“Have you ever heard anything about God, Topsy?”
The child looked bewilder’d, but grinned as usual.
“Do you know who made you?”
“Nobody, as I knows on,” said the child, with a short laugh.
The idea appeared to amuse her considerably; for her eyes twinkled, and she added –
“I spect I grow’d. Don’t think nobody ever made me.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, p.207.
I don’t think that there is any other utterance in all of American letters that summarizes the Zeitgeist of the national literature, from the undercurrent of individualism to the celebration and denial of identity, and the dilemma of destiny.
The nation’s history is predicated upon freedom. It extols the Individual who is not bound by social class, or denied political and religious expression. These United States hold dear to a creed of Democracy and Freedom.
Freedom from what and for whom? Mid-nineteenth century America was a place where slaves were not considered human. Women were not true citizens. Women were not given the right to vote until…The East Coast of the mid-nineteenth century was a patchwork of religious groups, settled down and enjoying mercantilism and industrialization. Middle America was a swath of land and people that could not relate to the convoluted histories of New England, nor were likely to venture out into the unknown hostile frontier territories. The Frontier was another checkerboard of rising industry, lawlessness, and other alleged barbarians: Indians. The American South was the one section of the nation that remained unchanged and was, consequently most threatened by change. Miss Stowe came along and upset all that. Topsy is the domesticated barbarian who speaks an unwelcoming truth about American identity: her own.
On November 25, 1862 when Stowe met Lincoln he is purported to have said to her, ‘so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.’
And what makes Topsy’s reply to Ophelia so provocative, so unsettling?
The expectation is that the slave-child would say, “God created me.” Her response is innocently defiant yet truthful; child-like yet pagan: ‘Nobody ever made me’ and her elaboration is equally charged: “I spect I grow’d.”
Did Stowe abet the stereotype that slaves were not human? Are they incapable of civilization? The Puritans feared the wilderness as the place of anarchy and godlessness. Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown is an example of that fear. Topsy could be seen as rejecting Christianity by asserting a godless origin. Or is Topsy in accordance with the founding principle of freedom? A slave that is free is paradoxical. A female child-slave is almost heretical.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is, to some readers, infuriatingly racist. ‘Uncle Tom‘ is a pejorative. Other readers may consider it melodrama and not literature, but this novel has had a pivotal place in American literature. Look at this list: Representative Men (1850), The Scarlet Letter (1850), Moby-Dick (1851), House of the Seven Gables (1851), Walden (1854), Leaves of Grass (1855), and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) — most of us know the authors to all these titles, with the exception, possibly, of Emerson’s Representative Men. Whether we have read them or not is another matter.
The chronology of these texts prompted F.O. Mathiessen to name this six-year period, 1850-1855, the “American Renaissance.” And then there is that other set of years, 1861-1865, the moral crisis from which the entire nation, especially the American South, never recovered — the Civil War. Stowe’s novel is said to have thrown the match.
‘Renaissance’…it means rebirth, but of what and for whom? There is no Janus-faced figure that looks to the past and the future simultaneously. Rome looked to Greece; Greece looked to Egypt. Where does America look? Hawthorne is the closest we get to the Janus-faced author until Faulkner.
The disposition of America is always to looking forward. The past is to be redefined, edited and reinterpreted. The starting point of history is always dislocated and moved. It started with Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity and other colonial authors, like the less-known Joshua Scottow. Fast-forward to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s two creations, Jay Gatsby and Dick Diver. History as remembrance is always idealizing, nostalgic, and movement is always questing forward in motion, usually with violence, and the past is always in recession and always with amnesia. The individual is a Nobody and the Self becomes a ghost.
To be haunted, however, requires an awareness of history, be it national, personal or otherwise. Hawthorne is the ambivalent author of Puritan inheritance. Read his “Wakefield” which is about a man who wishes himself missing and you’ll see the same idea recur in The Maltese Falcon when Sam Spade goes to Seattle to find the missing Mr. Flitcraft. Reinvent Self and then fall back into the trap of routine. Melville gives voice to the alienating Ahab and to the alienated and disaffected Bartleby. Melville is the first modern. His Bartleby would just prefer not to. Where does this leave Harriet Beecher Stowe?
She is “the little woman” and her Topsy utters the pagan’s creed that no authority shall have dominion, although society and her station have determined her destiny to be Nobody.