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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1 Response to Tormenting People in Two Sketches

  1. Pingback: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Pastiche Writing Assignment: William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with John Milton’s Comus and Lycidas | Fill His Head First with a Thousand Questions

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