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Legacy 18.2 (2001) 135-152



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Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Domestication of Free Labor Ideology

Rachel Naomi Klein

University of California, San Diego


Through much of her voluminous writing, Harriet Beecher Stowe expressed her concern with the subject of work—its structure, its moral imperative, its regional variations, and its impact on family life. Her utopian vision of a free and democratic labor system informed her critique of slavery and shaped her analysis of the "woman's sphere." This essay foregrounds Stowe's central preoccupation with the labor questions of her own day and, in so doing, engages a tradition of feminist literary scholarship that invests Stowe's work with anti-commercial meanings. Rather than a subversive critic of the marketplace, Stowe was a substantial contributor to the intellectual history of American liberalism. 1

That Stowe scholarship comes close to being an industry in its own right was, perhaps, over-determined by the author's unique position within the literary culture of mid-nineteenth-century America. She was born in 1811 , the daughter of an eminent New England minister, and was, by the time of the Civil War, the most widely acclaimed of her several distinguished siblings. In many respects, Stowe's work exemplified themes that were common in the popular women's fiction of the mid-nineteenth century, but it also helped to break the boundaries of that literature, not least by forcefully probing the problem of slavery. Her first novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, was a phenomenal bestseller, widely respected in its own day; yet as late as the 1960 s, leading critics excluded it from the American literary canon. 2 Feminist scholars, working to redeem the historical and literary significance of mid-nineteenth-century American women's writing, focused considerable attention on Stowe.

As literary scholars gave new consideration to antebellum women's writing, historians of women were excavating nineteenth-century constructions of womanhood. Pathbreaking work by Nancy Cott and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, published during the 1970 s, probed structural changes in household relationships and argued that the mid-nineteenth-century notion of "separate spheres" reflected the growing distance between men and women. A sense of "sisterhood" among women developed within a world that was spatially, structurally, and emotionally distinct from that of men and the marketplace. According to Cott, this shared sense of gendered identity was a necessary precondition to the development of feminism. 3

Stowe's image as an anticapitalist can be explained, in part, as an effort to counter disparaging assessments of nineteenth-century [End Page 135] women's fiction by affirming its progressive and subversive potentialities. Supported by the work of Cott and Smith-Rosenberg, feminist critics assumed that Stowe, along with other mid-nineteenth-century women writers, imagined a clear distinction between masculine/ commercial and feminine/anti-market morality. Focusing attention on Uncle Tom's Cabin, they argued that Stowe transformed the anti-market implications of conventional women's culture into a radical call for social and moral transformation. Elizabeth Ammons initiated this line of interpretation in her influential article of 1977 . In Ammons's view, Stowe sought to replace the values of the "masculine and commercial" sphere with a maternal, Christ-centered ethic ("Heroines" 173-74). 4 The same year, Ellen Moers offered her own statement of this position with her widely accepted observation that, for Stowe, "the true horror is not the inhumanity of slavery but its very human, easygoing alignment with the normal procedures of the marketplace" (8 ). Jane Tompkins elaborated the argument in her influential depiction of Uncle Tom's Cabin as "the summa theologica of nineteenth-century America's religion of domesticity" (125 ). 5

The theme of the market reached center stage in the work of Walter Benn Michaels, who suggested that Stowe was centrally concerned with the workings of the capitalist marketplace. In effect, Michaels echoed prior interpretations by depicting Stowe as a critic of the socioeconomic relations that were developing in the North. He observed that she "was basically more horrified by the bourgeois elements of slavery than by the feudal ones"; for Stowe...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-0643
Print ISSN
0748-4321
Pages
pp. 135-152
Launched on MUSE
2001-10-01
Open Access
No
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