A TALE OF THE GREAT DISMAL SWAMP. By Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Boston: Phillips, Sampson & Co.
We admire the moral courage and religious passion for usefulness which have conquered the immense though selfish arguments for silences which the author of Dred must have heard perpetually coming from "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The altogether unexampled success and reputation of that work—as strange to the authoress as to the world—leaving no possible room for heightening her fame, while it took away all ordinary inducements to another effort, applied the strongest arguments against it. An equally good book from her now illustrious pen could not have the zest of surprise which accompanied her first effort; and the greatest subject which the world afforded had been already forestalled by her own previous use. Everything combined to make "Uncle Tom's Cabin" such a work as never before united the enthusiasm of the civilized world in an immediate and spontaneous chorus of admiring sympathy. The subject was great and new, the public mind just ripe for it, and the author astonishingly adapted to the theme. Never was so fortunate a topic, at so fortunate a time, in such fortunate hands. The effect was such as so extraordinary a conjunction of felicities promised—altogether unparalleled, and not possible again to the same or perhaps to any other author in our generation. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" exploded the mine which a half century of philanthropic yearning and effort for the abolition of negro slavery had been slowly laying down in the mind of the public. What Don Quixote did for chivalry, Uncle Tom's Cabin did for slavery; and Cervantes might as well have hoped to make a companion work for that which gives us the immortal Knight of La Manca and Sancho Panza, as Mrs. Stowe to create a story worthy to stand with that which contains Uncle Tom and Topsy.
Nobody could know better than the authoress herself, the impossibility of equalling her first attempt in the same, or any other field; and we venerate the loyalty to usefulness, which has driven her, at an actual peril of reputation, to produce this new book, not for the praise, but for the profit of her countrymen. When Mrs. Stowe wrote "Uncle Tom," she had no conception of her wonderful powers to move the world, and in a happy unconsciousness of her responsibilities, aimed only at a pleasing and useful tale. Her central and vastly efficacious relation to the Anti-Slavery movement was unsuspected by herself, and did not oppress her genius with its weight. She could therefore indulge the freedom of a fresh mind, stimulated by a domestic and uncritical audience, and really evoke men and women for her mimic stage. To make a pleasant book out of her own actual experience for a small class of friendly readers, and to turn thereby an honest penny for her family, seems to have been her whole ambition. And this simple aim left her powers unembarrassed, and permitted the accumulated Anti-Slavery testimony of the country—the best feeling of the times—to pour itself through her unconscious pen, in the wonderful procession of living characters which represent and embody all the parties and all the experiences of American Slavery. But how has her position changed? Made painfully conscious of the immense influence of her [illegible] work, filled with an awful sense of responsibility for her gifts, with the world for her audience, and a perfect and unparalleled success for her standard, under what an unspeakable thraldom must her pen now move? We can conceive no genius, whose good [illegible] could triumph a second time over the obstacles involved in such a position as her first success achieved.
If "Dred" were Mrs. Stowe's first work, it would create a great excitement. But it is the second run of her genius upon the same topic presented to the second appetite of the public. It is only half as good a book as Uncle Tom, addressed to only half as propitious an audience. As great a genius appears in parts of the work; but, as a whole, it is greatly inferior to its predecessor in artistic merit and interest.
The truth is, Dred is the work of a self-conscious, responsible reformer and partisan; and Anti-Slavery opinions and principles, in bandanna turbans and plantation brogans, or in linen coats and trowsers, occupy the places which men and women filled in the careless and affluent pages of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Mrs. Stowe is too powerful a magician not to give these abstractions a lively appearance of humanity; but, after all, they correspond to the real men and women of her first work, as Mælzel's marvellous automata do to the spectators. The Chess-Player is a miracle of skill, but his human antagonist moves without his jerks; and the Trumpeter plays an astounding tune, but he is not mistaken for Köenig. In Uncle Tom, Southern life appeared in its reality—its light and shade mingled in honest proportions. We heed the good and bad of the system fairly reflected from its pages. The negroes were of all sorts—wise and foolish, pious and wicked, and of intermediate shades; the planters hard and easy, cruel and indulgent, arbitrary and amenable. Nay, its blacks and whites were not simply representatives of classes, but individuals, with those original and unmistakable characteristics which can alone hold a place in our memory, or become objects of love or hate.
