Dissertation – Chapter 2 – Creating Citizenship…in…Uncle Tom’s Cabin (2 of 5)

Post it Notes like I used copiously while writing my dissertation. Image by Pexels on Pixabay at https://pixabay.com/en/post-it-notes-sticky-notes-note-1284667/
Post it Notes like I used copiously while writing my dissertation. Image by Pexels on Pixabay at https://pixabay.com/en/post-it-notes-sticky-notes-note-1284667/

© Copyright by
Roshaunda D. Cade

Harriet Beecher Stowe, whether or not intentionally, structured her life and writing career on this model.  She wed Calvin Stowe in 1836 at the age of 25.  She tended to her family and wrote to supplement household finances from 1836 to 1850.  Then from 1850, when she began to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, until her death in 1896, Stowe spent her time writing and traveling, leaving her husband with the household duties, while she promoted the abolitionist cause and the plight of women.  Stowe’s life followed a feminist life plan, which enabled her to write and impact society.

Stowe, however, did not openly consider herself a feminist, and Ann Crittenden notes that Stowe could not see through the “ideological veil” of patriarchy.  In 1850 Stowe wrote a letter to her sister-in-law detailing the bustle of the family’s move to Maine and how Stowe “had given birth. . . ; run a huge household; and somehow also managed to make her way through the novels of Sir Walter Scott – all within a year.” (Crittenden 53).  Yet Stowe confided to her sister-in-law, “‘I am constantly pursued and haunted by the idea that I don’t do anything,’” (Crittenden 53).   Harriet Beecher Stowe may have felt trapped by traditional women’s roles, but that soon changed.  Eighteen fifty was the year that she began writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the year that she began rending the veil.


In 1850, before writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe could not see through the ideological veil.   She was an active woman running a large household, yet she felt that her domestic concerns amounted to little in the public sphere or in the realm of her family (as evidenced by the statement that she felt she had not done anything). Eighteen fifty found Stowe in a new state in a new home, with new furnishings and a new child.  This was ample to keep her busy.  At this point in her life, Stowe appears the quintessential mother and domestic goddess.  Yet at the height of her maternal and domestic responsibilities (which the country and its citizens, understood as white males, depended on, rested on, and simultaneously undervalued), she accepts the role of abolitionist mother bestowed upon her by her sister-in-law when asked to write in response to the newly passed Fugitive Slave Law. Stowe writes in reaction to the Fugitive Slave Law, but she also writes because the American ideal of motherhood and domesticity is empty without access to citizenship.  Something extraordinary and cathartic occurs during the writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  While writing her novel, Stowe works through living with her mother’s ghost, she taps into the power of narrative, and she forges new literary ground.  Stowe writes herself into citizenship while writing citizenship for her characters.

Feminists struggled for full participation US citizenship. They demanded autonomy and self-definition.  They argued that to be citizens women needed the right to define their own sphere instead of having it dictated by men (Hersh 189).  Feminist scholar Eloise A. Buker echoes their sentiment when she argues that the initial act of citizenship is choosing how to perform subjectivity (157).  For Buker citizenship means having the freedom to choose how to invent and present self.  Buker defines responsible citizenship as “the scrutiny of cultural patterns and the rejection of harmful cultural patterns” (156).  She further encourages citizens to create justice in their everyday lives (Buker 65).  Harriet Beecher Stowe acts as a citizen when she writes Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  She chooses to write under her real name, including her maiden name, shunning the tradition of many female writers of her time to use pseudonyms.  She chooses to write a novel with a pressing political agenda, not just a sentimental tome.  In other words, Stowe writes herself into her own self-defined sphere.  She writes herself into citizenship, and furthermore, responsible citizenship.  Stowe scrutinizes and rejects the harmful cultural Fugitive Slave Law.  And through her narrative, Stowe creates justice.

