I knew I was walking around in no man’s land in writing my post on The Pearl of Orr’s Island, as I had read just enough criticism and biography to have a significant effect on my comments, but not enough to really know anything substantial about the background to the book. It was all a good reason for a trip to the library, and I have to say that I was excited about taking my first look at the Stowe shelf. Sizing up the Thackeray shelf, 30 years later, was a melancholy task, with a small group of priestly academics maintaining the dwindling flame. Dickens is robust and overwhelming as ever and George Eliot is a pleasant academic town to visit, with lots of attractions new and old. Trollope is Trollope, unassuming as always, known for its industrial strengths but well-planned and pleasantly active.
But if you’re looking for action, there’s a lot going on over at the Stowe shelf. It’s a combination of factors. The main thing, looking at it, is that it was always beefy, that Uncle Tom’s Cabin generated a lengthy, massive outpouring of subsidiary materials, and its partial eclipse was relatively brief. I lent my Norton Critical Edition of UTC to a friend, and it would have provided a handy shortcut to getting a fix on things. If you want to consider HB Stowe, the process starts with having some kind of handle on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The fact is that UTC itself is complex, and there are many layers to Stowe beyond that text, its composition, and reception over 160 years. I previously wrote about how I myself got started, and one nice note is that the experience of being shocked by reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin is common enough that Edmund Wilson went through it, quite late in his career. It’s less likely to recur, however, as the prime accomplishment of the past 25 years has been to embed UTC firmly in the lineup of American Literature. You can’t study American Lit these days without reading it. The growth of the discipline of American Studies has added to the cause, one would assume, but there’s a lot of vitality surrounding the text, and the commentary from past and present really is gigantic.
And it’s still a very tricky book to get a basic handle on, but that’s a great challenge for professors and teachers. One book I didn’t take home was “Teaching Uncle tom’s Cabin,” but I might get it next time. Most people will read UTC for a course, and that’s a good thing. That doesn’t help our happy blogosphere neighborhood, and I should look around to see if any one has been writing about it or Stowe in helpful ways. My own limitations, as I become aware of them, are in the related response literature, as my reading of African-American Lit has been more recent and haphazard, even backwards, as I’ve read now read a number of second-tier books and haven’t gotten to a couple of central texts. It seems that most people read Ellison’s Invisible Man and Wright’s Native Son very early in their study of African-American Lit, and I haven’t read them. James Baldwin’s essay, Everybody’s Protest Novel, which I did read at some point, only really makes sense through showing the context of Wright and Ellison reacting to Stowe–or something like that, as far as I can tell right now. Like I said, it’s good to have a teacher steering you through all of this.
In looking at Stowe you get hit by the crashing wave of UTC material, and it’s only after getting past it that you can start to consider the rest of Stowe. I was trying to get a sense of her New England novels, to know what there was besides The Pearl of Orr’s Island, and at the same time get some help and clarity on Pearl itself and how it fits. This is just one of Stowe’s worlds, however. There’s the great world of UTC, but then there are follow-ups, Dred and “The Key to UTC.” Another odd item in the Stowe world is the Byron incest controversy. I was just writing about Robert Gottlieb on Dickens, and Gottlieb begins his review by talking about the transcendent interest in certain literary lives, mentioning Byron and the Brontes and Dr. Johnson, as a prelude to his consideration of Dickens. I could know more about Byron, as I only have the basics and should probably get a better sense of his full rock star status, the Elvis of English Literature. Apparently HB Stowe decided to chime in and raise the stakes. My main interest, as i said, was to figure out the New England part, and there’s good work here and some leads, under the general heading of Regionalism. I was also on the lookout for a contemporary edition of The Pearl of Orr’s Island, with a good introduction. There are recent Penguin editions of Deephaven and A Country Doctor, for instance. I ordered a 2002 Houghton Mifflin edition, with an introduction by Joan D. Hedrick, after there were no contemporary editions at the library. Hedrick is the author of the 1995 Pulitzer-winning biography of Stowe, which should be a fun read and answer a lot of questions.
Lastly, the book that I want to read after all of this is Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which I’ve seen paired with UTC as the beginning of a Women’s Fiction course that stretches to Wharton and Cather. It may take some time for me to get to Ellison and Wright, but Jacobs might be coming in sight sooner.