The appearance of a work of this character at this juncture will not surprise any one, who has carefully observed the objects, which writers of fiction have had mainly in view during the last few years. Their course now partakes in large measure of the utilitarian character of the age. Moral tales, highly wrought scenes, exposing and condemning existing institutions, and recommending some one or other of the many modes of reform, by which projectors in politics and in morals fondly hope to attain that perfection in this world which religion and revelation teach us to be reserved for another and a better, have taken the place both of the old romance and the historical novel. This path is not entirely new, but it has acquired a new importance—and a most dangerous one, unless the new responsibilities necessarily incident to it, are allowed their due weight. The old romance was read merely for amusement; the fancy was excited and entertained; no conviction was intended to be produced. Hence no harm was done, except now and then making love-sick girls still more love-sick, and disposing boys capable of making very good tradesmen, to writing very bad poetry. By this the aggregate of human misery was not very materially increased.
The class of historical novels is a large one. We mean not only those
which detail historical facts, set off and adorned by the charms of fiction,
but also such as illustrate the customs and habits of nations and communities
at various epochs. Mr. Macaulay has taught us, both by precept and example,
the true province of all history, and the same great authority has pointed
out the use and beauty of fiction as the handmaid of history. To recommend
historical research, to illustrate manners and customs, to show how these
mold the character of a people, or rather, how manners, and customs, and character,
act and re-act upon each other, has been, almost entirely within the last
twenty or thirty years, the highest province of fiction. It is most essential
to the truth and beauty of the historical novel that there should be an air
of probability over the story, that nothing absurdly false be stated; that
there be a sufficient adherence to the general run of historical events, to
avoid shocking the public mind. Consistently with this, but in strict subordination
to it, some liberty is allowable, even with geography and chronology, the
"two eyes of history." The artist is allowed the largest liberty with the
minutiae of his picture. What a particular person says or does to another,
what the course of this moralist, or of that reprobate, how the feudal baron
may treat his family or retainers, what the private character of the soldier
or statesman—all these, and things like these, the writer may mold and fashion
as he pleases, so that he preserves the general air of probability and writes
nothing glaringly false. In short, as he is in very little danger of misleading
at all, since his errors can hardly have any permanently injurious effect
upon society, it is unimportant whether his details are true or false. His
province is to show how people would probably act under given circumstances,
not to assert that they have actually so acted. He seeks to interest and
instruct, but he has not the higher aim to establish and enforce principles
which are to effect the very groundwork of society; while the general tendency
of the historical novel should be uniform, having an instructive and beneficial
end in view, the mere de-
tails are of comparatively little consequence, and afford legitimate as well as full scope for the writer's fancy.
Fiction, as well as science, is progressive. From the old romance to the historical novel, there is a great advance in dignity and importance; so the distance is immeasurable between the historical and the new philosophical novel. The one sets before us the past in colors more or less vivid; the other is designed to affect the present and the future. Generations now unborn may rue mistaken feeling or policy thus introduced. In this walk of fiction a writer may have an incalculable influence, and with this influence his increased responsibilities must keep pace. Hence mere detail, the very merest detail, becomes important. Not only should it be shown how people may act under the present laws, usage and institutions of society, but a foul slander is perpetrated unless it is shown how they do act. Here a suggestio falsi is worse than a suppressio veri. Charity or prudence may lead to the latter, reckless malignity alone can drive to the former. The object differs from that sought by any other class of writers of fiction, and the course pursued should differ likewise. Here the license of the artist is much narrowed, and even in the smallest minutiae he should paint from life; all exaggeration is wrong, not merely out of place. Unless truth is carefully observed even in the details, gross injustice is done, and a wrong impression produced upon the public mind.
