It started with a vision of torture.
According to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the genesis of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, arguably one of the most influential books in history, came in Feburary 1851 when she attended communion service. After taking the bread and wine and thinking of the Last Supper and the Passion, a vision hit her, “blown into her mind as by the rushing of a mighty wind.”
She saw four figures: an old slave being whipped to death by two fellow slaves, who were goaded on by a brutal white man.
This was Calvary, but not the biblical one: it was the American Calvary of slavery. Here, as in the Christ story, the humble man was cruelly tortured despite his innocence. Inspired by the vision, Harriet fought back tears, rushed home, and reproduced her vision in words. She read it to her children, one of whom cried, “Oh, mamma! Slavery is the most cruel thing in the world.”
Visions and other subjective flights of imagination and fantasy, known as “Oriental Tales” and loosely inspired by The Arabian Nights, were part of a counter-movement against Calvinism. Stowe championed the new visionary style of faith, in which anybody (and especially women and children) could experience divine visions and be saved, instead of the old, harsh Calvinist doctrines, which made salvation predetermined and religious experience tied to established hierarchies and an all-male priesthood.
There was a lot of violence in the religious atmosphere of Stowe’s upbringing. In her novel, The Minister’s Wooing, a preacher delivers his “refined poetry of torture” (pg. 9) and at age 14, she wrote a drama in blank verse, Cleon, about an early Christian who refuses to silence his faith even when tortured. (Pg.14) The symbols and rituals of Catholicism held a strong appeal to her, and she converted to Episcopalianism. (It’s interesting how influential Catholic imagery can be even to Protestants (e.g. Stowe) and atheists (e.g. Dominique Aury). Cf. Oscar Wilde having Dorian Gray fetishizing a nun’s habit.)
Stowe apparently hit the sweet spot between the two main discourses of American culture: action, thrills, spectacle and a hint of sex, in the service of a moral reform message tied to the cult of domesticity. She drew on the city mysteries, the Gothic novel and action-adventure and put them to service of a progressive cause. She took rebellious, ambivalent anti-heroes, especially women, and folded them into moral exemplars. You could be a bad girl if you were fighting against slavery to get a home and family, and perhaps you could be a sexy girl if Simon Legree made you do it. (Pg. 47)
Moral reform literature of the period easily slipped over into the lurid and sensational.
Reformers hoping to attract the attention of curiosity-seekers showed a growing tendency to dwell on grisly or erotic results of vice. As a result, many reformers drifted beyond the boundaries of propriety and left themselves open to charges of crass sensationalism. In the 1830s the moral reformer John R. McDowall presented details about the prevalence of pornography and prostitution in New York City in such graphic detail that his newspaper was lambasted as an “infamous bawdy chronicle,” “the most foul and loathsome journal that ever suffused the face of modesty… a brothel companion.” That decade also saw the rise of best-selling anti-Catholic works, most notably Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal, alleging that whoredom, infanticide, and murder were commonplace behind convent walls.
The quintessential example of dark-reform literature was George Lippard’s The Quaker City; or, the Monks of Monk Hall (1845), America’s best selling- novel before the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Based on a famous case in which a man was acquitted after murdering his sister’s seducer, The Quaker City is ostensibly devoted to exposed vices such as rape, intemperance, and upper-class hypocrisy. But it dwells at such great lengths on the eroticism and perversity associated with such ills that it was denounced as “the most immoral work of the age” and became “more read, and more attacked, than any work of American fiction ever published.”
In the novel, Lippard can’t describe a drunkard without registering his surrealistic inebriated vissions, or a woman on the verge of being seduced without dwelling on her “snowy globes,” or a lascivious clergyman without noting his lip-smacking sexual hunger, or a monstrous pimp without mentioning his sadistic love of blood.
Even Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet’s brother and a reformer, did a bizarre publicity stunt when he auctioned off, in his Brooklyn church, two enslaved sisters who were in danger of being sold down south. He described just what would happen to the two attractive girls before passing the hat to pay for their liberation. (Pg.52)
Most other writers on Stowe’s book argued that she was a New England Puritan by nature and was very circumspect about any sexuality, and it was other versions of the story (on stage, in print, in film) that sexualized the situation. Reynolds, on the other hand, says that sexual use was a major aspect of slavery, and Stowe knew how to bring it up without going over the edge. “In describing these women, Stowe suggests their sexual attractiveness without being tawdry…. Women’s charms are described with relative restraint and from a different vantage point than in sensational fiction. The male gaze is still there, but the men who gaze are proslavery types the reader loathes…. Stowe always distances illicit sex acts by time and space The occur in a threatened future (Eliza, Emmeline), in the past (Prue), or offstage (Cassy.)” (Pg. 65) This is part of what led to Stowe’s novel being classed with other sensational pulp fiction. If Stowe’s women are “bad”, slave society made them that way, and they always want the cult of domesticity: monogamy, nuclear family and all. What in Uncle Tom is misread as asexuality is his preference for domesticity, in contrast to the promiscuous stereotype of black men.
