Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Pastiche Writing Assignment: William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with John Milton’s Comus and Lycidas

In Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands, during her visit to Stratford on Avon, Harriet Beecher Stowe has an extended discussion of affinities and distinctions between John Milton and William Shakespeare. In brief, she designates Milton as classical or Grecian, Shakespeare as Gothic. The later writer possesses “calm, severe majesty” that enlists only the “the very highest range of our faculties.” By contrast, the earlier is capable of “wreathed involution of smiles and tears, of solemn earnestness and quaint conceits,” or “complications of dizzy magnificence with fairy lightness.”

Nor do I think it’s too much to suggest she in same section has in mind the aims and methods of her own novelistic art, when she notes that Shakespeare exhibits “sudden uprushings of grand and magnificent sentiment, like the flame-pointed arches of cathedrals; those ranges of fancy, half goblin, half human.”

But prior to her summing of the differences, she notes the affinities that both poets, Gothic and Grecian share, by first citing an extended passage from scene-setting by Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream through the conclusion of Oberon’s opening speech (see 5.2.1-26). But rather than herself supplying the pastiche that would blend those lines (and others like them) to Milton’s Comus and Lycidas, she assigns the reader the prospective task:

I have often noticed how much the first writings of Milton resemble in their imagery and tone of coloring those of Shakspeare, particularly in the phraseology and manner of describing flowers. I think, were a certain number of passages from Lycidas and Comus interspersed with a certain number from Midsummer Night’s Dream, the imagery, tone of thought, and style of coloring, would be found so nearly identical, that it would be difficult for one not perfectly familiar to distinguish them. You may try it.

I think we have a hint toward a pastiche assignment and experiment that could involve creative writing and analysis of reading tests. Fourth-year English majors, who have studied both Shakespeare and Milton and are interested in creative writing, would blend passages from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with Milton’s Lycidas and Comus, and do the blend so seamlessly that the aim would be that an inexpert reader would be unable to distinguish the Shakespeare from the Milton. Test the creations against two types of readers, first-year college students and American literature professors, to see if either group can identify the switches between voices.

But the actual test should be more sneaky, one subject of the study will be whether American literature professors, who think they are being asked to serve as judges, will instead be faced with the dilemma of whether to do their homework before agreeing to serve as test pool in evaluating the quality of the first-year undergraduates’s detection of the creative writing students’ switches between voices. No key should be provided, or it would ruin the experiment.

Likely no Internet access available either, such as that which I shamelessly relied when looking up line numbers for Puck’s and Oberon’s speeches. But is this not modern reading too? In any case, so no, I as an American literature professor won’t participate in your reading study, since maybe this is just a speculative example of cruelty to people, subject of an earlier post.

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“they ate, they drank, they planted”; “eating, drinking, dressing, walking”

I had kind of noticed these passages in Uncle Tom’s Cabin as memorable.

“Well,” said Augustine, “there goes an old saying to this effect ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be;—they ate, they drank, they planted, they builded, and knew not till the flood came and took them.‘”

And this one, in her narrator’s voice, after Eva dies:

But in real life we do not die when all that makes life bright dies to us. There is a most busy and important round of eating, drinking, dressing, walking, visiting, buying, selling, talking, reading, and all that makes up what is commonly called living, yet to be gone through; and this yet remained to Augustine.

Though I have not seen it noted in annotation, and perhaps not needed in first, they are allusions, the activities that consume our time, similar ones that in times of Noah and Lot consumed them, just prior to destruction. In 19C Authorized KJV, the passages in Luke 17:26-28 and Matthew 24:38–39 are quite similar.

And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all.


For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

But I realized recently that Stowe omits one activity in her allusions–the marriage phrases–and that would be because with Eva dead St. Clare now that his daughter has died shall have no daughter to give, no son-in-law to receive in marriage.
In Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands, the allusion recurs once more, and it shows her 19th-Century sensibility merging scripture with the present. It follows a very affecting passage on Walter Scott’s epitaph for his dog Maida, which is well worth reading but not much read anymore because mid-century travel narratives are not very popular.


