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  • Humble Abodes of Pre/Industrial Environmental Memory:Thoreau, Stowe, Engels, and Others
  • Lawrence Buell (bio)

This essay builds on a coincidence of print culture history that haunted me for years as all the more provocative for being obvious yet unremarked. The coincidence is the publication just two years apart of U. S. literary classics with frontispiece sketches of symbolic cabins depicted from the outside: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), which features the crude but cozy "cottage" (so the narrator calls it) on the Shelby plantation from which Tom is snatched without warning from the bosom of his family to be sold south; and Thoreau's Walden (1854), which leads off with a rendition of his sister Sophia's drawing of the shanty (or "house" as he preferred to call it) that he built there. (See figs. 1, 2).

This broad brushstrokes comparison will be my platform for assessing the multivalent uses of cabins, cottages, and other micro-scale dwelling places—both rural and urban—as icons of home in the early industrial era. This essay is part of an ongoing study of the modes and history of modern environmental memory, by which I mean, in a nutshell, the lived experience of physical environments in the fourth dimension: environments as remembered, especially but not exclusively through the prisms of literature and other media.1 One portion of this project focuses, as here, on selected images of emplacement that seem telltale windows onto specific epistèmes or sociohistorical moments. Here as elsewhere, environmental memory works as a strong incentive and shaping influence but also as a source of deception, both for persons and for societies. How to parse that double-facedness is the most fundamental interpretative challenge.

Cabins and Anti-Cabins

Some contrasts stand out at once, reflecting obvious disparities between the projects in question. The image on Walden's title page shows a shanty without a person, whereas Uncle Tom's Cabin's features the family of five clustering around their hut. Thoreau's dwelling and environs look fastidiously trim compared to Tom's slave quarters. Thoreau's door is closed, Tom's open: the latter a telltale mark of difference between [End Page 12] respectable privatism and laboring class openness to neighbors—and to monitors both benign and imperious.2

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Fig 1.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin: title page image, fi st edition (1852)

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Fig 2.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden: title page image, fi st edition (1854), from sketch by HDT's younger sister, Sophia Thoreau, drawn from memory

What binds the two images together nonetheless is a nostalgically idealized vision of comfortable rusticized dwelling, which as the two works unfold we find has been set forth amidst undercurrents of anxiety about the onset of industrial revolution and the threats it posed to settled, self-sufficient domestic tranquility. Both sketches disguise this anxiety by pastoralization. The Walden sketch, which leads into Chapter 1's disquisition on "Economy," recalls the genre of the architectural pattern book for rustic cottages à la Andrew Jackson Downing that was then in vogue, including templates for tiny starter homes as well as mansions.3 Stowe, ironically given her abolitionism, draws on nostalgic proslavery stereotypes of lively, healthy, well-housed slaves interacting in a bucolic surround that anticipates the effusive description later on of Tom and Chloe's cabin as a kind of bower enveloped by "scarlet bignonia and native multiflora rose."4 The image could have served perfectly well [End Page 13] for Stephen Foster's minstrel song "Old Kentucky Home," written the same year as Stowe's novel and doubtless influenced by it (the original title was "Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night"). When Uncle Tom's Cabin was adapted for theatre and minstrelsy, "Old Kentucky Home" was often sung as part of the performance. Indeed the genre of the sketched illustration itself was itself a nostalgic gesture—rendered quaint by the new imaging technology of photography a decade before—as Stowe's narrator indicates as she sets about to take the "daguerreotype" of Uncle Tom in that same chapter (UTC, 19...


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