Where Would H.B. Stowe Occupy?

Despite all its flaws, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Christian abolitionist activism is inspiring and leads me to an ahistorical question: if Stowe were alive today, what issues would she be most concerned with?  In the weeks since our visit to the Stowe Center, the activist landscape has been dominated by the “Occupy” movement.  Started on Wall St as a living protest against economic injustice and the concentration of resources, power and policy among the richest few Americans, the movement has spread to Hartford and other cities across the world.   Recently, on a radio program, I heard that the percentage of actual unemployment in the country is about 16%, including those people who have stopped looking for jobs.   The guest on the program said that was about the same percentage of people in this country who were slaves in the mid-1800s. This parallel between slavery and today’s economic situation is striking.

An obvious answer to the Stowe question above is human trafficking.  In fact, the Stowe Center has done several programs of late on the issue.   They recently awarded the authors of Half the Sky for their work in this area.  But, would that be Stowe’s only issue?  During our workshop conducted by Stowe Center staff, and Professor Joan Hedrick, Stowe expert from Trinity College, parallels to other issues arose.  For instance, undocumented immigration and its relationship to the country’s economy drew particular focus.  Is this the newest incarnation of economic slavery?  Today much of our economy depends on a depressed and vulnerable stratum of society, caused and perpetuated by a confluence of factors including so-called free trade policies, employer over-reliance on cheap expendable labor, and a lack of deterrents for such employers.  Despite the charged political debate, little has been done to actually address the supply and demand reality that makes undocumented labor so prevalent.

So, perhaps Stowe would fight against the injustices towards undocumented workers.

But, back to Occupy Hartford.  I want to believe that Stowe would have had an affinity for the 99%, the statistical rallying cry of the Occupy movement.   What I really wonder about, however, is if the tactics would be too much for her Protestant ethic.   Given her criticisms of William Lloyd Garrison and his publication, The Liberator, I have doubts as to whether Stowe would march downtown or squat a park to achieve the ideals of the Occupy movement, even as that movement has set up camp just a couple miles from her Hartford home.

Where would Stowe occupy?  Probably nowhere, but she might write a novel.  How about Uncle Tom’s Tent?

Occupiers settle into their tents for the evening in Hartford


About kevin

I'm Assistant Professor of English at Capital Community College in Hartford, CT. I teach mostly developmental English, and Literature and Composition. View all posts by kevin

4 responses to “Where Would H.B. Stowe Occupy?

  • jeffpartridge

    I agree with Kevin that Stowe probably wouldn’t be out in a tent, but she might write about it. Funny…and true. This might be a good opportunity to record here a couple of things that we talked about that, I believe, speak to the nature of activism in literature…

    I thought Joan Hedrick’s question was excellent — how did one of the most popular novels of the 19th century become so unpopular in the 20th? One answer we discussed was a change in literary tastes and literary values. With the growth of the academy and the birth of English departments, and with the rise of the modernist aesthetic, the lack of subtlety in Stowe’s novel became difficult to palate. Hedrick argues in her biography that this was also a largely male-driven shift — she shows, for instance, how Henry James dismissed Stowe as a sentimentalist (which was how women were generally dismissed in the 19th century). And even more recent critics find it hard to get past the activist quality of the novel: John Updike, in his review of the Annotated UTC in the New Yorker, shows great respect for the novel, but he also complains that Stowe’s characters “exist on the page to make a point.” I find it hard to disagree with this. My tastes are so formed by 20th century literature of the more high brow quality that it is hard to close one eye to the obviousness of Stowe’s intent. She wears her activism on her sleeve. However, in discussing this very issue with my students, some of whom were bothered by Stowe’s didacticism, I posed this question to myself: “Would I rather write a novel that is admired by the academy and ignored by the average person, or would I rather write a novel that stirs the hearts of people to rise up in action against a social injustice?”

  • klamkins

    Some might say that there’s a happy medium. Take Twain, for instance. Huck Finn is still seen as a force to be reckoned with in American literature. At the same, it certainly has its popularity and social message.

  • farbman.evelyn@gmail.com

    Now, four months later, I finally get around to reading this thread. But the Stowe/ Cabin issue is never outdated. For those who are still interested, check out this response by Henry Louis Gates:

    If that link breaks, just search “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Reconsidered” and find the HL Gates interview. In spite of the fact that it refutes my beloved James Baldwin, Gates’s analysis rang true to me.


  • farbman.evelyn@gmail.com

    PS–I just listened to that interview that I posted above and it’s pretty diffuse. There’s a better one from NPR http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7488550

    But neither of them are as clear and trenchant as Gates’s introduction to his “Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” where he explores themes and subtexts that explained UTC’s breathtaking popularity in its time and that, if you tune into them, make the book compelling today. It’s not a realistic novel, or the kind of character study that we’re used to. And it does, as Baldwin complains in his famous essay, protest too much. But underneath that protest in the sentimental tradition of its time, it churns along (maybe unconsciously for Stowe) on a roiling current of conflicts having to do with sexuality, objectification, family, love, and courage. Gates cites Joan Hedrick’s book in his attempts to place Stowe in all of this, so some of you might find this Annotated UTC lively reading. When I found it on a shelf a couple of months ago, I literally couldn’t put it down until I finished the introduction.

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