- States of InnocenceHarriet Beecher Stowe, London Needlewomen, and the New England Novel
While traveling through England in the wake of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s phenomenal success, Harriet Beecher Stowe unwittingly sparked a scandal over a dress. She told the story in an 1853 letter to her sister Mary Foote Beecher:
I have been quite amused with something which has happened lately. This week the [London] “Times” has informed the United Kingdom that Mrs. Stowe is getting a new dress made! It wants to know if Mrs. Stowe is aware what sort of a place her dress is being made in; and there is a letter from a dressmaker’s apprentice stating that it is being made up piecemeal, in the most shockingly distressed dens of London, by poor, miserable white slaves, worse treated than the plantation slaves of America!(qtd. in C. E. Stowe 237)
The news item resulted in what Stowe described as “earnest missives, from various parts of the country” begging that she oppose “oppression in every form” by refusing to consume items so manufactured (qtd. in C. E. Stowe 238).1
Of course, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe’s rigidly ethical Miss Ophelia had already effectively answered Augustine St. Clare’s version of this argument by retorting, “it’s no kind of apology for slavery, to prove that it isn’t worse than some other bad thing” (254). And yet, Stowe’s own amused, defensive response to the news item asserts a position of blind innocence that neither the rationalizing but guilt-haunted St. Clare nor the righteous Miss Ophelia claim in her fiction. Leading with a third-person form suggesting an unprinted news report that would set the record straight, Stowe continues,
Now Mrs. Stowe did not know anything of this, but simply gave the silk into the hands of a friend, and was in due time waited on in her own apartment by a very respectable-appearing woman, who offered to make the dress, and lo, this is the result! … Could these people only know in what sweet simplicity I had [End Page 278] been living in the State of Maine, where the only dressmaker of our circle was an intelligent, refined, well-educated woman who was considered as the equal of us all, and whose spring and fall ministrations to our wardrobe were regarded a double pleasure,—a friendly visit as well as a domestic assistance,—I say, could they know all this, they would see how guiltless I was in the matter. I verily never thought but that the nice, pleasant person who came to measure me for my silk dress was going to take it home and make it herself; it never occurred to me that she was the head of an establishment.(qtd. in C. E. Stowe 237–38)
Stowe presents herself as unknowingly cast into the world of sweated labor, her innocence authorized by two years’ residence in Brunswick, Maine, where her husband taught at Bowdoin College and where she wrote her antislavery masterpiece.2 Small-town life in Maine offers an alibi because its village life habituated Stowe to seeing the world as a pre-industrial society of equals, where commodities were made locally by familiar craftspeople and commercial exchanges were purified by friendship. This was a vision of New England community that Stowe increasingly turned to in the next decade, beginning in her 1859 work of transitional regionalism, The Minister’s Wooing, which this essay argues responded to this embarrassing incident and the social currents underlying it.
Re-imagining the dressmaking contract as a domestic exchange of love and friendship, Stowe responds to two problems: negotiating her new identity as a female celebrity philanthropist within the confines of domestic ideology, and accounting for capitalist labor exploitation in the antislavery imagination. The latter problem asked whether some wage workers were really no better off than slaves, an analogy that might diminish the abolitionist cause. Stowe raises this problem dialogically in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, airing St. Clare’s troubling, unresolved predictions of “a mustering among the masses, the world over” because American planters only do to slaves “what the English aristocracy and capitalists are...