- Critical Studies of the Nineteenth Century South
In her very personal introduction to Whitewashing Uncle Tom's Cabin, Joy Jordan-Lake describes the gradual process by which a good southern girl arrived at the point of recognizing "the romanticization of the antebellum South" and of being psychologically willing and able to examine "the painful complexities of Southern racism." Her book-length analysis of nineteenth century southern fiction, focusing most significantly on the fictional responses of Dixie's women writers to Harriet Beecher Stowe's profoundly influential and enormously popular fictional condemnation of southern slavery, is thus the scholarly fruit of an intellectual journey that is also uniquely subjective and emotional.
In general, Jordan-Lake succeeds in blending subjective feeling with objective critical interpretation, and specialists interested in antebellum southern writing, particularly in anti-Uncle Tom novels, will find her book a useful and significant scholarly addition. It is not, however, a work without significant flaws. Structurally it is a relatively brief analysis [End Page 141] that nonetheless comes off as textually padded. In a book subtitled "Nineteenth-Century Women Novelists Respond to Stowe" one can reasonably question the inclusion of a wide-ranging final chapter, in which Jordan-Lake considers but does not succeed in adding significantly new insights into the fiction of modern writers as diverse as Margaret Mitchell, Eugenia Price, Toni Morrison, Latita Tademy, and Alice Randall. One cannot help but feel that this book's focus would have been clearer and more coherently maintained with the elimination of that sixth chapter and the expansion of the awkwardly short chapter that precedes it. This chapter, a too-brief but thoroughly interesting analysis of black writer Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859), argues forcefully that Wilson's text in some instances repudiates southern myths even more provocatively and fearlessly than Uncle Tom's Cabin; and an expanded consideration of this idea would have constituted a more effective conclusion to Jordan-Lake's book.
The core of Jordan-Lake's somewhat disjointed analysis lies in chapters two and three, which provide detailed considerations of female-authored anti-Uncle Tom novels. Her survey of the literature is admirably comprehensive and is organized around two central terms. The first is "the theology of whiteness," a phrase original to Jordan-Lake. She defines it as "a framework that manipulates religious language and ideology to support the economic interests of a white patriarchal culture" and that creates a white deity in the South's "own image." Part of what the author includes in her arresting phrase—the use of the Bible and theology to defend chattel slavery—has been often and more thoroughly considered by other scholars. It is the author's analysis of the sacralized language—language that, as she amply demonstrates, women novelists were especially adept at employing and that distinguishes their work from their male counterparts—that gives this term resonance and substance and offers fresh insight into anti-Uncle Tom fiction.
The second key operative term of Jordan-Lake's analysis is "subtext," through which she proposes that the traditional romantic mythology of anti-Uncle Tom narratives collapses as they persistently dismantle themselves by their implicit and unresolved contradictions. The emphasis on subtext represents a trendy though potentially productive critical approach to these novels. Unfortunately the author never really provides a clear definition of the term, nor does she seem to be consistent in how she uses it in her analyses. The result is critically hit-or-miss. In some instances Jordan-Lake uses subtext effectively to reveal the inconsistencies [End Page 142] of Dixie's female apologists; in other cases the idea of subtext seems so diffusely conceived as to mean almost anything.
The uneven quality of the arguments that come...