Harriet Beecher Stowe Revising Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Topsy in the Jewett Paperback

Update (May 2012): This chapter has now been published as a fluid text edition in the peer-reviewed open-access scholarly journal named Scholarly Editing. Most of preliminary thoughts below have been revised and reconsidered based on further research and Les Harrison’s collaboration in that project. See “Selection from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: A Digital Critical Edition: ‘Topsy,’ edited by Wesley Raabe (Kent State University) and Les Harrison (Virginia Commonwealth University) at http://scholarlyediting.org/se.index.editions.html. If you refer to this work, please refer to that edition or the following article, “Editing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Fluid Text of Race.” Documentary Editing 32 (2011): 101-12. Print.

I am comparing multiple copies of five printings of Uncle Tom’s Cabin using collation and transcribing individual copies of the following texts: newspaper, manuscript fragments, two-volume Jewett edition, one-volume Jewett “Edition for the Million!” (1852/1853) in paper wrappers, the Jewett Illustrated Edition (1853), and the Houghton Osgood New Edition (1879). In the past few months I have transcribed four selected chapters from all three Jewett editions, and I have found a significant alteration to the Topsy character in the one-volume “Edition for the Million.”

I did not anticipate that Stowe had revised for this cheap edition–I did not anticipate that she had not either–but I am not aware that another scholar has noticed Stowe’s revision of the Edition for the Million. Because the edition was printed in double columns, in small type, without illustrations, and sold cheap (37 1/2 cents), it appealed to readers from a lower social class than would the two-volume leather-bound first book edition or the lavishly illustrated one-volume edition. The passage discussed below offers nearly indisputable proof that Stowe revised her work for the Million edition, but whether she revised for considerations of audience, in the moment because she was an inveterate reviser of proof, or in response to certain criticism, I don’t know. I’ve queried a number of Stowe scholars, and they are not aware that the revision of this passage has been previously noted.

Topsy in chapter XX informs the other children that they are sinners but celebrates her special achievement: “I ‘s the wickedest critter in the world…” In the Million edition, this paragraph, which concludes “plumed herself on the distinction,” is followed by a passage that, as far as I can presently determine, is unique to this edition.

Jewett Paperback, Topsy Addition, pg. 96

  “But I ’s boun’ to go to heaven, for all that,
though,” she said, one day, after an exposé of this
kind.
  “Why, how ’s that, Tops?” said her master,
who had been listening, quite amused.
  “Why, Miss Feely ’s boun’ to go, any way; so
they ’ll have me thar. Laws! Miss Feely ‘s so
curous they won’t none of ’em know how to wait
on her.”
(pg. 96)

The passage does not appear on page 50 of the two-volume Jewett edition (on Early American Fiction site).

Nor does it appear in the National Era version (see pg. 178, column A (top) in my dissertation edition).

Although I qualify my statement with “as far as I know,” I have checked—in addition to the National Era newspaper and the two-volume Jewett first edition—the illustrated edition and the Houghton Osgood New Edition (1879). Not one of those editions has this passage, so I surmise for now that it is unique to the paperback Edition for the Million. (Note: I also checked Opperman’s Kansas dissertation, and passage is not in early British editions).

UPDATE: After posting this, I thought in my mind that this surely does not end the story. So I decided to do a little follow-up. A version of the passage appears in Stowe’s dramatic adaptation for Mary Webb, The Christian Slave. Jake tells Topsy she’s bound to go to torment. Topsy insists that she’s bound to heaven, but Amanda joins in and seconds Jake’s assertion. Topsy’s responds: “Shall too! Miss Feely ‘s bound to go thar, and they ‘ll have to let me come too; cors she ‘s so curus they won’t nobody else know how to wait on her dar!” See Christian Slave, Act II, Scene VIII, on Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture at
http://www.iath.virginia.edu/utc/uncletom/xianslav/utplhbsaII8t.html

As for why no one has noticed, the “Million” editions are relatively rare in libraries for a book that was printed 10s of 1000s of times and a bit frustrating to locate given the variety of cataloging methods (post on identified copies coming soon). In any case, this passage is followed with Miss Ophelia’s effort to teach Topsy the catechism, which directly follows Topsy’s pluming of herself in the other versions. This alteration, to me, is stunning.

Since finding the alteration during the first week in November 2006, I’ve been attempting to think about what it means in context. One thing it means is that in this edition Topsy first imagines a route to heaven through her service to Miss Ophelia. Topsy’s doctrine for salvation has taken its cue from Miss Ophelia’s emphasis on order and neatness, and Topsy assumes that her mistress’s obsessions must represent a path to heaven. Topsy reasons that Miss Ophelia’s eternal happiness must depends on service that respects the woman’s peculiarities, and Topsy believes confidently that only she can provide the requisite level of service to Miss Ophelia. Indispensable service to a heaven-bound mistress is thus Topsy’s first plan for heaven. This plan is Topsy’s own invention, and in the Million edition it precedes Little Eva’s intercession. This step (in this Million edition only) precedes Topsy’s move toward Christian redemption on the basis of Eva’s unconditional love.

In this version of the text, Topsy is a reasoning being, whose interpretation of Christian doctrine is subversive and a biting critique of Miss Ophelia’s faults. The passage offers an alternate perspective on Topsy’s point of view, and her adoption of a Christian doctrine–that I assume even the mass readers would imagine is theologically faulty–marks the failure of Miss Ophelia’s effort to teach Topsy the way that she should go.

This post is an effort to interpret the significance of what I believe is an authorially revised version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the Million edition. I welcome feedback from anyone who would reject, question, or enrich my perspective on this alteration. Readers are also advised to consider Les Harrison’s comment below, which addresses Stowe’s response to Lyman Beecher’s religious doctrine.

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2 Responses to Harriet Beecher Stowe Revising Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Topsy in the Jewett Paperback

  1. Les Harrison says:

    Sorry for the late response to this interesting find.

    I’m struck by two things about this revision to the narrative of Topsy’s redemption:

    1. The nearness of the revision to H.J. Conway’s final disposition of Topsy in his adaptation of UTC which ran at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. In its original form, this version did not include little Eva, and so Topsy follows Miss Ophelia (renamed Aunty Vermont) back to New England where she becomes a domestic in her household. Both the Conway and paperback editions solve the problem posed by Topsy (and, here, its worth recalling Miss Ophelia’s original impulse to lock Topsy in the closet until she can figure out what to do with her) by “domesticating” her at the close of the tale.

    Tellingly, when the Conway version was revised to include the Little Eva storyline, and to bring it in line with the normative Aiken adaptation of the novel, Topsy is written out of the second half of the play (the audience is read a letter in which Topsy recounts her missionary work in Africa).

    2. In thinking about the satiric power of this revision, it seems as though there’s an interesting critique of old-school congregationalism here being made from the vantage point of evangelical/sentimental Christianity. Here, the version of heaven espoused by Topsy — a heaven which includes strict racial and, presumably, social hierarchies, could possibly be seen as a stand-in for the doctrinal religious views of Stowe’s father, Lyman Beecher.

    At the same time, Topsy’s passage also serves to assuage white angst over the place of spiritually and legally redeemed African Americans: separate but equal, on earth as it is in heaven. Here, Stowe and Conway would seem to be revising past one another as they revised the original, National Era text of UTC for larger and different audiences.

  2. wraabe says:

    Thanks very much for that avenue to more thought, Les. I’m already exploring plays on words for articles yet unwritten, “Separate but unequal, on heaven as it is on earth: Topsy’s faulty doctrine.” All that title needs is a few more apostrophes, brackets, and slashes.

    Wesley

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