Stowe drew a lot from abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld’s non-fiction compilation of reports and clippings, American Slavery as It Is (1839), but was dismayed by the graphic accounts of torment. “It seems to me that it is not necessary always to present a disagreeable subject in the most disagreeable way possible, and needlessly to shock prejudices.” (pg.93)
If book sales and box office are any indication, Stowe hit the right balance between thrills and sentiment, shock and instruction, doing what other, much more explicit fiction and non-fiction texts couldn’t do. Mainly it shows the aftermath of punishments. (Pg. 113)
In a peculiar way, Stowe’s editorial decisions may have created a space for more sadomasochistic readings of her work, by leaving it up to the reader’s imagination to create the scene of the torment, the re-reading process discussed earlier, as evident in the writings of Freud and Krafft-Ebing.
Proslavery works used some of the same techniques, though with less restraint. One novel had a enslaved woman lured North by abolitionists and locked up in a cell where she is the mistress of a wealthy, liberal merchant. (Pg. 155) Each side portrayed the other as a place of sexual anarchy.
In this light, Birth of a Nation emerges as the bizarro/evil twin version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: both works put the family, and especially young women, in distress, and offer the threat of sexual anarchy, but in service of diametrically opposed causes. Both made their impact on the sexual imagination.
Accepting Uncle Tom’s Cabin as revelation second only to the Bible, the Yankee women all wanted to know about the bloodhounds which every Southerner kept to track down runaway slaves. And they never believed her when she told them she had only seen one bloodhound in all her life and it was a small mild dog and not a huge ferocious mastiff. They wanted to know about the dreadful branding irons which planters used to mark the faces of their slaves and the cat-o’-nine-tails with which they beat them to death, and they evidenced what Scarlett felt was a very nasty and ill-bred interest in slave concubinage. Especially did she resent this in view of the enormous increase in mulatto babies in Atlanta since the Yankee soldiers had settled in the town.
Any other Atlanta woman would have expired in rage at having to listen to such bigoted ignorance but Scarlett managed to control herself.
Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind
Thus, to Scarlett O’Hara (and likely to Mitchell) Uncle Tom was pernicious propaganda and pornography, the sadomasochistic character assassination of an entire society. Another Southern reviewer I discussed earlier referred to Stowe as “a peddler of smut”. Simon Legree had more in common with Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS than real Southern life. (Also remember that as a white, upper class woman, Scarlett would likely have been kept sheltered from the violent and sexual aspects of slavery.)
Bear in mind that the Northern women mentioned above were probably had their ideas based on both the novel and the stage plays. Even more people saw Tom shows than read the book, and those plays quickly (d)evolved into bizarre spectacles with multiplied characters, packs of fierce dogs, wholly new characters, boxing matches, wire work, song and dance numbers, spirituals and more. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as a mass media phenomenon, grew vastly beyond Stowe’s abolitionist message, until it threatened to become a floating signifier. The story was modified to “suit the locality.” Even the villains of the piece were familiar and beloved. It’s like the way people show up dressed as stormtroopers from Star Wars, despite their roles as disposable cannon fodder of an evil empire.
In the Reconstruction period, the anti-black sentiment that lead to lynchings and burnings was reflected on the stage. A famous Simon Legree player and white supremacist, John L. Sullivan, was praised for the realism of his portrayal, injuring a number of Tom actors despite inch-thick padding under clothes.
There had always been a sadistic element in Legree’s whipping of Tom, and, especially after the collapse of Reconstruction and the resurgence of institutionalized racism, the whipping scene tapped into the cruelest instincts of white audiences, who could supposedly symphathize with Tom even as they took pleasure in seeing a black man become the victim of the bloody lash–a version of the gloating spectatorship of mobs who regularly gathered to watch blacks being hanged, mutilated, or burned to death in the South during that era of mass lynching.
This keeps circling back to the Passion of Christ, the image of a man of peace being tortured to death that is the beating heart of one of the world’s major religions. In Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, we get the spectacle of Christ’s agonizing death in perhaps more vivid and graphic detail than ever depicted before, so much so that it overwhelms any message. The story is told and re-told and re-imagined and re-booted, rendered with as much realism and historical detail as possible or as abstractly and symbolically as possible, and even that doesn’t take into account how the viewer/reader interprets that image. Is it possible to thrill to the spectacle of Simon Legree whipping Uncle Tom and be moved by the injustice of slavery and racism?