In reading the late work of Mrs. STOWE, most southern readers, and it is to be hoped, very many of her northern countrymen, will be painfully impressed with her neglect—a neglect not confined to her, but general with the class of writers to which she belongs—of truthfulness in her details. Even the license allowed the historical novelist is exceeded here, and that in a work aimed at an institution existing in a large portion of the Union, and where very little license is allowable. Exaggeration pervades the whole; characters uncommon any where, in any state of society, however christian and refined, are held up as types of a race long held in a state of mental and moral degradation. Slavery in the southern States offers a tempting field to writers of this class. We are only surprised that it has not been long since crowded to excess. But the literature of the Abolition-Society is at last aspiring to something above mere handbills and tracts. Not only has its mouth-piece "hit the right nail on the head, as an abolitionist and philanthropist," in the words of a late English Review, but the book has sold well, and the speculation in sentimentality and "higher law" doctrines is a good one for the novelist as well as the politician.
With many faults of style and matter, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is no ordinary work. As a collection of false facts and possible untruths it is unrivalled; but the falsehoods are generally well told, and are certainly well stuck to from preface to conclusion. It has too much literary merit to deserve to be hastily read, and carelessly thrown aside, and forgotten as soon as read. The story is told with dramatic effect. The persons speak for themselves, and, with the exception of some odd expressions put in the mouths of educated people, speak pretty much as such people, if they could ever exist any where—might be expected to do, if they could live where the author has located them, or be placed in the position in which she has placed them.
The sketches of Uncle Tom and Aunt Chloe will be read with pleasure by slaveholders. They will carry them back to their childhood and remind them to what were really, in some degree, the relations of master and slave before Garrison & Co. became famous and influential, and it will be indignantly denied that such a servant is ever so sold by his owner.
Mrs. STOWE does not inform us clearly why Uncle Tom is sold by his Kentucky master. A slave-dealer has bought up the notes of a gentleman of fortune and position to the amount of about fifteen hundred dollars. This places Mr. Shelby so completely in Haley's power that he can force him to do things which his soul abhors. To part with a faithful servant, to tear a tried friend from his family, and hand him over body and soul to a negro-trader, to part a young mother from her infant, to send a young child, in whose plays and gambols he takes delight, to be put up in a slave-market—not only to harrow up his own feelings by such a course as this, but also to inflict needless distress upon a wife whom he respects and loves. This would seem enough, but it is not all. The proud, high-toned gentleman degrades himself to the level of the vulgar ruffian. He is actually made to introduce the negro-buyer to his table, to his wife and family. He permits familiarities which gentlemen do not often endure even from their equals and intimates—and all this because he owes him a debt which he could easily pay over and over again. So paltry a debt can never, under any code of laws, bring a debtor so completely under a creditor's control, certainly not when he has property enough to pay the debt ten times over. This is the leading absurdity in the book, and it is a fair sample of the way in which Mrs. STOWE surrounds her characters by circumstances.
Of course, one never meets with such high-toned, self-sacrificing gentlemen, such humble and devout christians, as Uncle Tom, anywhere, of any shade of complexion, white or black. Whatever christian virtues are in process of development in the negro character whether in Africa or America, human nature has not yet reached such a state of perfection. Still slaveholders will love Uncle Tom and thank Mrs. STOWE for such a creation of her fancy. His fidelity and love, his gratitude to his master for favors conferred, and confidence reposed in him will make him unpopular in certain circles in the free States alone. In those circles, for instance, where it is the fashion to exalt a fugitive slave into a hero, and where a fighting Quaker is applauded for dropping his peaceful and honest principles, for setting law at defiance, and fighting and stealing in the cause of philanthropy.
Mrs. STOWE's sketches are very forcible; she has no idea of a common every day character, an ordinary compound of good and evil. Her devils of whatever variety of complexion she may please to portray them, are very black; and her angels, white and colored, white as the driven snow; and each one, devil and angel, has its opposite arrayed against it, and the comparison duly pointed out and enforced.
In Eva St. Clare we have the loveliness of childhood and the grace of beautiful, pious infancy; but we miss the simplicity we are entitled to expect in such a character; she is far too wise for her years, as well as too good for human nature. To say that there are such children, but they never live to be adults, is no defense against the charge of exaggeration. That parents should fondly dwell upon the imaginary perfection of their lost children is both natural and right; but to insist upon the common saying, "I knew I should never raise this child, 'twas too good for this world," as anything more than a very pardonable and very weak expression of grief, is simply absurd. Human nature is much the same in those who live long, and in those who die early.
