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  • The Sentimental Appeal to Salvific Paternity in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Moby-Dick
  • Debra J. Rosenthal

To some readers, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851–52) and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) represent different worldviews: Stowe’s world of progressive social reform, religious exhortations, noble slaves, maternal power, domestic parlors, and an angelic dying girl could not be further from Melville’s world of seafaring men, madness, vengeance, whale hunting, and lengthy philosophical meditations about harpoons, tattoos, mat weaving, whale genitalia, spout holes, and leg stumps. To other readers, the two novels are akin: both engage with issues of race, gender, minstrelsy, domesticity, freedom, the role of the individual, capitalist enterprise, the use of commodities, concerns about labor and wages, ideas of Romantic heroism, models of masculinity, national reform, temperance, and, most significant for my concerns here, sentimental convention.

Recent critics1 have moved away from earlier readers2 who read Melville as disdaining the sentimental tradition thought to be the exclusive domain of women writers. For example, Kyla Schuller argues that “Melville’s novel is a fully developed exploration of the deeply affective relationships that pre-industrial whaling ironically nurtured between whales and whalers through the very intimacy of the hunt. The multi-faceted discourse of sentimentalism saturates and in fact structures his tour de force.”3 In addition, Elizabeth Schultz argues that although Moby-Dick valorizes masculine culture, the novel contains a “sentimental sub-text” that “works to reinforce and expand its nineteenth-century reader’s awareness of the gender-structured domestic sphere as the locus simultaneously of anguish and of the tenderness that anguish calls up.”4 Schultz identifies many moments of sentiment in the novel, including several images of mourning mothers, particularly the novel’s final scene where Captain Gardiner’s the Rachel picks up the orphaned Ishmael, the only survivor of the Pequod mother ship. Schultz argues that Ahab’s rejection of domesticity becomes displaced onto Captain Gardiner, who becomes a “grieving maternal figure.”5 [End Page 135]

I would like to contribute to the conversation that locates Moby-Dick squarely in the sentimental camp by focusing on the novel’s sentimental appeal to what I term salvific paternity. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was being published in serial form in 1851 in the National Era; Moby-Dick first appeared late in that year. Unbeknownst to each other, both authors created characters who utter almost the identical words in a sentimental appeal to the shared experience of paternity. I find it compelling and irresistible that both Stowe and Melville, writing seemingly opposite-themed novels at the same moment in literary history, crafted nearly identical sentimental lines about the redemptive power of paternity, the force of fatherly love to save a child’s life or well-being.

I am very interested in this small question of Melville and Stowe penning the same sentence, and how this fact ramifies out to larger questions of literary aesthetics and reader reaction. I want to examine the phrase common to both novels in order to argue that Melville taps into and endorses the same use of emotion, sentiment, empathy, and shared family values that Stowe and other sentimentalists do. Far from rejecting sentimental identification, Melville’s appeal to paternal compassion and intersubjectivity, especially when read against a writer renowned for her emotional appeals, elucidates Melville’s commitment to private feeling and to the conviction that sentiment can be productive and efficacious.

What is the sentimental appeal to salvific paternity to which I refer that is common to both novels? In chapter 7 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Eliza Harris clings to her son Harry as she jumps across the ice floes from slavery in Kentucky to freedom in Ohio. The slave catchers follow in hot pursuit behind her as she miraculously jumps from floe to floe without plunging into the icy water.6 When she reaches free soil on the Cincinnati side of the Ohio River, Eliza recognizes a familiar man on shore. She urgently needs his physical assistance to scramble up the shore, as well as his assurance that he will not turn her over to slave catchers. The man’s reaction will determine whether...


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