- The Ecstasies of Sentimental Wounding in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
William Henry Channing:
O Heaven! How patient are God and nature with human diabolism! It seems to me that I have never begun to do anything for antislavery yet. And now, with one’s whole heart bleeding, what can we do? . . . How this book must cut a true-hearted Southerner to the quick!—cut us all, for we verily are all guilty together. 1
William Henry Channing’s response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin spotlights a rhetorical effect that I call “the sentimental wound,” a bodily experience of anguish caused by identification with the pain of another. With his “whole heart bleeding,” Channing seems to feel the pain slaves feel, an experience that causes him to recognize intuitively the urgency of the antislavery cause and to redouble his commitment to it. This political transformation through feelings was precisely the reaction that sentimental abolitionist authors sought to provoke. Convinced that Americans had become deadened to the pain suffered by victims of heartless public policies because they thought in impersonal abstractions, authors like Stowe sought to restore feelings to dominant modes of cognition. They “cut . . . to the quick” in an effort to pierce through anaesthetizing abstractions and make readers think through the subjective responses of intuition, imagination, and sympathetic extensions to others. In so doing, I want to suggest, they promoted an epistemology that was not only anti-slavery, but also anti-individualistic and anti-patriarchal.
Sentimental authors like Stowe tend to see the emotional self as an embodied self, and their use of the sentimental wound derives from their daunting and laudable struggle to appeal to a decentered but embodied notion of personhood within the constraints of a culture influenced by Cartesian dualism. A wound is a site where emotions and senses intersect in pure feeling, and in attempting to produce affect in their readers, sentimental authors attempt to communicate through the presence of physical and emotional feelings, rather than through abstract detachment from the body. Stowe idealizes bodily activities—feeding, sitting on laps and touching faces, dancing and rolling on the floor together, tickling one another or pulling one another’s toes—as physical means by which individuals construct intersubjective, non-individuated identities. [End Page 295] When, in the opening of the novel, Chloe alternately feeds her baby and herself, and when the baby subsequently buries her fat hands in Tom’s hair, Stowe offers visual images of the way bodies serve as a means not of separating the “me” from the “not-me,” but of extending the “me” to the “not-me.”
The embodied, relational self in sentimentality has what Stowe calls “real presence”; by this she means neither a disembodied soul nor simply bodily presence. 2 Rather, she means the self defined by its cathexes and embodied feelings. In failing to appreciate the sentimental effort to articulate an embodied intersubjective “real presence,” recent criticism has obcured an important feminist dimension of this genre. As I show in Part I, the sentimental wound represents a critique of abstract, disembodied notions of personhood, associating them with a masculine, symbolic epistemology that legitimizes slavery and other dehumanizing policies. In attempting to provoke knowledge through the body, rather than apart from the body or defined by the body, the sentimental wound strives to make possible a transcendence not of the body, but of a unitary subjectivity defined by the body. The sentimental voice of intersubjective transcendence challenges, though it does not silence, the voice of humanist transcendence that many critics have identified in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 3
But though it does not fall into the trap of liberal humanism, the sentimental wound falls into another trap, with equally profound implications for its feminism and its abolitionism. The effort to provoke in readers an experience of intersubjective connectedness at the level of the body had the unanticipated effect of eroticizing the reading experience, and in so doing, it undermined its own effort to humanize the slaves, who were positioned as erotic objects of sympathy rather than subjects in their own right. Many readers have explicitly described an erotic response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In “A Child is Being...