A Writer's Family: Roxana Robinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe

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(We've been talking to novelist Roxana Robinson about her unique family history, which includes two celebrated 19th century Americans, Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In this conclusion to the two-part interview, we talk about Harriet Beecher Stowe, about religion in fiction, and about Roxana's own mission as a writer.)

LEVI: It's true, as you say, that Harriet Beecher Stowe's literary reputation currently suffers. She's seen as melodramatic, long-winded – a second-rate novelist. I didn't read Uncle Tom's Cabin myself until just recently, and I was happily surprised at the richness I found. Isn't this as well-written as any novel by Charles Dickens or Nathaniel Hawthorne? It's a riveting work, filled with psychological complexity and carefully drawn characters. Do you have any idea how her reputation got so bad? Was there a period in which she fell in public esteem?

As for the perception of Harriet Beecher Stowe as racist – I can only say that this is a terrible injustice. I wonder if the hot issues Harriet Beecher Stowe handled so bravely are still too controversial for us to see her fairly today. Do you know if she was often attacked or criticized on these terms during her life, and if so, how she responded to it?

ROXANA: In 1949 James Baldwin wrote a polemical essay called “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in which he attacks the idea of the protest novel in general, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in particular. It is a fierce and angry piece of writing, much of it graceful and eloquent. Baldwin was, of course, highly respected as a novelist and essayist, and he offered a black voice in the literary world, at a time when a black voice was rare and very welcome. But this essay is not particularly well reasoned or well-wrought. He begins by dismissing Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “a very bad novel.” He calls it sentimental and compares it, with contempt, to Little Women.

Baldwin then says, “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel, the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”

This is a bold series of statements which make no incremental sense. Sentimentality is certainly nothing to be proud of, and the best definition I know of it describes it as “emotion without responsibility.” But the wet eyes of the sentimentalist don’t betray his or her aversion to experience. Quite the reverse. He or she is reveling in a kind of limited experience. And these eyes don’t betray his fear of life or his arid heart, and there is no reason in the world to claim that sentimentality is always the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, nor is it the mask of cruelty. There are many many sentimental people in the world who are not secretly and violently inhumane or cruel.

So Baldwin’s premise is flawed, but his sentences are eloquent and his rage is impressive, and essentially he bullied his readers into believing him. His furious denigration of the novel cast it into serious disregard, which persists today. Baldwin castigates Stowe not only for her sentimentality, but for her portrayal of Uncle Tom himself. Baldwin calls Tom a stereotype, weak, accommodating and acquiescent. In this, Baldwin misses the entire point and power of the character of Tom.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was the daughter, sister and wife of clergymen. She had grown up with Scripture. She quoted passages from the Bible all the time in her letters and conversation; it was a living presence for her. She felt it as a great power in the world, which was a large part of what gave her the courage to confront the entire nation, the economy, the philosophy, the political world, the newspapers. These were the loud and vehement voices of the world, all of which were raised against her when she wrote a book that opposed a fundamental aspect of American culture, slavery. Stowe called it what it really was in human terms – a vile and unconscionable institution that feeling people could not tolerate. This was not a sentimental premise[, though there are certainly sentimental passages in the book]. Her premise was clear and rational, but it was one that couldn’t be argued in terms of economics. It could only be argued in terms of humanity, and that’s what she did.

She had the courage to do this because she believed that the entire bastion of the Church itself was behind her. The Church, rooted in eternity, endless in its reach and mighty in its potency, was her source of strength and moral certainty. Scripture is present throughout the book, as are religious homilies which she thought germane and interesting. They may slow down the narrative (I think they do) but they demonstrate the profound importance of Christianity in the book and in Stowe’s sensibility.

My point is that Uncle Tom represents Christ. I think there is no other way to read his character.

He is a kind, strong, loving and deeply moral young man, who accepts, in the opening sequence, the fact that in order to save the world he knows (the plantation and everyone on it, black and white) his own life must be sacrificed. Though he is urged to flee, he accepts his fate in a spirit of moral obligation. He accepts the gradual worsening of his own circumstances until, finally, (again in opposition to advice to flee or resist), he gives up his own life for the good of the world. Tom is not cowardly but saintly; he is a Christian martyr. He reads the Bible himself, quotes Scripture, and is as good a Christian as Hattie is. He is kind, gentle and loving. He lives according to Christ’s teaching: he will not blame those who persecute him, and gives himself up in loving God.

Call the novel preachy, which it often is, call it sentimental, which it often is, but it’s impossible to call it “arid-hearted,” or “fearful of experience,” nor is it “the mask of a secret and violent cruelty or inhumanity.”

That sort of claim is nonsense, as is another of Baldwin’s declarations: “The virtuous rage of Mrs. Stowe is motivated by nothing so temporal as a concern for the relationship of men to one another – or even, as she would have claimed, by a concern for their relationship to God – but merely by a panic of being hurled into the flames, of being caught in traffic with the Devil.”

Actually, and quite obviously, Stowe was concerned specifically with the problem of men’s relationship to each other. The horrific state of that relationship was exactly what she portrayed. But many of Baldwin’s claims in this essay are spurious, inexact and obviously untrue. Baldwin is driven by rage, and for that reason he could not allow himself to be moved by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is driven by compassion.

