A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Uncle Tom's Cabin Turns 160

Harriet Beecher Stowe Center Yesterday marked the 160th anniversary of the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the best-selling book (in the world!) in the 19th century. Although Harriet Beecher Stowe composed most of the novel while living in Brunswick, Maine, she spent the last 23 years of her life in Hartford, Connecticut, in an interesting community called Nook Farm, which today houses a vibrant Center dedicated to her life and work. Hartford's Stowe Center commemorated this 160th anniversary with a twenty-four-hour reading of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and I was a participant.

A group reading of this sort takes you straight back to junior high. Remember the whole class having to read aloud from a textbook by turns? Your stomach twisting with dread as you page ahead in the text, trying to estimate where your turn will fall? Will you get a word you can't pronounce? An embarassing word like "breast?" A passage where you have to sing? Will you lose your place, miss your cue, stutter, sniffle, burp?

Uncle Tom's Cabin contains a lot of dialect, Southern dialect at that. While I waited for my turn, I listened to a poor woman struggling through this: "Dat ar was conscience, Andy; when I thought of gwine arter Lizy, I railly spected Mas'r was sot dat way. When I found Missis was sot the contrar, dat ar was conscience more yet,—cause fellers allers gets more by stickin' to Missis' side,—so yer see I 's persistent either way, and sticks up to conscience, and holds on to principles."

The reader directly before me read in Swedish, foiling my attempts to predict where I would end up. I tried in vain to follow along in my English-language version. Years of confident lecturing in front of university classrooms evaporated and I was right back in junior high. It didn't help that cameras were rolling.

I was fortunate. I got the beginning of Chapter IX, in which Senator Bird and his wife discuss the morality of the Fugitive Slave Law which is being debated in the legislature. Mary Bird is gentle, sympathetic, and valiant, and Stowe puts her own Christian and abolitionist views into the good woman's dialogue. (That's "dialogue," not "dialect!") The trickiest word I got was "forte," which I happen to know has only one syllable. Before I knew it, I was saved by the bell.

Afterwards, I was cocky enough to agree to share my impressions of the experience in front of yet another camera. Who knows where that footage will end up? But anyway. It was the least I could do for Harriet. If you haven't read her book at all, or lately, you really should. Sentimental, yes. Stereotyped? Maybe--although it could be argued that she simply created individual characters so memorable that they then became stereotypes. In any case, legend has it that Abraham Lincoln called her "the little woman who wrote the book that started [the Civil] war." Not bad for a housewife and mother of seven kids, frustrated because women weren't allowed to become preachers, scribbling her thoughts instead on the back of brown paper bags.

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