Tuesday, March 17, 2020
March 17, 2020: StoweStudying: Dred
[On March 20, 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s titanic novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in book form for the first time. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Stowe contexts, leading up to a special post on the wonderful Stowe Center in Hartford!]
On two reasons why it’s crucial for us to remember Stowe’s second novel.
I highlighted Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1855) in this post on cultural representations of slave rebellions, and as usual when I mention a prior post, I’ll cut this paragraph short and ask you to check out that post as a starting point for further thoughts on her fictional follow-up to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Welcome back! I mentioned in that post that I hadn’t read Dred since graduate school, and that remains the case, meaning I don’t remember its details nearly well enough to engage them in this post. What I can do, though, is highlight a couple reasons why the novel should be on all of our reading lists, or at the very least should occupy a space in our collective memories alongside UTC. I wrote yesterday that better remembering Stowe’s decades-long abolitionist work helps us see UTC as far from an isolated text or moment, but we don’t even have to go outside her literary career in order to do that; Dred was published less than three years after UTC and makes clear that Stowe was committed to depicting that social and national issue through multiple literary and cultural lenses. Moreover, some of the critiques most frequently directed at UTC and especially its title character—his passive acquiescence to the horrors of slavery, for example—are directly countered by Dred and its title character, the leader of a slave rebellion modeled on historical figures like Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner. Between the two novels, Stowe represents many different forms of both slavery and resistance, and at the very least we owe it to her to read both of them.
I would go one step further, however. It’s true that (in both my memory of it and the critical consensus about it) Dred is a less aesthetically and stylistically successful novel than UTC, and that may well have contributed to its failure to achieve the same level of sales and prominence (although no other 19th century novel got anywhere close to UTC, of course). But I would argue that it was Dred’s subject matter and tone, its focus on a story of slave rebellion and its pessimistic (even apocalyptic at times) depiction of the American future if slavery remained legal, that made it a far more difficult pill for American audiences to swallow, at the time of its release and ever since. Helen Hunt Jackson wrote of her inclusion of romance within her reform novel Ramona “I have sugared the pill,” and for better or for worse that sugar is what audiences have most remembered from that book; similarly, Stowe’s readers seem to have focused most fully on the sentimental (white) character of Little Eva and her tragic death. Dred contains no such sugar, just painful medicine—and it’s all the more important for our collective health, here in 2020, that we take it.
Next StoweStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?