Now, without denying that much of the same power appears in shreds and patches of Dred, we must say that it reminds us of reality, only by reminding us of Uncle Tom, not of Southern life. Uncle Tom's characters reappear, as it were, in their ghostly forms, with Anti-Slavery messages, arguments, and opinions in their mouths, looking much like those negroes or Irishmen we sometimes see in New-York, carrying great placards for the play-houses, to which their humanity becomes a mere walking sign-post. Thus Uncle Tom himself reappears in Tiff; Topsy, in pantaloons, is now called Tom Tit; Harry and Lizette we had before in Henry and Eliza. Nina is an exception, and seems to us a truly original character. She goes far to redeem the book from weariness and abstraction. Moreover, incredible as it may seem to foreigners, she fairly depicts a not uncommon growth of the Southern soil—a lovely hoyden, wild, saucy, shiftless, bold, but infinitely better at bottom than she seems; as frank, true-hearted, generous, and sensible, as she is ungovernable, extravagant, and flighty—and often, after a youth of glittering frivolity passed upon the seeming brink of ruin, settling down into a sober, disinterested, heroic, and dignified matron. Nina's rattle, with its witty criticisms of pretension, hypocrisy, and plausibility, flows like a playful brook through what would otherwise often be an arid waste of argument and Anti-Slavery common-place. The good Clayton is a dreadful bore and myth from beginning to end; not half as real or interesting as Frank Russell, who, we suspect, has positive existence.
The chapter where Tiff first appears, and in which Mrs. Cripps dies, is really worth all the rest of the book, if we except the first chapter, and Nina's occasional entrances. Dred, from whom the book is named, is a sort of black Balfour of Burleigh, a negro Habakkuk, inexpressibly tiresome when drawn through such spaces as he is made to occupy in these volumes. It is true, half of the first volume is happily got through before he appears; but when he does once get in, he makes up for lost time, and the second volume is absolutely weighed down with his tedious solemnity and droning wrath. Whole pages of the Old Testament flow from his lips without a break, until we imagine ourselves reading our Bibles, and are shocked at the sudden change to a story-book.
Dred is not near as dreadful considered as the exponent of the latent sense of wrong, and expectation of coming judgment on his oppressors, which must haunt the slave's breast, as either Harry or Milly. A poor slave who had been present at her cruel master's death-bed, described his frightful remorse to a friend of ours thus: "He screeched and screeched for mercy until I was afeared God would forgive him, they say he's so good." What a picture of the sense of injustice which gloats in the prospect of vengeance from on high; and what a system to produce in the victim such a thirst for divine judgment on its injurers. Dred, in all his elaborate imprecations, does not say as much to our hearts as this one sentence from a private source. But with all this disparagement of Dred as a tale, or an artistic rival of Uncle Tom's Cabin, let us do it full justice as a powerful Anti-Slavery tract. The arguments of the Southern landlord and Northern cotton merchant, of the clerical and legal apologists for Slavery—the various subtleties of the timid, the selfish, the ignorant, or the brutal upholders of this vile institution, are met with infinite wit and pith. There is not a Pro-Slavery sophistry that is not somewhere exploded in these volumes. Every convolution of the dough-face's tortuous conscience is familiar to the authoress, and turned out to the disgust of the public. She knows the impious catechism of the Pro-Slavery clergy by heart. She turns the Fillmore man in the abstract, inside out, and [illegible] him utterly empty of sense and grace; there is not a peg left, after her demolition of the apologist's castle, to hang a Pro-Slavery wig on. We know not where to point so witty, terse, and popular a refutation of every sort of heresy which infests the respectability of the country in respect to "the peculiar institution," as in these volumes.
But perhaps a greater, because a more radical service to the liberty of the nation, is the fearless exposure of false religion; the scorching contempt of sanctimoniousness; the bold thrust at popular dogmas which crowd noble and pious sentiments aside; the avowal of magnanimous, liberal, and practical views of Christianity, which Mrs. Stowe makes in these volumes. And when we observe that these assaults on hypocrisy, cant, and dogmatic emptiness, are coupled with the most tender, searching, and experimental views of piety; when Religion is exhibited in its profoundest and most practical, yet simplest form, in a way to touch the conscience of the most conventional, and to make the boldest sinner tremble before the purity, faith, and piety of the humane God-fearing, Christ-loving writer, we feel that a service is rendered the cause of the Gospel, such as genius has rarely been wise and humble enough to offer.
It is indeed intensely affecting to notice how little the applause of the world has corrupted the conscience, or weakened the loyalty to truth of this lovely and powerful person. Not one concession to mighty prejudice, not one crumb to Cerberus, not one glance at the effect upon her own reputation, is to be found in these volumes. Their transparent godliness is spotted with no mote of self-serving, self-seeking worldliness. The spirit of Mrs. Stowe is equally brave and tender, bold and pious, generous and pure. We reverence the author of the inferior "Dred" more than the writer of the superior "Uncle Tom's Cabin." For the moral splendor of the second-born child of her genius exceeds the artistic brilliancy of her first-born and more famous offspring. The woman is greater than the authoress; the Christian outshines the artist.