Strategies of Influence: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Feminine EgoWorks Cited Missing
… despite the influence of the women’s movement, despite the explosion of work in nineteenth century American social history, and despite the new historicism that is infiltrating literary studies, the women, like Stowe, whose names were household words in the nineteenth century … remain excluded from the literary canon. And while it has recently become fashionable to study their works as examples of cultural deformation, even critics who declare themselves feminists still refer to their novels as trash. (Tompkins 123)
In a chapter of her book Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860 dedicated exclusively to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling sentimental novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Jane Tompkins argues against the prevailing critical opinion that Stowe’s novel is an unsophisticated, abortive attempt to write meaningfully about the “peculiar institution” which divided American culture in the mid-nineteenth century. Tompkins suggests that the novel’s popularity, long considered a reason for “suspicion bordering on disgust, is [actually] a reason for paying close attention” to it (Tompkins 124). Tompkins makes a good point; perhaps Uncle Tom’s Cabin makes sense outside of the bounds of the conventional critical approaches which can only view Stowe’s novel as an example of “cultural deformation.” In this essay, I want to discuss the ways in which Stowe’s protagonist Tom manipulates and exemplifies the theory of feminine “influence” (as discussed in Ann Douglas’ analysis of nineteenth century women’s writings) which moderate white women advocated as means for reforming (and eventually subverting) the prevailing patriarchal social system in response to the Industrial Revolution; far from deforming its culture, Uncle Tom’s Cabin actually reflects the rhetoric which the women of the nineteenth century used to redefine their position in a new, industrialist economy.
In her short story “Woman’s Rights,” published in the April 1850 issue of the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book, Haddie Lane explores and defines the concept of women’s rights through the example of her Aunt Debbie. Aunt Debbie, exasperated by Haddie’s sauciness and its rationalization as “woman’s rights,” takes Haddie on a tour of her daily rounds to teach her the true meaning of womanhood. As we accompany them along their charitable visits to the sick, the impoverished, and other unfortunates, Aunt Debbie’s definition of women’s rights is explicitly articulated as Haddie “realizes” the moral meaning of each successive stop. After visiting a once-gay schoolmate who now staggers under the weight of her infirm (and abusive) elderly father, Haddie voices her revelation: