Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Search for the No Man's Land

Uncle Tom’s Cabin—which I managed to go 27 years without reading—is really a remarkable book, particularly its first half, before Harriet Beecher Stowe completely devolves into sentimental pulp. (I spent at least one hundred pages wishing Little Eva would just go ahead and die already.) The most effective and interesting parts of the book are the ones in which Stowe leaves behind her plot and the conventions of sentimental fiction in order to rage against the reader and present her (really quite radical for the time) views on the race question. For example:
I know the feeling among some of you northerners well enough. Not that there is a particle of virtue in our not having [slavery]; but custom with us does what Christianity ought to do,—obliterates the feeling of personal prejudice. I have often noticed, in my travels north how much stronger this was with you than with us. You loathe [African Americans] as you would a snake or a toad, yet you are indignant at their wrongs. You would not have them abused; but you don’t want to have anything to do with them yourselves. You would send them to Africa, out of your sight and smell, and then send a missionary or two to do up all the self-denial of elevating them compendiously. Isn’t that it?
Well, Randy Newman agrees, anyway. Uncle Tom is at its best in passages like these, in which Stowe loads up an ideological shotgun and hits absolutely everyone she can with its debris—no one in her world is safe from her indictment, which is what makes her most famous novel something beyond self-righteous; it’s what makes it a good novel rather than a merely important one. (I can’t bring myself to say great—not when the last third of the book is so weak and bound to convention.)

But I’m not writing to talk about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Instead, I want to say a few words about her much less known 1859 novel The Minister’s Wooing, another sentimental novel of protest—only in this case she’s protesting the hard Calvinism of her lineage rather than slavery (at which she nevertheless gets a few shots off).

Let’s define our terms first. The sentimental novel—however much American critics want to pretend it’s not so—has been the dominant form of the novel for most of the genre’s existence, beginning with Samuel Richardson and moving on through Sister Carrie and up to—I don’t know, Twilight. There is a formula: boy tries to seduce girl; girl resists; girl undergoes incredible feeling; then, depending on whether the novel is a comedy or a tragedy, she either marries the right boy or is left ruined by the wrong one.

The best writing I’ve read on sentimental fiction is Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel. Fiedler tells us that the sentimental novel, arising as it does at the end of the Puritan era, replaces Protestantism with something called the “Sentimental Love Religion,” a nebulous faith with limited dogma that posits “love between the sexes as the fountainhead of virtue and joy.” On a more primeval level, it posits emotion as a higher path to truth than reason and thus stands as a precursor to Byronian Romanticism.

This is why it’s safe to call both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Minister’s Wooing “sentimental novels of protest”; Stowe may use logic in her attacks on slavery and Calvinism, but her indictment of her readers is an indictment of a failure to feel, not to think, properly. And that’s her indictment of Calvinism, as well: at its worst, it is a cold, unfeeling dogmatic system rather than a religion meant for real human beings. It has its high points, of course,
But it is to be conceded, that these systems, so admirable in relation to the energy, earnestness, and acuteness of their authors, when received as absolute truth, and as a basis of actual life, had, on minds of a certain class, the effect of a slow poison, producing life-habits of morbid action very different from any which ever followed the simple reading of the Bible.
Thus Stowe proffers a new religion to replace it—only the new religion she proffers is the same old sentimental love religion with a thin veneer of Christianity over it. At times, her faith sounds downright blasphemous, as when she notes that
Of old, it was thought that one who administered poison in the sacramental bread and wine had touched the very height of impious sacrilege; but this crime is white, by the side of his who poisons God’s eternal sacrament of love and destroys a woman’s soul through her noblest and purest affections.
It’s rare to find such a concise and blatant statement of the changes sentimentalism makes to Christianity, but there it is. The one sacrament for the sentimentalist is love, and not the agape of the New Testament. Romance is king, eros by another name. The rampant piety of The Minister’s Wooing and other novels like it only masks the fact that sexuality is at its center, only imperfectly disguises the sexual longing at its core.

The plot is thus. (Spoilers follow.) Mary Scudder is a pious young woman of feeling in late eighteenth-century Newport. She’s halfway in love with her cousin James, an unbelieving sailor, whom she wants to marry but cannot because of her faith. Meanwhile, she is passively courted by her middle-aged minister, Dr. Hopkins, a staunch Calvinist and abolitionist. James goes off to sea for two years, and after a short time word comes back that his ship has sunk and he’s dead. Mary and other members of the community have a crisis of faith. Dr. Hopkins proposes, and Mary says yes, even though she doesn’t love him the way she loves James. Just before the wedding, James shows up and announces that he’s become a Christian, at which point Hopkins lets Mary off the hook. Everyone lives happily ever after.

(There’s also a standard “seduction” subplot, starring Aaron Burr, of “Got Milk?” fame, in the role of the seducer, but this part of the novel seems uncomfortably attached to the main plot.)

The Minister’s Wooing
is most interesting in its philosophical conversation (as is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, leading me to conclude that Stowe must have been privy to some wonderful conversations among the famous members of her family). Its plot is mostly sentimental convention, but for a time I thought it was going to go in a more satisfying direction. There is a brief moment (“brief” being a relative term in a novel of nearly 600 pages) in which it appears that, even though James has returned from death and the sea a Christian, Mary will fulfill her vow to Dr. Hopkins anyway. As she tells a friend who has told her she will be miserable in a marriage without eros,
I believe, that, if you go on patiently in the way of duty, and pray daily to God, He will at last take out of your heart this painful love, and give you a true and healthy one. As you say, such feelings are very sweet and noble; but they are not the only ones we have to live by—we can find happiness in duty, in self-sacrifice, in calm, sincere, honest friendship.
What a revolution it would have been in the history of the sentimental novel if our heroine had become Mary Hopkins and lived a happy life devoid of eros! The novel would have grown and adapted; it would have been a critique not just of cold Calvinism but of the warm (and for some reason, I want to say moist) sentimental love religion. Instead, Hopkins appears, a deux ex machina, and allows Mary to renege on her promises and marry her true love.

No one would blame her in real life, of course, but the plot of a sentimental novel bears so little resemblance to life as it was ever lived that I can’t help wishing that Stowe had been braver in her attacks—as brave, in fact, as she is in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where no ideology escapes her penetrating stare. As it is, she takes a look at the battle between Calvinism and the sentimental love religion, nods at the no-man’s land in the center, and sanguinely takes her place in the sewing circle.

2 comments:

Michial said...

I realized as I lay in bed last night that the novel I wished "The Minister's Wooing" was is actually Henry James' "The Portrait of a Lady," the difference that Hopkins is not a cruel or manipulative man, like Gilbert Osmond, and thus Stowe could have shown us a marriage without eros that nevertheless fulfilled the emotional needs of its partners.

prolix said...

hi it is about the harriet beecher stowe and i read those instructions it is very usefull.. Wheels Florida