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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