposites: white and black, shadow and light, the image of the luxury car opposed to the dilapidated cart, the word Prince, truncated. Still, it is not an ironic image. Poised as she negotiates her contradictory world, the girl has—to use an 18th-century word now in disuse—equanimity. The viewer feels that she has determined her path, and is confidently moving along it.

DeCarava took Graduation the same year that Partisan Review published James Baldwin’s scathing essay on Uncle Tom’s Cabin (another coincidence: the essay and ten others appeared in Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son in 1955, the year of DeCarava’s and Hughes’ collaboration). However dissimilar, DeCarava’s photograph and Baldwin’s essay address the state of blacks in America of the 1950s.

Baldwin’s attack on Harriet Beecher Stowe remains a power essay that is difficult to come to terms with. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he writes, “is a very bad novel,

having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart,; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.

Stowe was incapable of creating characters who are “resolutely indefinable, unpredictable,” whose fictional lives are a “web of ambiguity [and] paradox.” To create a “more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims” is the goal of the novelist. Stowe failed to achieve it.

If we accept Baldwin’s argument, what’s left of Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Stowe used conventions of the 19th-century sentimental novel, the ideas of the “culture of domesticity,” and evangelical reform thinking to craft her novel. Baldwin’s aversion to the novel comes in part from their continued influence. Baldwin, perhaps most bothered by the novel’s “theological terror, the terror of damnation” that causes Uncle Tom to forbear whatever his masters’ do to him, sees the “tragedy” of Bigger Thomas, hero of Richard Wright’s Native Son, as his acceptance of “a theology that denies him life, that he admits to the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained…” Wright, in Baldwin’s view, had taken Stowe’s Uncle Tom, lock, stock, and barrel, and turned him into his complement, a raging, diminished black man. Looking backward at Stowe’s novel of 1851, Baldwin saw black novelists in 1950 unable to move forward.

In a reappraisal of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Henry Louis Gates argues that Baldwin disliked sentimentality because, to Baldwin, it subverted sexuality, valuing false public displays of emotion over intimate and true feeling. Yet sentimentality was the only vehicle available to Stowe to express sexuality. As Gates demonstrates, a reader can find sexuality in nearly every chapter of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “lurking within and near the story’s sentimental treatment of marriage and family life. “ No where is this more apparent than in the marriage of Eliza and George. From the beginning, Stowe presents Eliza as an attractive, sexual woman, as when the author compares her to Harry, her son.

There was the same rich, full, dark eye, with its long lashes, the same ripples of silk black hair, The brown of her complexion gave way on the cheek to a perceptible flush, which deepened as she saw the gaze of the strange man fixed up her in bold and undisguised admiration.

Eliza’s sexual nature is not lost to either the strange man, the slave trader Haley. Eliza’s sexuality is described again later, during her escape north, when she learns that she will be reunited with George at the Quaker house, her temporary refuge. She imagines hearing “her husband’s footsteps; she felt him coming nearer; his arms were around her, his tears falling on her face, and she awoke!” By dismissing sentimentality as dishonest emotion, Baldwin seems to have missed the underlying sexual nature of Stowe’s novel.

Sentimentality stands as a great hurdle for today’s reader of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and one initially feels pulled to agree with Baldwin’s forceful argument. Stowe’s is a sentimental, polemical piece of fiction, more a pernicious political pamphlet than novel, isn’t it? That is how Baldwin saw the novel in the 1950s, and how we’ve been taught to think of it. “ To expose oneself in maturity to Uncle Tom may be a startling experience,” Edmund Wilson wrote in Patriotic Gore, his great work about the literature of the Civil War era. “Let us start with Uncle Tom’s Cabin” begins the book.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Entering Uncle Tom’s Cabin

I wonder what my good friend The English Teacher thinks of requiring high school students to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Would he like to see it as part of the core English curriculum, or an AP course? Would he introduce students to the work of Hawthorne’s “scribbling women” and offer a feminist critique of the academy’s rejection of 19th-century sentimental literature? To understand the novel, would students need more than half the class time devoted to Antebellum history? Wouldn’t Uncle Tom’s Cabin better be offered as a segment of the school’s American history course?

These questions came to mind as I read Jane Smiley’s introduction to Stowe’s novel. Uncle Tom’s Cabin “is not only a compelling, readable, wise, and well-constructed novel, but also the most important American literary document of the nineteenth century,” she writes. (Important because it “educated” northerners about the evils of slavery. But more likely, Stowe intensified northern feelings about a condition most northerners understood, yet had conveniently stowed in the backs of their minds.) The novel is “hot property…uncomfortable to read, hard to teach, controversial….It refuses to lie down and become a historical artifact…but continues to intrigue and offend and demand partisanship on the part of every reader.”

The first of my six adult class sessions on Uncle Tom’s Cabin made clear how hot the novel is. The class opened with a discussion of Sam and Andy’s antics that delay the slave trader Haley’s pursuit of Eliza as she flees north to Canada.

“Why have you been loitering so, Sam? [asks Mrs. Shelby] I sent Andy to tell you to hurry.”

“Lord bless you, Missis!” said Sam, “horses won’t be cotched all in a minit; they’d done clared out way down to the south pasture, and the Lord knows whar!”

“Sam, how often must I tell you not to say ‘Lord bless you, and the Lord knows,’ and such things? It’s wicked.”

"Oh Lord bless my soul; I done forgot..."

”Why, Sam, you just have said it again.”

“….Be careful of the horses, Sam;… don’t let them ride too fast.”

“Let dis child alone for dat! said Sam, rolling up his eyes with a volume of meaning.”

“I understand what Stowe is doing,” remarked one of the class, “but still…” Her reaction carries through the novel. But still… Because the world Stowe depicts offends us, we struggle to understand her achievement with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, hiding the novel’s cover in paper so bus riders won’t confront us, laughing uncomfortably at Stowe’s humor, feeling queasy about reading the novel at all. There is no other novel like it. The private musings of Leopold Bloom, the sexual obsessions of Proust’s Marcel, even the scatological world of a Houllebecq novel don’t hold a candle to the power of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to make us squirm.

Stowe’s novel is hot property, and the sweat brings with it aspects of our past that we had put out of mind. An ancestor of one of the class was a slaveholder in Missouri, having settled there after the Compromise of 1820, which allowed slavery in that state. Another was raised by a mammy, a common practice in the Texas region where his family lived. A young child in the fifties, I was in a tap dance recital, costumed in black face and white gloves. If we entered Uncle Tom’s Cabin thinking it a historical document of a time far removed from us, we’ve found that the distance between the world the novel depicts and us is not quite as great as we would like.