- America’s Culture of Servitude at War:The Servant Problem, The Soldier Problem, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s House and Home Papers
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s House and Home Papers is a profoundly strange text. Comprised of a series of columns written for The Atlantic over a twelve-month period, the content of House and Home Papers seems unremarkable at first: every month a gentlemanly narrator expounds upon the principles and practicalities of domesticity, regularly using his family as reference and example. But quickly the critic’s questions begin to emerge: Why would Harriet Beecher Stowe, one of the most famous women on either side of the Atlantic, choose a male narrative persona to discuss domesticity? And why would she make this narrative persona the by-line of each column, adopting the pseudonym, “Christopher Crowfield”? Perhaps most importantly, why would she do all of this in the middle of the Civil War? Stowe began writing in 1863, published the sketches from January to December of 1864, and republished them in a bound collection in early 1865. Many critics have felt that Stowe dealt with the war’s violence by turning away from it, but a closer examination reveals that House and Home Papers is deeply invested in the issues of the war.
Although Christopher Crowfield barely mentions the ongoing conflict in his didactic discussions of interior decorating, child rearing, and servant managing, House and [End Page 37] Home Papers (HHP) is supersaturated by two themes undeniably pertinent to the war: the systematic production of unifying sentiment, and bodily labor. Furthermore, I will show that Stowe’s HHP responds directly to the Union’s recruitment and discipline struggles via the homologous discourse of domestic labor recruitment and discipline, particularly its discussion of household servants. Stowe’s answer to this problem is the systematization of household management, which will foster the production of a sentiment that disciplines a collectivity.1 Civil War correspondence reveals that Stowe’s suggestions were very much in line with what the Provost-Marshal-General’s Bureau and the U.S. Sanitary Commission ultimately effected to combat things like desertion and disease. In both HHP and the Civil War archive, however, one sees that this collectivity is predicated upon a collective individuality. A collective individuality, in which the individual can be neither reduced to, nor separated from the collectivity, blurs the boundaries of the body, and suppresses the material effects of class upon that body in the interest of appropriating its labors. In John Brown’s Body, Franny Nudelman argues that Civil War discourse abstracts the individual body so as to foster a collectivity that perpetuates subordination to the state and its demand for more bodies.2 By extending Nudelman’s challenge to unmask the abstractions of power, Stowe’s text may be read as operating in a fashion similar to the discourse Nudelman explores.
This collective individuality, I will argue, stems, in part, from the theories of class harmony and class cooperation with which nineteenth-century scholars are well-acquainted.3 The rebellious factors in Stowe’s text and the Civil War archive— be they troublesome servants, or draft dodgers—can be read as protesting this theory of class and its attendant collective individuality. As John Whiteclay Chambers writes, “draft resistance and evasion among such economic and cultural groups can perhaps be better understood not simply as personal avoidance of military service but also as a challenge by less affluent, more parochial segments of society to the [End Page 38] activist national policies that Republicans were employing to establish their particular interests and vision of America.”4
To find the seeds of emerging class resistance in a historical event like the New York City Draft Riots is hardly surprising. However, by contextualizing Stowe’s work among this and similar wartime events, it becomes surprisingly clear that narratives of servant rebellion—though isolated and ensconced within the domestic space—are likewise evidence of an emergent class resistance. By addressing military matters via domestic servitude, Stowe demonstrates that nineteenth-century discussions of servitude are a high-powered lens upon the articulations of power. Because the relationship between master/mistress and servant takes place in the home...