Stowe’s Altered Excerpt from Horace Mann’s Antislavery Letter

Harriet Beecher Stowe in “Concluding Remarks,” the final chapter of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, quotes Horace Mann’s description of the Pearl incident, most likely from the version published in Slavery: Letters and Speeches (Boston: B.B. Mussey & Co., 1851).[1]

Mann in his 8 April 1851 speech at Tremont Temple in Boston had described the failed escape attempt of Washington D.C. slaves. Mann spoke as president of a “Great Mass Convention, Called, Without Distinction of Party, In Opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law.” Mann as lead attorney had defended three ship officers who aided the escape attempt, Daniel Drayton, Edward Sayres, and Sayres’s cook Chester English. My interest here is Stowe’s selective omission of three themes in her quotation of Mann’s version: the passages that she omits diminish Mann’s emphasis on the Southern character of the trade, the slave trade’s character as a flesh trade, and Mann’s rationalization for describing such incidents.

In Stowe’s first notable alteration, she declines to follow Mann’s lead in the matter of slave trade as southern and diminishes his emphasis on slavery as a flesh trade. In the two passages below, significant variants are marked in bold type.

there were several young and healthy girls who had those peculiar attractions of form, of feature, and of complexion, which southern connoisseurs in sensualism so highly prize. (Mann 511)
there were several young and healthy girls, who had those peculiar attractions of form and feature which connoisseurs prize so highly. (Stowe 2:310)

Stowe’s alterations are in keeping with her wider purpose in the chapter, to condemn slavery on a nationwide scale rather than as a peculiarly southern evil. I am a bit surprised that she reduced Mann’s emphasis on “complexion,” because back in “Chapter XXX, The Slave Warehouse, she had made an effort to point out the light complexion of Emmeline: “She is a quadroon, as may be seen from her fairer complexion […]” (2.158).

Having taken this first step in revision–if that is what it is–Stowe is compelled also to alter Mann’s emphasis on the comparative price of a female slave intended for domestic service versus a woman purchased as sexual property.

But the fiend of a slave trader was inexorable. He knew how he could transmute her charms into gold through the fires of sin. He demanded twenty-one hundred dollars, (though for menial services she would not have been worth more than four or five,) and would take nothing less. She was despatched to New Orleans […] (Mann 511)
but the fiend of a slave-holder was inexorable. [omit] She was despatched to New Orleans […] (Stowe 2.310)

Perhaps Stowe deemed Mann’s transmute her charms into gold through the fires of sin a purple passage. And again, one can merely speculate, but Mann’s reference to comparative worth ($2100 slave as sexual chattel vs. $400 slave as menial service chattel) is illuminating but offensive. At a subtle level, Mann seems to accept a financial valuation on female flesh according to the purpose for which its seller and purchaser agree it is intended, an acceptance that Stowe does not countenance—unless she can bring her sarcasm to bear. With a bit of work—say, an interlinear comment on Mann’s quotation—she certainly could have. But as Stowe approvingly citing Mann’s description of Pearl events the choice to omit his estimates serves a similar purpose. The minor change from slave trader to slave-holder should not be overlooked, as in this chapter’s context it is a part of Stowe’s ongoing concern with shared national, not sectional, guilt. As she notes a few pages later, “There are multitudes of slaves temporarily owned, and sold again, by merchants in northern cities; and shall the whole guilt or obloquy of slavery fall only on the South?” (2.317). This minor alteration seems in keeping with that emphasis.

The third revision is a larger part of the character of Stowe’s excerpt: she omits that which becomes before and after Mann’s version of the Pearl episode. I suspect that her choice to excerpt, to exclude Mann’s contextualizing comments, leads Stowe also to downplay Mann’s appreciation for suicide as the best choice for a violated woman. But Mann’s preceding and succeeding comments are noteworthy. Mann is at pains to insist that in exposing slave trade as flesh trade he does so for pure motives and not for prurient interest.

He cites the motto of the Order of the Garter, Honi soit qui mal y pense, which you may remember from the conclusion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and he insists on the parallel between the Southern slave market and Islamic empires, where white women are prized additions to the harem:

They [females sprightly and handsome] are ripened for the New Orleans, or for some other market, whence southern harems are supplied; as under the Mahometan religion, white Caucasian beauties are sent to the slave marts of the darker-skinned Turk. (510)

What Mann seems to class as the ultimate horror, enslaved white women subject to the lust of those with dark skin, seems not to have held the same appeal to Stowe. And despite her love for Walter Scott, Stowe ends her quote before Mann cites a parallel from Ivanhoe.

Slavery: Letters and Speeches Letters and Speeches By Horace Mann

Mann in his version, the part that Stowe appears to be quoting verbatim but is in fact altering, emphasizes the heroic sexual purity of one of the women from the Pearl. Where Mann celebrates the woman’s heroic resistance to sexual violation—she committed suicide rather than succumb—Stowe has a view more sympathetic to the human choice for survival rather than martyrdom. In Stowe’s rendering, by citing Mann’s statement that God “smote her with death” but not specifying the method, one does not know what form the smiting took. Stowe eliminated this line: “Perhaps, foreseeing her fate, she practised what, under such circumstances, we might call the virtue of suicide.” (Could the Pearl woman be a source for Stowe’s Lucy in Chapter 12, who leaps from Belle Riviere?) Before comparing Stowe’s version to Mann’s, I had always assumed that God smote the woman with an illness on the boat ride south. Geez, I’m naive.

What are we to make of this? Undergraduates, feel free to snicker at Stowe’s lack of faithfulness in citation. T. S. Eliot, I believe, said that great ones don’t borrow, they steal. Stowe was stealing while pretending that she was borrowing. I suggest, tentatively, that Stowe’s omissions, rather than deliberate misquotations, mark the boundary between the sexual explicitness permitted in Mann’s antislavery speech and Stowe’s antislavery fiction. That is, Stowe may be censoring her quote of Mann to avoid potential trouble.

There’s more work to do here. Stowe may have faithfully cited an alternate version of Mann’s speech. So I’d better search the newspapers. Nonetheless, my first thoughts are recorded, and anyone who is interested is welcome to comment.

[1] We can have reasonable confidence that Stowe cited from this volume. As she completed her manuscript of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she wrote in a March 1852 letter to Mann that “I have just been reading your volume of speeches.” (link to letter published by Massachusetts Historical Society).

[2] For ease of reference, see the Google Books version of Mann’s Slavery (1851, 510-11). The selection from Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Jewett, 1852, 2:312) is probably most easily reviewed on the Internet Archive.

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1 Response to Stowe’s Altered Excerpt from Horace Mann’s Antislavery Letter

  1. Pingback: On Scholarly Annotation | Fill His Head First with a Thousand Questions

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