There was a moment, partway through the “St. Claire” section of the book, that I thought Uncle Tom’s Cabin might end up being kind of good. Marie St.There was a moment, partway through the “St. Claire” section of the book, that I thought Uncle Tom’s Cabin might end up being kind of good. Marie St. Claire is an effective and vicious parody, in a Henry James mould, of the depths of human selfishness, and Augustine St. Claire is a genuinely interesting character whose dissections of Northerners’ racist hypocrisy is thoughtful and insightful. This section followed hard on the heels of George Harris’s Byronic declarations of vengeance, and it looked like things might be getting interesting.
Things did not get interesting. Things got as obvious and kitschy as they possibly could. Even by the standards of nineteenth century melodrama, which I’d thought I had a high tolerance for, this level of coincidence and sentiment is unforgivable. Too many people remember in tears their dead mothers, too many apostrophes to Africa lead the theme by the hand onto center stage, too many characters show their strings as Stowe jerks them around in a contrived puppet show for the groundlings to boo or weep for.
It’s often unfair to gripe about cliches in old novels, because the innovations of a previous century are the cliches of today. But Uncle Tom’s Cabin is filled with contemporary, 1850s cliches—the cliches of complacent bourgeois sentimentality.
Oscar Wilde once said, about another book, that one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing. It’s no spoiler to say that Wilde’s aphorism came to mind many times as I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
It’s possible that the nineteenth century audience needed these cliches and complacencies to flatter them into a level of comfort to let them absorb Stowe’s abolitionist message. In this way the book may be clever, and its historical importance is beyond question. But as a work of literature, as opposed to a cabinet display in the museum of yesterday’s propaganda, it’s just appalling....more
Marjorie Fleming was the perfect child of the nineteenth century – she died at the age of eight, before the vile world could corrupt her.
RomanticizingMarjorie Fleming was the perfect child of the nineteenth century – she died at the age of eight, before the vile world could corrupt her.
Romanticizing death like this is clearly unforgivable, and much of John Brown’s book in consequently unbearable. But a good half of the book is straight up quotes from Fleming’s diary and letters, and these are really good. "I am now going to tell you the horible and wretched plaege [plague] that my multiplication gives me you can't conceive it the most Devilish thing is 8 times 8 and 7 times 7 it is what nature itself cant endure." It's like an 1810 edition of Kids Say the Darnedest Things
Like everybody in the nineteenth century except Robert Southey, Fleming was a good versifier, and her naive poems are sometimes genuinely funny.
His nose's cast is of the Roman : He is a very pretty woman. I could not get a rhyme for Roman, So was obliged to call him woman.
This passage is from a letter to her mother: "Isabella Heron was near Death's Door, and one night her father lifted her out of bed, and she fell down as they thought lifeless. Mr. Heron said, 'That lassie's deed noo,' -- 'I'm no deed yet.' She then threw up a big worm nine inches and a half long. I have begun dancing, but am not very fond of it, for the boys strikes and mocks me."
There's a lot of good stuff like that, and while Brown's irritating comments are intrusive, Fleming herself is an irresistible piece of work....more