Uncle Tom’s Cabin “Slave Warehouse”: Sale Began or Begun

Before I regale you with the grammar variants, let me set the scene: In the chapter XXX, “The Slave Warehouse,” Simon Legree, then known only as the “bullet-head,” commences a “very free personal examination” of his possible purchases, Uncle Tom and the young girl Emmeline. Stowe carefully describes Legree’s hands: they are “immensely large, hairy, sun-burned, freckled, and very dirty, and garnished with long nails, in a very foul condition” (Jewett vol. II: 165). These hands open Tom’s mouth to “inspect his teeth.” Legree then proceeds to Emmeline, where the sexual violation in his “handling” of this young almost-white (quadroon) girl’s body—with his, again, “heavy, dirty hand”—is emphasized with numerous clues: he “drew the girl to him,” he “passed it [his hand] over her neck and bust,” the “patient face” of Emmeline’s mother Susan “showed the suffering she had been going through,” and Emmeline, frightened, “began to cry.”

If you have read Douglas’s Penguin edition, you may not realize that Legree’s physical handling is typical of slave auctions, whether one is buying or not. That edition has a transcription error that obliterates one of Stowe’s reminders that the slave auction includes an open invitation for low men to physically handle the bodies of young girls. The “handling” and “examining” is characteristic both of those who want to buy–and those who do not: “Various spectators, intending to purchase, or not intending, as the case might be, gathered around the group, handling, examining, and commenting on their various points…” (Jewett vol. II. 163). The Penguin edition passage omits the “handling” and produces near gibberish: “Various spectators, intending to purchase, or not intending, examining, and commenting on their various points…” ( ). Yes, it’s sloppy. But Stowe didn’t do it. Back to topic.

The salesman fears that the crying outburst may reduce Emmeline’s sale value—forgetting, I suppose, that crying is the quickest way for a woman’s radiance to attract a man—and he puts a quick stop to the tears. For the vicious undercurrent—the sexual allure of women’s tears—see Marianne Noble’s Masochistic Pleasures. Textual scholars, however, have small fish to fry, a point of grammar. With the context in mind, and with a brief reminder of this chapter’s biting sarcasm toward the traders in human property, consider the paragraph in which the salesman rebukes Emmeline’s crying. It exists in three textually distinct versions. I’ve highlighted in bold the variants of interest. I’ll start with the Era newspaper and the two earliest book settings, Jewett’s 2-volume first edition (1852) and its paperback Edition for the Million:

“Stop that, you minx!” said the salesman, “no whimpering here—the sale going to begin.” And accordingly the sale begun. (Era 15 Jan. 1852, 11)

“Stop that, you minx!” said the salesman; “no whimpering here,—the sale is going to begin.” And accordingly the sale begun.(Jewett vol. II: 165)

“Stop that, you minx!” said the salesman; “no whimpering here,—the sale is going to begin.” And accordingly the sale begun.(Jewett Million, 125)

I mention briefly that I assume textual descent. The first Jewett edition derives from the newspaper, and the Million edition derives from the first Jewett edition. The passage is set into type three times with the past perfect “begun” in the narrator’s language. So let us assume that this violation of expected grammatical form is intended.

If it is intentional, the proper place to seek its source is in the Era version, in the salesman’s omitted auxiliary verb (“sale going to begin”). The narrator, by using the improper past perfect, indicates that the beginning of the auction is a completed action, not part of an ongoing action, as the past tense in perfect progressive form would indicate (i.e, if it were “has begun”).

The correction to the salesman dialog in the Jewett edition, the addition of the auxiliary verb “is” then begs explanation. I see two choices. Either Stowe corrected it during proofreading, or a typesetter normalized the more difficult reading (a principle known as lectio difficilior potior, the more difficult reading is more powerful/moral one)? The former explanation seems weak. If Stowe added the auxiliary verb, she would also note, one would think, that it muddled up the narrator’s mockery of the salesman’s language.

But this variant pair does not conclude in 1852, because Jewett’s late 1852 illustrated edition [title page 1853] and Houghton Osgood’s 1879 New Edition (the last edition in which Stowe is assumed to have played a significant role) introduce another change.

“Stop that, you minx!” said the salesman; “no whimpering here,—the sale is going to begin.” And accordingly the sale began.(Jewett, 1852 Illustrated, 417)

“Stop that, you minx!” said the salesman; “no whimpering here,—the sale is going to begin.” And accordingly the sale began.(Jewett, 1879 New Edition, 393)

All verb tense forms have been normalized to the expected form. The salesman uses the proper auxiliary verb, and the narrator notes the beginning of the auction as a statement of fact. The Salesman said the auction was to begin. It began. The illustrated edition [1852/53] and the 1879 New version are the weakest (to my mind) because the violations of grammatical norms in earlier versions have been smoothed out.

NOTE: It is possible that this variant indicates that the 1879 New Edition was set from the illustrated edition. But one variant is not adequate to make a reasonable surmise.

Even allowing that the fluctuation, the textual fluidity (to borrow John Bryant’s term from The Fluid Text) is more interesting than establishing the correct form, what version should one choose when establishing an authoritative authorial version of the text? I’d go with the newspaper text, as the violations of expected grammatical form are most arresting. They highlight the narrator’s comment on the vulgarity of the salesman’s banter.

Perhaps you have a different opinion on the rationale for the change or the choice in an editorially established text informed by a concern for the author’s preferred form?

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