The again biblically allusive lines read as follows:

And this is what all our homes are coming to; our buying our planting our building our marrying and giving in marriage, our genial firesides and dancing children, are all like so many figures passing through the magic lantern, to be put out at last in death.

The magic lantern is the 19th-century fore-runner of the picture show, but the “put out at last in death” hits me like the train in Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case,” for I know that the memory of 18-month-old son Charley, who died in a Cincinnati cholera epidemic, lies in the silent background of that line.

This is just to let you know that when Stowe alludes to scripture, and omits or recasts, often there’s something going on, something significant. Yea, I know it’s domestic fiction. But your (our) not knowing what she’s doing doesn’t make her any less talented. That is, she don’t cite carelessly, despite her reputation. When reading Sunny Memories I am awed at her prodigious verbal memory. The Walter Scott alone exhibits a staggering range, and there’s a real sadness that upon landing in and touring Scotland, to her the entire landscape rendered picturesque and enchanted (her terms) by her memories of reading Scott, she discovers that the people with whom she expected to enthuse in shared admiration have mostly set him aside.

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Explaining the Department LISTSERV to Millennial Graduate Students

I am old, older than the Internet, and our department uses a LISTSERV to communicate with our graduate students. Each year I rediscover that LISTSERV behavior for some graduate students is a very odd thing. And recently, Microsoft Outlook, our campus email, has been taking a dim view of LISTSERV messages, sending them all to Clutter. So one thing that I try to do is make official LISTSERV messages slightly more engaging, in hope that some students will read them. So below is a sample what serves as official communication to graduate students in my department.

Date: Monday, August 5, 2019 at 9:30 AM
To: GRADENGLISH LISTSERV (address_with_held)
Subject: Communicating with LISTSERV, long view


If you send to or reply to LISTSERV (address_with_held), it means that you wish to send your message to everyone on the LISTSERV. Typically, that is the default behavior of email clients (like MS Outlook), that replies go “To” the sending address. To reply to me individually as the sender of a message to LISTSERV, forward the message to (address_with_held), my email address, the Graduate Coordinator.

LISTSERV protocols, which still are widely used by academics for discussion lists, are older than the Internet but younger than Morse code and carrier pigeons. And when older technologies continue zombie-like into new forms, the intersections between them get complicated, among which the following.

  • Microsoft’s Outlook client, the Kent State default for faculty, staff and students, is trying to act like a social media interface because of millennials or something, with two levels of “OK to ignore,” which are designated “Clutter” and “Junk Email.”
  • LISTSERV is mass email, like marketing, so Outlook sorting algorithms tend to class large number of messages from LISTSERVs into Clutter, in same way that social media software downplays important stuff like putting direct messages in some kind of separate area and instead highlights important stuff like ads and branding among regular communications.
  • If you REPLY to LISTSERV message, the LISTSERV software is notifying the list moderator, also me. But since LISTSERV behavior is to send message to moderator as an attachment, your message to me is far more likely in turn to be interpreted as SPAM by Outlook, and thus goes to my Clutter folder.

Therefore, two things are likely to demand personal attention when dealing with LISTSERV messages:

  • If you are not seeing my messages, that is because they are in your Clutter folder. That’s likely where this one is going also, so you’re not reading it, and this is depressing.
  • I have to check my Clutter folder periodically. And I usually do, about once weekly, but because Microsoft and Apple don’t play well together, my message search is effed up, so I don’t see it. Yes I have reported to name_ withheld, it’s probably Microsoft’s fault, and Microsoft don’t give a damn because it thinks I’m a millennial and want my email to behave like social media.

If both of us are not going to some effort to work around these MS mail service defaults when dealing with LISTSERV messages, things may easily slip through the cracks. You reply to LISTSERV, goes to my Clutter, and I do my weekly check but don’t notice your message. Therefore, we each must do more:

  • I have to check Clutter more regularly to see if any of you replied to LISTSERV instead of where you should have, to me. I am genuinely trying.
    If I do not reply to you in a reasonable amount of time—and it was an important message that deserved a reply, not “Thanks,” etc. (PS: don’t bother with that)—you should assume that A) I have not checked Clutter yet, B) I may have checked Clutter but not noticed your message because MS Search is broken.
  • Because you assume both of above, re-send your message, but this time addressed to [address_withheld]. That way, I’m far more likely to see it—and far more likely to respond.