Augustine St. Clare, the father of Eva, seems to have inspired Mrs. STOWE with a large measure of the affection which her readers
are intended to feel for him. Like the sculptor of old, she is enamored of
her own handiwork. He appears upon her canvass a weak and effeminate dreamer,
lazily adapting himself to circumstances, refusing to think, fearing to disapprove;
charms of person and
manner, of refinement and feeling adorn a character to which even the possession of great native talent can impart no strength. He is a large slaveholder, but the discipline of the plantation is too shocking to his feelings. Hence he leads a life of sloth in the city surrounded by slaves whose situation is a constant reproach to his conscience—a sceptic, because too indolent to study or think upon the subject of religion, an indulgent master, because too slothful to control his household. The death of his daughter drives him to seriousness, and in spite of his own efforts to dissipate thought, the prayers of his slave become the means of his conversion. Mrs. STOWE is with much difficulty reconciled to making her paragon a slaveholder while a careless worldling. It is not to be thought of, when he becomes a conscientious christian. But, on the other hand, Uncle Tom must not so escape from slavery. All trouble is saved by cutting off St. Clare in a New Orleans cafe.
As a set-off against the many perfections exhibited in Augustine St. Clare, we have a sketch of his stern brother Alfred. He is a despot, generous enough, upright in his dealings with the few whom he esteems his equals, harsh and tyrannical to his inferiors—a born aristocrat living and moving in a republican society, and denouncing contemptuously every principle which supports republicanism. Such men as these brothers may possibly exist in the Slave States, but they are unknown to their neighbors. Their perfection on the one side and defects on the other are discernible to the "optics keen" of their northern brethren alone. They are certainly not types of the class of southern planters.
Miss Ophelia—Topsy's Miss Feely, differs in one respect from most northern women domesticated in southern families; she waits on herself from choice, scorning the assistance of the servants. The general experience in such cases is that they fear being confounded with the negroes, if they do anything at all. Hence they require far more of the time and attention of the slaves than the southern matrons whom Mrs. STOWE so hideously caricatures in the person of Marie St. Clare. We confess that we know very little of the stiff, puritanical class of maidens to which Miss Ophelia belongs. But we think it hardly in the nature of any woman to shrink from the very touch of a poor, neglected child, whether white or black. So we will see only Miss Feely's good traits, and hope that her bad ones have not escaped the all-pervading exaggeration of the book.
But passing by all minor fiends, we hasten to the arch-demon Simon Legree.
Here Mrs. STOWE has shown uncommon skill in devil-painting
of the good old style. He is a native of New England who has fallen from
the high estate of freedom and abolitionism. He has broken the heart of a
praying mother. He has been a pirate, and now has reached the acme of all
villainy in becoming a Red River planter and slaveholder. All the vices are
blended harmoniously in his character; avarice, cowardice, cruelty and meanness
have undisputed sway over him. Uncle Tom falls into his hands and the cup
of bitterness is now full. Humility, obedience, patience, unmurmuring endurance
have no effect upon that iron heart. Mrs. STOWE seems
to intend, by desecrating her pages with such a sketch as this, to show what
crimes a hardened villain, who is a slaveholder, may commit, without falling
under the penalties of the law. And she thinks that this impunity results
from the inadmissibility of the testimony of negroes against whites. Certainly
very great evils may result from this; tho' here we should remark that in
Louisiana, where she locates Legree, such evidence is admissible. This will
serve as a specimen of Mrs. STOWE's accuracy; but we
will give her the full benefit of supposing that there, as in most of the
States, free as well as slave, such evidence is excluded. This exclusion
may lead to very great evil, and
it appears to us that, with suitable provisions and guards, this reproach may be removed. Still legislatures, perfectly conversant with the negro character, and not at all blinded to the dangers pointed out, have determined upon it after mature deliberation. Their opinions are entitled to respect of persons comparatively ill-informed upon the subject. At all events it is evident that such enormities, as Mrs. STOWE charges upon southern planters in her character of Legree, could not be committed without leaving traces which would rouse the public and lead to the punishment of the perpetrator. Mrs. S TOWE surely does not need to be told, that the evidence of circumstances would have its full weight in such cases. In every instance the criminal would fall into the hands of the public prosecutor, and most generally circumstantial evidence enough could be obtained to insure his conviction. To say that the planter feels secure in the perpetration of any crime, because none but negroes are witnesses to the act, is no more than to say that the midnight assassin feels safe because no human eye sees him. The same circumstances which generally convict the latter, would affect the former, and that the more certainly, because the negroes would direct suspicion toward him. But, even should the guilty slave-owner escape the penalties of the law, the alarm would be given, and an outraged public would visit the offender with swift and terrible vengeance. The mark of Cain would be upon such a man, but it would not avail to protect his wretched life. This is the actual state of the case.
