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  • Uncle Tom's (Ship) Cabin
  • Cynthia Alicia Smith (bio)

In Uncle Tom's Cabin; or Life among the Lowly (1852), there are several curious, largely unexamined moments when Tom figures as a sailor. He assists the steamboat mariners with their labor, rescues Eva when she falls into the river, and is variously described as an "Italian sailor," a "mariner shipwrecked," and a "half-drowned mariner."1 Nineteenth-century readers and artists noticed such associations, so why have scholars missed this dimension of the novel?2 The absence of critical consideration of Stowe's maritime references may have to do with the way scholars understand Tom's relation to domestic fiction. Stowe's enslaved hero is known for exhibiting the traits of a nineteenth-century heroine through his "gentle, pious, chaste, domestic, long-suffering and self-sacrificing" nature.3 This feminization allows contemporary readers to resolve the tensions that arise from depicting a black male protagonist through sentimental characteristics.4

However, there is more than one sentimental tradition in Uncle Tom's Cabin. References to Tom as a sailor show that Stowe also used maritime sentimentalism. Stowe became familiar with maritime culture through her uncle, Samuel Foote, a sea captain who brought home nautical tales to his relatives, including his favorite niece, Harriet.5 In her [End Page 47] famous novel Stowe rewrites one prominent character from antebellum sea narratives: the "sentimental sailor," a figure who also appears in various nineteenth-century genres. Rescuing those in physical peril, the sentimental sailor—a name I take from Thomas Mercer's eponymous 1772 poem—converted others to the golden rule and advocated liberty, charity, generosity, and kinship. For example, Catharine Maria Sedgwick's 1826 short story "The Chivalric Sailor" chronicles the adventures of Frank Stuart, a heroic Christian sailor who rescues the distressed, particularly Perdita, a young British noblewoman who is forced to work in a Maryland sea captain's scullery.6 When Stuart hears about Perdita's predicament, he smuggles her aboard a British-bound ship and hides her throughout their journey across the Atlantic. Stuart's nautical prowess and charitable deeds enable Perdita to gain her freedom upon their arrival in England. Many years later when Stuart becomes a privateer for John Paul Jones during the American Revolution, he ends up rescuing Perdita again. Stuart's vessel captures a British ship that Perdita is on, and he safely brings her home. Shortly after this incident, Perdita's husband repays Stuart for his deeds by saving him from the British navy. Thus, Sedgwick emphasizes how the sentimental sailor's rescues surpass even conflicts among nations.

Like Sedgwick, many antebellum writers used sentimental sailors to promote nonnational forms of personal and collective identity.7 The conversions that these sailors' rescues prompted acquired multiple meanings: while the sentimental sailor in religious tracts evangelized the rescued to Christianity, writers who advocated for humanitarian issues used the sentimental sailor to enlist readers' support for abolition and mariners' rights. Although the sentimental sailor rose alongside sentimental literature in early America, literary critics have essentially ignored these heroic mariners, partly because scholars have defined nineteenth-century sentimentalism through the passive heroines of domestic [End Page 48] literature who promote religious conversion within the home. Yet recovering the sentimental sailor reveals that the maritime world also had a sentimental literary tradition, one that contradicted the sentimental heroine's nationalist goals by encouraging readers to adopt humanist values and see beyond their communities' cultural prejudices.

Although sentimentalism prototypically incites sympathy, nineteenth-century sentimental texts have nationalist and imperialist tendencies. Amy Kaplan notes that domesticity is an "ambiguous liminal realm between the national and the foreign" and that the ship, a mobile domestic sphere, situates the ocean as an imperialist space.8 Yet Kaplan's focus on the woman's sphere and domesticity as a nationalist force does not acknowledge maritime sentimentalism. While ships are indeed domestic spaces, they represent a different type of social geography from houses because ships combine both the public and private spheres. Maritime sentimentalism, then, presents an alternative sentimental tradition that encodes an international perspective as well as nationalism and imperialism. The sentimental sailor's popularity indicates Americans' deep cultural awareness that creating an empire is...


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pp. 47-88
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