We cannot switch to Facebook or Twitter or Instagram for department communication, for LISTSERV has a singular advantage of central management of address book, and email is relatively secure as compared to the other systems. Nor can we get away from MS Outlook because it is university-wide email system. These are our textual condition.

I regret that technology is not making things easy, but look on bright side. In Middle Ages one had to pee in the ash and rendered fats to make one’s own ink and then sharpen the nib of quill from the left wing of a goose (if right-handed) lest feather tickle your eye-ball when trying to write. And send copies to Scriptorium to have 100 copies made on vellum. So back then not as much time to indulge in this much thinking about writing as a medium, for there were geese to be caught and lambs to be slaughtered for the manufacture of vellum. And that will keep you busy enough that no one has time to imagine a need for an English department.

Wesley Raabe
Associate Professor and Graduate Coordinator
Department of English
Kent State University

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Annotation: Dinah and the “domestic Muses”

In chapter 18 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when Dinah prepares herself for cooking by smoking her pipe, during which she either whacks the heads or pokes the ribs of lesser operators in her near orbit with a pudding stick, it is said that smoking is her method of “invoking the domestic Muses.” In annotated editions, readers are sometimes greeted with a pedestrian note that informs us about the Greek Muses. Below are two examples:

  • Norton (by Elizabeth Ammons): “In Greek myth, the nine sister goddesses who preside over the arts” (p. 180).
  • Broadview (by Christopher Diller): “In Greek mythology, the muses were patron goddesses of the arts and humanities.” (p. 294)

The trouble with either of those notes, as any precocious primary school child during the 19th century would recognize, is that most readers are not being told anything they don’t know, a trouble endemic to annotation even if reader is objecting to my anachronistically contrived example (PS: Norton and Broadview are contemporary reprint editions). But to return from my digression, if you in 21st-century don’t know about the Greek muses, the number of other things that you don’t know are probably making this book quite a slog–if you have read even this far.

What makes the phrase interesting and perhaps meriting annotation is what readers may not know, how the modifier “domestic,” a word not normally applied to the muses, fits into this. And indeed other editors have detected that something more may be going on with the phrase, one recent editor proposing that Stowe innovates without antecedent, another editorial team offering a cultural studies observation:

  • Bedford (by Stephen Railton): “Muses: In Greek mythology, the nine Muses were goddess patrons of the arts. However, ‘domestic Muses’–goddesses of housekeeping–are Stowe’s invention.” (p. 232)
  • Norton Annotated (by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Hollis Robbins): “Dinah’s languid invoking of the ‘domestic Muses’ is contrasted with Ophelia’s Protestant work ethic” (p. 218).

Either annotation asks a more important questions than it answers: For example, if phrase “domestic Muses” is hers, what might the newly proposed goddess of housekeeping do? As I will explain below, in fact the phrase is not “Stowe’s own invention.” Or, what of Dinah’s choice to seek inspiration by smoking languidly her pipe–is that a problem, one identified readily as the wrong way to do it in the 19th century? To extent latter note raises a question, it is diffuse and likely unanswerable with less than a treatise of some sort.

Annotation is typically not cited, so we as readers don’t know whether the Bedford editor’s observation is based on research or speculation. And why any readers needs the Norton Annotated edition reminder that it is important to recognize Dinah’s contrast to Miss Ophelia escapes me. On the second, particularly, even acknowledging that cultural studies instruction has useful purposes, I think overall that readers would more likely fall into one of two categories, either sharing the editors’ reading acuity and political views (and so not needing the note) or being annoyed by what John Updike in a review called “sniping from the sidelines” (see “Down the River” New Yorker, October 30, 2006) and if cognizant of this note at best likely to respond: “Um, I can read. Maybe tell me something I don’t know.” And should the reader be politically hostile to the ideologically sensitive contemporary reading that the editors are advocating, I generally think that Stowe as an author has a better chance of getting into the reader’s head and messing with his/her views than does an instructing or hectoring editor.