We are constrained to admit much of what Mrs. STOWE says about the separation of negro families. The truth of this is every where felt and deplored,—quite as much in the slave as in the free States. This evil is held up by Mrs. STOWE in most glowing colors. But while we think it of much less frequent occurrence than she would have us believe, we admit that there is enough of it to cause much distress. With the fullest admissions upon this point, Uncle Tom's Cabin still remains a most unjust and exaggerated picture of southern manners and society as affected by the institution of slavery, and also of the state of the slaves themselves.
We come now to the object of the work. Mrs. STOWE's concluding chapter informs us that, until the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, she had refused to think or read upon the subject of slavery. This, however, aroused her energies, and we have their first fruits in the shape of this novel. Its design is to bring this law into contempt, and to excite a feeling, if possible, which shall prevent its execution. We shall merely show what plan of attack is pursued, and will leave it to Mrs. STOWE herself to count the cost of success in case she should succeed.
Her fugitive slaves are white, educated and refined. The men are cavaliers such as never graced a tournament, the women far superior in beauty and excellence to any who there bestowed the rewards of valor. In George we are shown the agonies of a noble mind galled by a constant sense of degradation. In his wife Eliza we are treated to an affecting picture of matchless beauty in distress. George is entirely too magnanimous to blame man for maltreating him. So he vents his displeasure on God for placing him under the control of a master.
Mrs. STOWE can easily ascertain that there are communities in the border free States where her sketches of George and Eliza will be received with more surprise than anywhere in the slaveholding portion of the Union. The citizens of Pennsylvania and Ohio will laugh bitterly as they look for the originals of these characters among the pests and scourges of their neighborhoods.
We are introduced to an Illinois legislator, whose wife, being the better half in fact, makes him violate laws which he has just aided in passing. Nor do we blame our neighboring Solon; in an exactly similar case, if one could possibly happen, we should be tempted to do very much as he did.
Next comes a Kentuckian who has set free his negroes and crossed over to a free State. There with several stalwart sons, he is prepared to shelter fugitive slaves even to committing murder in the defence.
Then we have a Quaker settlement, and in it almost as singular a state of things as a moralist like Mrs. STOWE could easily select for approving mention. Persons of a sect whose first tenet is obedience and non-resistance to law are banded together to steal property as part of their duty to God and man. In this community "Friend Phineas" is our especial favorite. He has been an old hunter and anything but a non-combatant. The soft charms of a Quaker damsel have inclined his heart to peace and goodwill toward all men. Still the old Adam is not quite rooted out. The older friends gravely hint that his prayers lack unction. In fact he veils under his calm exterior and sober dress a lawless and adventurous spirit which must vent itself in some way. Verily, friend Phineas, thee must have found negro-stealing a perfect Godsend! When the fugitives are pursued, Phineas of course leads them off. He opposes fighting, but the spirit moves him to "stay and see the fun." Nothing can tempt him to use the arm of flesh, but he promptly "executes judgment" upon a wounded man by pushing him down a precipice, quietly remarking the while "Friend, thee isn't wanted here at all."