I agree that the book is just as good as anything written by Dickens. It is wonderfully-well plotted, funny, moving, interesting and dramatic, full of diverse and eccentric characters, charged with energy and intelligence, and imbued with a great sense of high moral urgency. Like Dickens, Stowe takes on social issues as well as private concerns. Unlike Dickens, Stowe was willing to address a highly controversial subject, taking an explosive position on something that appeared to be the economic foundation of the entire country. What it lacks, in terms of literary merit, is characters of great complexity, moral and emotional questions of great subtlety or ambiguity, and great beauty in the writing. Because of those lacks I don’t consider it a novel of the very first rank, but it is still a work of great distinction.

As I understand it, it was Baldwin’s caustic diatribe that undermined the book’s standing. After the publication of that essay, the reputation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fell into a decline from which it has still not recovered, despite Jane Smiley’s wonderful essay “Say It Ain’t So, Huck!”, ten or fifteen years ago, in which she declares that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a better book than Huckleberry Finn.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is moving and powerful, it is one of the most influential novels of the nineteenth century, and maybe of all time. It was the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century and the second best-selling book (after the Bible). It was translated into dozens of languages and it was read all over the world. Tolstoy read it, while wrestling with the question of the serfs. It was an enormously important book in terms of philosophy, political morality, and humanity. It asked a question that could not be ignored.

As to whether or not the book is racist, it’s hard to take that charge seriously about a book that presents a black Jesus Christ.

LEVI: I'm glad you point out that Uncle Tom is a Christ figure – this is somehow at the same time both clearly true and also, I think, easy to miss. I have to admit that I didn't really make that connection myself, though I see it now.

There's an interesting contrast between the important role of religion in your family tradition (as you describe it now) and the place of religion in your novels. Tell me if I'm forgetting something, but I don't remember religion playing a major role in Sparta or Cost or Sweetwater or This Is My Daughter. Can you shed any light about this?

ROXANA: I don’t use religion specifically in my writing at all. I don’t think it’s now a very interesting presence in novels. I think it’s a bit like therapy – it plays the same part that the movement of the narrative itself plays – that is, a slow searching toward revelation and understanding. Religion is interior, it’s dependent on faith, it’s completely individual, and so it’s hard for it to have an important or useful presence in fiction. I think when Tolstoy uses it his work is weakest.

For me religion in literature has a presence that’s sort of like science fiction. It inserts a crazy card into the game, one that means anything that happen without following the laws of human experience. Religious epiphany is a transformative moment that is psychologically inexplicable, which means that it subverts the laws we know of human nature. So we can arrive at some sort of new knowledge, without having any idea of how we got there, or why it happened. It’s like waving a magic wand. I don’t think it’s a useful component in fiction.

So I don’t use religion per se. But what I think I have drawn, from the culture of my family, is a strong sense of morality, and I think that’s clearly present in my work. I think that part of the human question concerns morality, and this raises the question of our obligations as humans, and our roles in the world. What are our obligations toward each other? What does it mean to be a human being? What does it entail? I take those questions seriously. I do feel some kind of obligation or duty to the world, and also to humanity. So I think that drives my writing to a certain extent.

LEVI: I'd like to ask you a question that I'm going to try to also answer myself (though I'm sure your answer will be a better one). What do you have in common as a novelist with Harriet Beecher Stowe? I'm not thinking so much about your mission as a writer here (because you've already addressed that above) as about the craft of writing.

And, here's one answer to this question that already occurred to me: you are both particularly good at moving between the points of view of very different characters, and presenting each point of view sympathetically and in its own full context. I'm thinking of how Uncle Tom's Cabin moves deftly into the minds of slaveholders and slaves, adults and children, men and women, good people and evil people. You seem to write with the same wide psychological scope. But that's my answer to the question – I'd love to hear yours.

ROXANA: I think the real similarity is one of moral urgency, and sometimes of real outrage. My own outrage is not always directed at the national level, though in Sweetwater and Sparta it is directed at large and impersonal issues. But moral urgency seems to be the premise for many of my novels, a kind of troubled or grieving astonishment at the state of things, and a longing to present a situation so clearly to the reader that s/he cannot allow it to continue.

Also I share with her a sense of narrative, the impulse to create an individual story that will deliver a larger message, and the impulse to do it through the presentation of the family. (Which is what Tolstoy does, too.) I’m interested in the idea of the family as being the core of human experience, and in Uncle Tom’s Cabin Stowe creates a series of family narratives that gradually and increasingly show the intolerability of a slave culture. She shows the damage done by slavery to the individual through the lens of the family.

I think the family is the crucible. The family forms us, it is our cradle and our prison, it’s what we build on and reject and refashion. It’s where our most powerful emotions are felt, it’s at the core of our deepest experiences. I share Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sense of that.

* * * * *

This is the second part of an interview with Roxana Robinson about her family legacy, which includes Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. The first part is here. Roxana Robinson's most recent novel Sparta is about a troubled veteran of the Iraq War who returns to his family home.

2 Responses to "A Writer's Family: Roxana Robinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe"

by Wojciech on

Excellent.

Really dig her explanation about morality.

I like that she said "Which is what Tolstoy does," rather than "did." I don't know if it's common to talk about an author or their work in the present tense like that, but anyhow that's cool to me.

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