Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Prophetic Engine

Harriet Beecher Stowe famously said that she did not write "Uncle Tom's Cabin," God did. Stowe's blockbuster anti-slavery novel had its origin in what she described as "almost a tangible vision." Although a nationally recognized writer, up until this point Stowe had been for the most part a passive spectator to the anti-slavery agitation that had been roiling the United States. But as she wrote to her editor, the nation was in such peril that "even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak." 

Soon after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, which required all citizens, on pain of fine and imprisonment, to assist in the return of fugitives, Stowe was in church when, during the communion service, instead of seeing Christ on the cross, she saw an image of a slave being whipped. Overcome with convulsive sobs, she hurried home and committed to paper this scene, which would become the climactic chapter in Uncle Tom's Cabin in which Simon Legree, enraged at Tom for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of two escaped slaves, has him whipped and left to die.

Stowe's ability to see Christ in the face of the oppressed slave was central to the prophetic power she mobilized in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Just as important was the powerful emotional response she had experienced, one she aimed to evoke in her readers. The story is told of a contemporary traveler on a train who hears in the compartment next to him the distraught sounds of crying and moaning. He calls out, "Hello, are you in distress, or are you reading 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'?" Stowe's access to this emotional expressiveness was fostered not by the Calvinism of her youth, but by the "holiness" movement of the 1840s and '50s. Radically egalitarian, it emphasized subjective experience and personal testimony. Meeting in small groups in people's homes, the holiness movement particularly empowered women to speak. 


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