After losing the thread somewhere in my previous effort, and finding myself focusing on Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I thought I would look at some of my materials to see if what I was saying makes any sense. Unfortunately, it doesn’t, or if it does it’s all a little shaky.
My first top was Nina Baym’s Women’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women 1820-1870 (1979). Flipping through it, and for some reason going back to front, I saw a bunch of names that are still unfamiliar to me. I was expecting to find a substantial early chapter on Stowe, but didn’t. Going back to the index, I found there are a few pages on Stowe in the middle of the book, and turning to those I read that “Stowe did not write about women and was not a women’s writer.” That seems true, I suppose, as far as I know and as far as Uncle Tom’s Cabin is concerned. Baym’s book is about something else, it seems, and it wasn’t going to support my vague thesis.
I headed upstairs to find my “new” Annie Fields book. There are two books/biographies of Annie Fields. I wrote about the first, by Judith Roman, some time ago. It’s a good, straightforward study, a solid telling of the long story of Fields’s life. I was happy to stumble on a copy of Roman’s book a month ago, after originally getting it from the library. The second Fields book is by Rita Gollin,. Gollin is a Hawthorne scholar and she seems to mix it up in a heavier weight class than Roman. Her Fields book is more academic and scholarly, containing a lot more information and analysis, but it has an odd structure, as I mentioned before in my post on Roman’s book. I found Gollin’s book hard to read when I was trying to get the basic thread of Annie Fields’s life, starting with her childhood and family background, her world before she married JT Fields at age 20. Golllin’s book studies Fields’s relationships and friendships with the many writers and luminaries she knew over the course of her long life, and tells her life story through her relationships. This was a tricky approach for me as a library book, but I found a copy on half.com a few weeks ago and added it to my shelves. And now it was just the thing I was looking for, as it had a thorough chapter on Annie Fields’s relationship with Harriet Beecher Stowe. That relationship culminated in Fields’ writing Stowe’s biography.
Fields first met Stowe a number of years after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Stowe was a massive celebrity at the time. The beginning of the relationship with Stowe is a good example of the Fields’s literary marriage in action, as JT Fields made a deal with Stowe for a novel to be serialized in the Atlantic, which would run in the Cornhill in England at the same time. Annie Fields eventually became very close friends with Stowe. I was wondering about the influence of Dickens on Stowe and UTC, but there isn’t much discussion of Dickens in Gollin’s chapter on Stowe, although there are some very interesting bits on their mutual admiration and relationships with George Eliot, and their unsuccessful effort to get her to come to America. Perhaps the most intriguing item was a mention of how Fields first became close to Stowe when she and JT were in Italy, and Stowe decided to return to America on the same ship with them. Also on board were the Hawthornes, returning from their own lengthy European sojourn. Must have been quite the boat ride, with everybody getting back in time for the beginning of the Civil War.
Gollin’s book will ultimately have a great and high value for me, it seems, and I read some more, about James T. Fields retiring from publishing and touring extensively as a lecturer, sharing his experiences with books and authors with a wide variety of audiences and spreading the gospel of literature. I knew that his book, Yesterdays with Authors, must have been popular, but I didn’t realize that it was such a significant and influential work of 19th century literary biography, quite worthy (I hope) of more extensive analysis. This part of Annie Fields’ life (and Gollin’s book) is such an odd “ending,” as it seems so complete, and her life with Sarah Orne Jewett is yet to begin. I’ve noticed it before, but the structure of such a life is really quite remarkable, and it’s simple as well. It’s an eighty year span. The broad and inexact strokes are that at 20 she marries a man who is 40, and they live together for 25 years. He dies at 65, having lived an extremely rich and full life. She becomes the intimate partner of a woman twenty years her junior. They live together for another 25 years. Her younger partner achieves great success as a writer, but suffers an accident and dies relatively young, in her 50s. Annie spends the last 10 years of her life alone, writing, reflecting, and departing.
It will be interesting to compare some of these movements with Stowe’s own long life, as I go further. But I want to stop to wonder what such a life might look like if it was pushed up one century, into our own time: a woman who would have lived through the 20th century, who would be nearing the end now.
At any rate, later in the day I moved on from Gollin to Jane Tompkins, trying to get back to Stowe. Tompkins’ 1981 essay, “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History,” most likely the basis for Jane Smiley’s Atlantic essay, was in my Norton Critical Edition of UTC, which I lent to a friend recently. But I knew I had just gotten Elaine Showalter’s 1985 Feminist Criticism book, and the Tompkins essay is reprinted there. I don’t know if Tompkins, by placing Stowe and UTC in the tradition of Sentimental and Domestic fiction, is revising Baym’s 1979 statement, but it certainly balances out the picture. The question I have, after reading Tompkins, is if the connection between Dickens and Stowe doesn’t still exist (it seems pretty obvious, but I’d have to work it out), and if the Victorian/Stephen family critique of Dickens wasn’t simply that he wrote Sentimental fiction. So I’d still like to find something on the influence of Dickens on Stowe, but it was nice to see the beauties of Gollin’s book as she discussed how Stowe and Annie Fields moved on together to George Eliot, especially in such a personal way.