Buker privileges storytelling, narrative, as a means to create justice because it focuses on issues rather than rules (57); because it creates a bond between the listener and those in the narrative thus enabling citizens to enter new situations and empathize with those who differ from them (218, 68); because it creates new sets of cultural practices (222); and because it engenders democratic conversations (220).  Feminists also turn to storytelling because during times of “intense misogyny. . . and racism, these narratives preserve women’s wisdom” (215).  The U.S. in 1850 needed a way for its citizens to combat the hardships faced by both women and slaves, and Harriet Beecher Stowe uses her novel to undertake the task.

Accordingly, Stowe’s story of Eliza and her escape binds readers to Eliza as a woman, as a person, not as black chattel.  Readers empathize with Eliza’s plight and discover how cruel the Fugitive Slave Law could be.  Outraged by the legal cruelties perpetrated by the U.S. and its citizens, readers begin democratic conversations challenging and opposing the law.  Democratic conversations between people of differing backgrounds characterize citizenship, according to Buker.  Stowe’s novel opens conversations between North and South, black and white, slave and free, male and female.  While the conversations may not always seem civil, Stowe’s narrative creates a space for those discussions to happen.  Through the narrative of Eliza, and others, Stowe positions herself as a self-defining citizen; she opens responsible citizenship to her readers, and she creates a new literary space for black women to exist.  One of the tools Stowe uses in her narrative is minstrelsy, which she highlights as not merely societal buffoonery but also as a pathway toward citizenship for Eliza the slave mother.

Eliza, George, and Harry: Minstrel Trio

On the surface, Eliza seems like a mousy slave woman, but beneath her mask lies an intensity that allows her to strive for freedom for herself and her son.  Eliza is not a tragic mulatta; she is not the victim of sexual slavery; she is not a denigrated field hand; she is not a mammy.  She is a wife and mother, who, unfortunately, also is a slave.  Stowe does not foreground Eliza’s life as a slave so much as she plays on Eliza’s life as an American woman facing desperate circumstances.  This helps forward her abolitionist cause by showing a slave’s humanity, but it also forwards a feminist agenda by showing that women, regardless of circumstance, can influence their own futures. 

Stowe, while certainly not the first to write about black women, writes about black women as if they are women – not stereotypes or things.  She at times falls into stereotypical and negative cultural attitudes toward blacks in general, and black women more specifically, about which she has faced vilification; nevertheless, Stowe’s work opens a path to thinking about black women as women.  Like their white sisters in the struggle, black women must deal with men, societal constraints, and their own offspring, all while attempting to carve space for themselves in the American landscape.  For most black women, the American landscape is proscribed by the boundaries of slavery.  And even for free black women, their prospects of realizing an American dream are slim.  Eliza faces similarly bleak prospects, even though she is the petted servant of the Shelbys.

Stowe describes Eliza as a young quadroon woman of about 25 years old (interestingly this is the same age at which Stowe married, and the same age at which feminists are supposed to marry), with rich dark eyes and “ripples of silky black hair” (Stowe 45).  Her attire fits neatly and “set[s] off to advantage her finely moulded shape” (Stowe 45).  According to Stowe, Eliza’s mistress Mrs. Shelby raises her as a “petted and indulged favorite” (54).  Stowe continues describing Eliza in stereotypical mulatta terms [I follow the common practice of using the term mulatta to encompass the terms mulatta, quadroon, and octoroon.].  Eliza exhibits “that peculiar air of refinement,” “softness of voice and manner,” and “beauty of the most dazzling kind,” which characterize the “particular gift” of “quadroon and mulatto women” (54).  In the midst of her stereotypical depiction of Eliza, Stowe takes an unlikely turn.  She writes that Eliza is not merely a “fancy sketch” (54).  Stowe then clues readers that Eliza, although a beautiful quadroon, does not emulate their characteristic tragic trajectory.  Stowe spares Eliza the concubinage faced by so many of her caste and, instead, marries her to the mulatto slave George Harris.  In other words, Stowe alerts readers to her intention not to treat Eliza as merely a tragic mulatta, but rather as a mulatta slave woman.  Although still bound by the categories mulatta and slave, Stowe frees Eliza to become a woman and thus opens her to participate in the American landscape and eventually the American citizenry.

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