Friday, August 01, 2008

"For what it is": On the virtues of discussing the text in front of you

An illustration from Pictures and Stories from Uncle Tom's Cabin (Boston: John P. Jewett & Co., 1853), an adaptation of Stowe's novel for children, published the year after the novel itself. The illustration shows the Harris family reunited on free soil. Image found here.

From Carlos Hiraldo, Segregated Miscegenation: On the Treatment of Racial Hybridity in the U.S. and Latin American Literary Traditions:

Despite Stowe's portrayal of such a complex act of passing on the past of George [Harris, a light-skinned mulatto who has dyed his skin dark to pass as a "Spanish gentleman"], she does not depict any of the mental and emotional processes through which a character in his circumstances could be expected to undergo. Her narrative never really stops to consider the destabilizing effect that George's passing must have had on his own identity. The narrative never fully envisions how it would feel for a character enslaved because he is considered black to have to darken his skin to pass for white. Furthermore, it never explores how helping a fellow black escape the bonds of slavery by passing him off as his own slave would plausibly bring George to seriously question his own racial identity. Illustrating [James] Kinney's pronouncement [in Amalgamation!, a survey of 19th-century American literature dealing with interracial relationships] on nineteenth-century representations of bi-racial characters, Stowe understandably demonstrates less interest in exploring the psychological ramifications of a polarized racial ideology in those bi-racial characters falling outside its parameters than with portraying the more immediate evils of slavery, such as the separation of families and the sexual and physical abuses experienced by the enslaved. (40)
I want to be respectful because Hiraldo has a book out and I don't, and getting a book published is an accomplishment worthy of respect. Still, this paragraph, coming at the end of his book's two-page discussion of Stowe's novel, split about down the middle between some general comments on slavery in the novel (including the characterization of George quoted above) and some remarks directed at an article on George, strikes me as puzzling, to say the least. His reference to Kinney in the last sentence, apart from undercutting what he identifies as a weakness in Stowe's characterization of George, also gives the game away, I think: Uncle Tom's Cabin is here not because Hiraldo wants to offer a reading of it, but because he wants to talk about what is not in it--at least, as he understands (what he has read of) the text.

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