How, then, might one do something useful in the annotation? This is what I propose, that maybe we should teach a reader something that many school-children would have known in the nineteenth century but that we in the 21st no longer do. For example, try a Google Advanced Book Search for the pre-1860 appearance of the exact phrase “domestic muse.” After not much rooting around, you will soon discover that the phrase (minus Stowe’s plural, I am a seasoned researcher and did this work systematically) appeared in school texts by McGuffey, in a Young Ladies Elocution manual, in cyclopedias that survey of British literature, although “The Washing-Day” is sometimes attributed falsely to Felicia Hemans. McGuffey, a culprit for a Hemans attribution his Fourth Reader (1838, 1841, 1844), was not a particularly careful researcher and had no access to Google Books, and the often-reprinted poem appeared sometimes without attribution. Its true author is Anna Laetitia Barbauld. So I put off my proposed annotation to Stowe’s passage, albeit still in draft form, no longer.

A “domestic Muse” (line 3) is invoked in “The Washing-Day” (1797), by Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743–1825), poet and essayist. The poem, anthologized and reprinted in magazines and U.S. primary school readers, burlesques John Milton’s stately blank verse and one-ups his invocation of Urania the Christian Muse (Paradise Lost, Book 7) as an alternative to Greek poetic tradition by proposing a domestic washing-day muse. The poem features also an inspirational bubble pipe (lines 79–81). The traditional Greek Muses, nine daughters of Mnemosyne (Memory), were each associated with a particular art, but no one of them with cooking. However, the hearth deity Hestia, a senior and respected goddess with no temple of her own, has a muse-like parallel: she was named first when invoking other gods in ritual devotions and received preliminary offerings even at their designated temples.

Below are my uncited sources:

What is interesting, I would suggest, is that the poem, a “Miltonic burlesque,” was recognized as such by its early readers. That is intriguing in the context of Stowe’s novel because it reinforces the pervasiveness of her Paradise Lost echoes, about half of which have been noted in annotation. I’ll do this briefly: The activity in the Halliday household is compared to propping up the flowers in Eden, an allusion to Paradise Lost, the work listed as one of the English classics found in Ophelia’s Vermont home, and elsewhere in Dinah’s kitchen a reference is made to principalities and powers (again PL). Furthermore, Topsy is compared to a toad but by Eva’s father Augustine is assumed unable to corrupt Eva (although Satan, disguised as toad, whispering in Eve’s ear is able to seduce humanity’s biblical first mother to sin), and George Shelby’s anger explodes like a “powder magazine” before he strikes Legree, same metaphor by which Satan explodes into his form as fallen archangel when Ithuriel’s spear touches him in toad form.

There is a problem with my proffered annotation. I expect it to be flagged as too long. But on other hand, not knowing what many educated readers likely knew in the mid-19th century has led editors and critics in the 20th and 21st century to miss Stowe’s reasonably obvious (now to me) and multi-faceted allusion to Barbauld’s “Washing-Day,” a poem that merits study also as part of a longer tradition of feminist rewriting of classic English literature.

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Tormenting People in Two Sketches

I subscribe to the Poetry Magazine newsletter, and about an hour ago a new poem by Joyce Carol Oates, from the current October issue, arrived in my mailbox. It is entitled “Little Albert, 1920,” and it is about a behavioralist experiment in which a child was taught to fear things that he otherwise enjoyed, by a malicious experimenter John Watson.

Not having been a psychology major, I was not familiar with the experiment, so “Remember me? Sure. / You do” (lines 6-7) was not as insinuating as it might be to some readers. But still the lines were, and it’s an enormously disturbing poem. On the podcast in which the editors discuss it, the final words are that the poem shows us “the way we conscript people for our unsavory games.” Also, I learn there, that one can watch the experiment on YouTube, although I will neither force myself to do so nor link to it.

The poem distracted me from another activity, attempting to determine whether Harriet Beecher Stowe had any input into the text of the 1896 Uncle Tom’s Cabin from Riverside Press. For various reasons connected to fact that I have transcribed Stowe’s novel several times, have proofread it several times, and have prepared a collation of five versions, I was searching somewhat idiosyncratically for comments about Stowe’s level of awareness in the 1890s, and she is known to have in her late years to not have been well, her mind faltering.

