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Monday, October 23, 2006

Everybody's Protest Novel

Edward Rothstein's "Connections" features for The New York Times are usually great. He recommends cool books and museum visits (here are two recent reviews of the 19th c. journalism exhibit at the New York Historical Society and a comparison of the Exploratorium and the Tech Museum of Innovation). "Connections" is a vague name for a column, but Rothstein always comes up with something I think I'd like to know more about.

I'm less impressed by today's article in the series, about Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s new introduction to the Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin. An abridged version of Gates's essay about Uncle Tom's Cabin was featured on the back page of The New York Times Book Review yesterday. I know the books section and the Book Review don't have the same editor or staff--both sections write reviews of certain books, and the reviewers sometimes disagree--but Rothstein's article is basically a summary of Gates's essay and repeats many of the same anecdotes. The same art appears in both articles.

Rothstein's article is about how Gates and co-editor Hollis Robbins have reassessed the value of Stowe's novel and have found it to be not nearly as terrible as its reputation became in the 20th century. I read Uncle Tom's Cabin three or four times in college, and I was always surprised at how many different ways there are to read it--as part of a long tradition of anti-slavery protest literature, as domestic fiction that emphasized women's role in activism, as genre fiction, as an attempt to cobble all those things together. Rothstein's work in the "Connections" article is to sum up some of Gates's findings about the multiple ways of reading the book:
Now, however, a new edition of the novel with intelligent annotations by Mr. Gates, who teaches at Harvard, and Hollis Robbins, who teaches at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins, marks a serious attempt to resurrect it as both a central document in American race relations and a significant moral and political exploration of the character of those relations.

Its literary qualities are not dismissed; they are affirmed. Mr. Gates finds the novel “culturally capacious.” He sees in it, too, not just the preaching of a moralistic visionary but also revelations about the tensions and contradictions latent in the tangled net of slavery and domestic life.

This doesn’t mean the flaws are ignored. The annotators dutifully take note of the whiffs of condescension that appear even in the midst of Stowe’s impassioned empathy, her subtle suggestions of racial inferiority in the midst of sympathy. They also point out Stowe’s use of sentimental Victorian melodrama in the plotting and description; can a victim be more saintly than Uncle Tom or a master be more satanic than Simon Legree? In this they also echo some of the long-standing assessments of the novel. George Sand said one must “love its very faults.” George Orwell called it “the supreme example of the ‘good bad’ book” that is “preposterous,” while also being “deeply moving and essentially true.”

But what do those summaries do that Gates's essay doesn't? Here's an excerpt from Gates's essay:
I doubt that many of those who tossed around the insult had actually read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel. But James Baldwin had. In a scathing 1949 critique, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin boldly linked the sentimentality of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to the melodrama of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel “Native Son,” a work far more appealing to black power types. “Uncle Tom” had become such a potent brand of political impotence that nobody really cared how far its public usages had traveled from the reality of its literary prototype.

When I returned to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” not long ago, it struck me as far more culturally capacious — and sexually charged — than either Baldwin or the 60’s militants had acknowledged. Half a century after Baldwin denounced it as “a very bad novel” in its “self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality” and promotion of feminine tears and anguish as a form of political protest, both the novel and Baldwin’s now canonical critique are ripe for reassessment.

I guess I want from Rothstein a couple more connections to and from Gates's work, not merely a summary of it. I bet he could have done something really cool with the Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe's response to pro-slavey critics of the novel who took issue with its accuracy. She says her project in the Key is to account for all the facts of the novel:
Artistically considered, it might not be best to point out in which quarry and from which region each fragment of the mosaic picture had its origin; and it is equally unartistic to disentangle the glittering web of fiction, and show out of what real warp and woof it is woven, and with what real colouring dyed. But the book had a purpose entirely transcending the artistic one, and accordingly encounters at the hands of the public demands not usually made on fictitious works. It is treated as a reality--sifted, tried, and tested, as a reality; and therefore as a reality it may be proper that it should be defended.

The writer acknowledges that the book is a very inadequate representation of slavery; and it is so, necessarily, for this reason--that slavery, in some of its workings, is too dreadful for the purposes of art. A work which should represent it strictly as it is would be a work which could not be read; and all works which ever mean to give pleasure must draw a veil somewhere, or they cannot succeed.

The author will now proceed along the course of the story, from the first page, and develop, as far as possible, the incidents by which different parts were suggested.

Isn't that such an odd idea for a novelist to try--to catalogue all her sources (some of which, the editors of the UTC electronic text project point out, were published later than the novel? But that insistence on accounting for the terrible truth of every detail fits perfectly with Stowe's project for the novel and Baldwin's later criticism of the protest novel genre as being over-determined and sentimental. It would have been a cool idea to contrast Stowe's obsessive catalogue with Gates's and Robbins' project in annotating the book.


Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Oct 24, 09:03:00 AM:
Thank you!

Hollis Robbins