It is not surprising that Mrs. STOWE should call upon the fugitive slave himself to resist capture to the death; but she certainly knows that when white men—whether Quakers or no—countenance them in so doing, they are accessories in a murder, when an owner or his agent is killed. In this book she assumes a most heavy responsibility; she not only advises the fugitive slave to take the life of his owner to avoid recapture, but also to destroy the officer whom the local authorities may send to arrest him. More even than this; she calls upon the people of the free States to aid him in doing so. She will find very few readers to applaud her object when nakedly stated.
Be the law right or wrong, no such resistance as this should be encouraged. We have peaceful and constitutional modes of repealing obnoxious laws. Let writers use their efforts to have these resorted to. They will then be doing their whole duty. We think the fugitive slave law necessary and right; but if we agreed with Mrs. STOWE concerning it, we should still protest against her way of defeating its provisions. In the first place she strikes at that respect due the constituted authorities upon which society everywhere rests; in the next place the course which she advises would lead to civil war. Heaven save us from philanthropy like this!
We do not think that these heavy faults are at all redeemed by any great
literary merit in the work; but there is enough of this to give rise to a
wish that Mrs. STOWE had employed her time and talent
in some way more creditable to herself as an author and patriot. She misrepresents
and exaggerates until her sketches not only lose all likeness to their proposed
originals; but also whatever form or comeliness they might otherwise possess.
She recommends robbery and murder on the part of the slave, aiding and abetting
him even in these on the part of the whites; resistance, moral and physical,
to constituted authorities, and she seeks to lay the foundation for endless
heart-burnings and contentions between the people of the two sections of the
country. In one place, at least, "the Union" is sneeringly alluded to. The
pernicious doctrine that "the slave is absolved from all the obligations of
mankind," is everywhere enforced. The immediate emancipation of the slaves,
and their admission to equal civil and political rights are demanded as due
to justice and christian duty. Many passages in the work point to amalgamation
of the whites and blacks. The direct inference to be
drawn from Mrs. STOWE's support of this disgusting doctrine, is this: That she is willing to occupy the position of proposing to her countrywomen to submit themselves to the embraces of negroes, thus becoming the mother of a degraded race of mulattoes. Can she be the advocate of prostitution like this?
While the whole question of slavery in the southern States is open to examination, and claims no immunity from attack, those who undertake to discuss the general subject should be very sure of possessing more than ordinary qualifications for inquiring into and setting forth the truth. It is easy to write a plausible story or essay on either side, but somewhat difficult to be just, temperate and intelligible either in attack or defence. To convey an idea of what may be demanded of a writer upon this subject, we subjoin an extract from a work of the late Professor Dew, of Virginia. Premising that it was written before Abolitionism became noisy, and while many southern politicians were busily seeking out feasible schemes for the emancipation of slaves.
After alluding to the two classes of population in the southern States, Professor Dew says:
"Upon the contemplation of a population framed like this, a curious and interesting question readily suggests itself to the inquiring mind: Can these two distinct races of people, now living together as master and servant, be ever separated? Can the black be sent back to his African home, or will the day ever arrive when he can be liberated from his situation and mount upwards in the scale of civilization and rights, to an equality with the white? This is a question of truly momentous character; it involves the whole framework of society, contemplates a separation of its elements, or a radical change in their relation, and requires for its adequate investigation the most complete and profound knowledge of the nature and sources of national wealth and political aggrandizement, an acquaintance with the elastic and powerful spring of population, and the causes which invigorate or paralyze its energies, together with a clear perception of the varying rights of man amid all the changing circumstances by which he may be surrounded, and a profound knowledge of the principles, passions and susceptibilities, which make up the moral nature of our species, and according as they are acted upon by adventitious circumstances, alter our condition, and produce all that wonderful variety of character which so strongly marks and characterizes the human family. Well, then, does it not behoove even the wisest statesman to approach this august subject with the utmost circumspection and diffidence; its wanton agitation is pregnant with mischief."
We respectfully commend the above extract to a careful consideration of all ambitious scribblers and declaimers upon this subject.