On Biblio.com, a federated bookseller site, an antiquarian vendor under name John Windle has a $19,000 copy of that edition, its value attested because with the edition is enclosed a card on which Stowe wrote out a passage from her novel and another by her daughter, explaining the procedure for gathering the signed cards to the person for whom the particular autograph card was inscribed.

The elderly author shows a flash of her old industriousness in the full page inscription in Volume I: “Not one throb of anguish not one tear of the oppressed is forgotten by the Man of Sorrows the Lord of Glory. In His generous patient bosom he bears the anguish of a world”, and in Volume II where she quotes from Uncle Tom’s death scene: “Oh Mas’r George ye’ are too late. The Lord’s bought me, and is going to take me home and I long to go. Heaven is better than Kintuck…”Both volumes are also inscribed “Written for Mr. W. H. Cathcart…” and signed and dated in full, and inserted in Volume I is an ALS by Stowe’s daughter, Miss H. B. Stowe, 4 pages, 8vo, Hartford, Oct. 17, 1894. “. . . I wished my mother to write in them for you if possible. But writing for her is such an effort now . . . [I] only ask it of her very occasionally . . . I have had her write an extract for each volume on separate paper. I did not venture to have her write in the books, for fear of defacing them . . . I have had her attempt two or three times to write for you but without success until to day, when what she has written is quite as good as we can ever expect from her again. . .”. Only two copies are recorded at auction with inscriptions by Stowe from the text, neither having two inscriptions.

So I suppose that I have reached a full circle, with this otherwise unknown Stowe household event from the 1890s, a daughter in her 60s hovering around a mother in her mid-80s, former trying every day to get her faltering mother to write out legible passages, failing two days in three, fearful always that the author will “deface” the published books and detract from the value that would accrue to them were a signature card and passage included.

Yep, that was necessary, the many weekly episodes that got the cards signed, affirmed by today’s price tag of $19,000. I do not see herein a “flash of her old industriousness” but a cruel game: to “conscript people for our unsavory games” indeed.

What is the matter with us?

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Great Sentence, Henry Mackenzie

This essay in Aeon, “Simplicity or style: what makes a sentence a masterpiece?” reminded me of a wonderful sentence that I chewed on recently from Henry MacKenzie’s Julia de Roubigny. My favorite is the second, but the paragraph has two (or three) great sentences in series, depending on whether period-em dash stops a sentence. I incline to does not, but definition of sentence in em-dash heavy prose no easy thing to deal with. It is written by the title Julia to her friend Maria, with her concerns about a man Montauban, one who somewhat later will confess his love for her.

There is something hard and unbending in the character of the Count, which, though my father applauds it under the title of magnanimity, I own myself womanish enough not to like it. There is an yielding weakness, which, to me, is more amiable than the inflexible right; it is an act of my reason to approve the last; but my heart gives it suffrage to the first, without pausing to inquire for a cause.–I am aukward at defining: you know what I mean; the last is stern in Montauban, the first is smiling in Maria. (25)

Chewed on it for about 5 minutes when reading, went back after seeing the essay, and think I got it, but the rhetorical parallelisms and the gendering of emotional tenors make it a lot of fun to parse. She’s writing to her friend, and the breaking off in sentence seems as if she’s abandoned the attempt–but she has not. Below a cheat-sheet.

Montauban’s hard and unbending quality my father applauds.
I do not like that his quality.
To me, yielding weakness is more amiable than inflexible right.
My heart likes first (yielding weakness).
The last (inflexible right) I designate as stern, I don’t like. Without saying so, presumably her head is rejecting.
The first, yielding weakness, is smiling in my friend.

Makes perfect sense that a young woman would not like the guy, and at the same time, if he knew, it might deflate his confidence that qualities that he likely associates with his sexual prowess are not arousing to her. Or, which is worse, incite his anger. That his quality is “magnanimity,” what her father thinks it is, must be wrong, because inflexible sense of rightness is not magnanimity. So, no, she definitely should not marry the guy, if she has a say, from her very first description of him: they are not compatible. It’s a sentimental novel, so I trust she will have a say. I have not finished the book. I’m only a third through. So I’ll see how my guess holds up and update the post upon completing the novel.

