James Whoode: Review

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Reviewed by James Whoode 

If chattel slavery can be said to be a metaphor for the Idumaean vagaries of one’s life as the trophy litterateur of America’s flagship periodical for the upwardly cultured, then Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is this metaphor writ long and large, and in a persuasively antiquarian font. It is not so much a book as the ad hoc rationale for paragraphizing the florid wound of my rhetorical style, a style I invite you to gawp at. You will not follow my meaning (the convoluted, bet-hedging over-qualifications of my most baseless theoretical arguments will see to that), but you will approve, almost snivellingly, of my tone. As with Ivan Ilych’s mortality-invigorated affection for the fawnitic boy-servant Gerasim, or the Newtonianly-fatidic mishap that changes the life of the plantigrade eponym of Gustave Flaubert’s crypto-ovarian melodrama Madame Bovary, stock references like these make this feel like an important thing to be reading, without, paradoxically, inspiring much corollary interest in the alluded-to books or even the book at hand, depleted as the reader is by admiring the reviewer for the duration of what may turn out to be a very long review. Uncle Tom’s Cabin  is as good an excuse as any to put you through this. 

Beecher Stowe quite cannily published “Cabin” in 1852, rendering it, by arguable default, more than a century-and-a-half old by the time this extraordinary reader undertook to address, with wasted-on-you fastidiousness, its recondite sermons in racial valence and flagellant misprision, giving it the valuable patina of what I call “Oldiness”. What I mean by “Oldiness” goes some distance beyond the obvious connotations of being “old” or having qualities indicative of same, simply because I say so, or mean to say so or imply as much, crafting, with a lushness of expression equaled only by my vacuity of message, lapidary monuments to the baffling scale of my pretension.

When Beecher Stowe writes, early in the novel, “He was a short, thick-set man, with coarse, commonplace features, and that swaggering air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world,”  we notice, immediately, with an almost feral flare of delight to our nostrils, that we are in the presence of a very old book, written in an era when writers felt more comfortable wedding failures of character to defects of stature and physiognomy (though baldness was more often than not a meta-textual synecdoche for brilliance): a culture-sanctioned, authorial license to craft the sort of characterly victims of over-description I treasure. Later, in a set piece knowingly, teasingly, precognitively reminiscent of Edith Wharton’s description of Lily Bart as first glimpsed by a reassuringly retrograde Selden at Grand Central Station (with its echoes, both figurative and literal, of the human bowel; a Freudian cathedral of American movement), Beecher Stowe writes: 

       At this moment, the door was pushed gently open, and a young quadroon woman, apparently about twenty-five, entered the room. There needed only a glance from the child to her, to identify her as its mother. There was the same rich, full, dark eye, with its long lashes; the same ripples of silky black hair. The brown of her complexion gave way on the cheek to a perceptible flush, which deepened as she saw the gaze of the strange man fixed upon her in bold and undisguised admiration.

What a magnificently Gauguinish flourish, that ripples of silky black hair line, with its bumptious semi-assonance of ripple and silky; the stretched euphony of the vowel-diagraph in hair as it escapes the honked astringency of black by fleeing to the end of the sentence, a full-stop separating it from the genteeler implications of a brown to come. By the time we get to the coolly-placed key-word complexion (so freighted with overtones, and etymological root-allusions, that I’ve spent the better part of an hour researching it with my OED, a Fowler’s, a Chambers Dictionary of Etymology and the Stevenson’s book of Quotations I plunder so habitually for padding reviews that its pages are translucent with sebum, turning up nothing), we realize we’re either gazing upon the book’s dark omphalos or my own, whichever metaphor will seem to mean the most, the longest, for the largest number of credulous readers. It’s Beecher Stowe’s ability to accurately emplace a word among hundreds of others on a page without, it seems, forgetting that word’s definition (“complexion” appears in this novel no less than twelve times) that bespeaks what I call her “smartiness”. Surely, Uncle Tom would have been no less conversant with the word’s usage, and pronunciation, than Simon Legree, which would have permitted Beecher Stowe, by the universal rules of my arbitrary-if-overwrought system, to use the word in either man’s stream-of-consciousness, had the author indulged in what could have been, in the middle of the 19th century, an admittedly remarkable proto-Joycean absurdity of some merit. 

It’s about this time that we must pause to make learned (or even obfuscatory) references to Plato, Aristotle or Samuel Johnson. And to consider how the words cascabel or glottochronological might be worked into the review. 

No book, however persuasive the formal argument of its mind-language felicities (what I’ll refer to, hereafter, as an author’s “styliness”), may be said to enrich us, despite the reader’s irritating pretense of enjoying it, without a formulaic nod to hidebound Judeo-Christian conventions of what we (in a simply-defined civilization) unanimously agree to call “morals”. And this is where Beecher Stowe’s astonishingly Oldiness-infused effort falls short, the distance between ambition and achievement gapped like a membranously lisping aperture which is, itself, the sticky subconscious avatar of sheer sidereal-time-elasped since the event of the reviewer’s last satisfactory act of Anglo-American congress. There is no tuitionally moral foundation to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, beyond the polemic stridency of Beecher Stowe’s terribly of-its-era, and, one feels, emotionally-improvised, socio-political Weltanschauung

Nested in the interplay of the characters, had Beecher Stowe over-described them to a degree I’d find persuasive (e.g., how tall is Uncle Tom in stocking feet? How much, in kilos, does the character weigh? Similarly, breast sizes are sometimes hinted at but never concretized) one might have found that moral matrix; that shifting map of questing textual consciousnessess flurrying like radioactive mice in a maze of invigilated darkness towards that sapid bit of teleological Stilton (the osmolagnial prize of self-knowledge) at the maze’s center, longing only to be nibbled and licked in a cunning ersatz of love.





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