Update, upon completing the novel: “Dear reader, he killed her.” But I suppose, having parsed the above sentence, that she had warned herself adequately about her likely fate. But were I her correspondent or a 21st-century advice columnist, I’d say, “Young woman, listen to what your heart is telling you: Do not marry that man.”

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Antebellum Slavery Law on the Separation of Children from Parents

In the first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with reasonably thorough historical annotation, by Phillip Van Doren Stern, he notes that Stowe’s “[s]aying that Eliza was only eight or nine years old when she was sold in Louisiana gave Mrs. Stowe a great deal of trouble. Louisiana readers were quick to point out that their state law forbade slave children under ten years to be separated from their mothers” (589).

William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870), a major antebellum southern writer and pro-slavery apologist, took pains in his Oct. 1852 review of Stowe’s novel to insist that Stowe was mistaken about slave law.[1] According to Louisiana’s Black Law or Code Noir, Simms explains, “Every person is expressly prohibited from selling separately from their mothers, the children who have not reached the full age of ten years” (637). Those found in violation could be subject to a fine of $1,000 and imprisonment for not less than six months.

In her Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), Stowe with considerable sarcasm protested that she did not buy these purported legal protections for the defenseless child. (For readers unfamiliar, Cassy is an enslaved woman, Butler the man who purchases her and betrays her into compliance by threatening to and then by selling her children.),

Suppose Butler wants to sell Cassy’s child of nine years. There is a statute forbidding to sell under ten years;–what is Cassy to do? She cannot bring suit. Will the state prosecute? Suppose it does,–what then? Butler says the child is ten years old; if he pleases, he will say she is ten and a half, or eleven. What is Cassy to do? She cannot testify; besides, she is utterly in Butler’s power. He may tell her that if she offers to stir in the affair, he will whip the child within an inch of its life; and she knows he can do it, and that there is no help for it;–he may lock her up in a dungeon, sell her on to a distant plantation, or do any other despotic thing he chooses, and there is nobody to say Nay.

How much does the protective statute amount to for Cassy? It may be very well as a piece of advice to the public, or as a decorous expression of opinion; but one might as well try to stop the current of the Mississippi with a bulrush as the tide of trade in human beings with such a regulation.

We think that, by this time, the reader will agree with us, that the less the defenders of slavery say about protective statutes, the better. [3]

We from 20th century forward have had a lot of faith in the protections of law–even when observed only in the eventual justice that follows after a violation and an extended court case–but you see, in the nineteenth century, pro-slavery apologists did not want the subtext (what Stowe suspected and knew) to be identified as the text. And they protested vigorously that Stowe misrepresented the practice, something the Trump administration declines even to do, not bothering even with “a decorous expression of opinion.”

That is, the Trump administration policy on separating minor children from immigrant parents lacks even what antebellum pro-slavery thinkers thought prudent, the fig leaf of law. I for one assume that should a policy revision be announced or another legal fig-leaf be instated, that will be no cause for relief that this barbaric practice would cease. What would then go on behind closed doors–even should the law expressly prohibit it–might well resemble what is clearly the intended policy. This administration and its apologists are ever on the lookout for ways to demonize non-white peoples—i.e., Trump’s “animals” and the now familiar “illegals,” a coinage that denies humanity to the persons so labeled—so to assume the same administration will change its attitude seems to me mistaken.

Sometimes I think the America’s favorite myth, that we are perpetually made new again, has as its pernicious obverse that we refuse to recognize a burden of the past, even when it’s staring us in the face.

[1] For the establishment that Simms was author of the unsigned review, see Charles S. Watson, “Simms’s Review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” American Literature, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Nov. 1976), pp. 365-368. JSTOR. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.kent.edu/stable/2924870

[2] Simms’s review in the Southern Literary Messenger is entitled “Literary Notices.” See http://quod.lib.umich.edu, p. 637.

[3] See Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, https://books.google.com/books?id=4RZtLJOnxE8C.

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