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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Show and Tell at the Stowe Center

On March 8, I had a blast doing a "show and tell" presentation of Uncle Tom's Cabin material culture at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut.

The Stowe Center was central to the process of writing Racial Innocence: about a decade ago, when the book was just starting to germinate, I visited the Stowe Center. There, Dawn Adiletta, then a Stowe Center curator, generously spent a couple of hours talking with me about the material goods, from statuettes to tableware to textiles to paper ephemera, that depicted characters from Stowe's novel and that hit U.S. and European marketplaces in an avalanche in the 1850s. As Dawn and I talked, I felt like I understood most of what I saw: I understood why someone would want a teacup or a jigsaw puzzle depicting characters from Uncle Tom's Cabin. But then, one item stopped me in my tracks: an 1852/1853 handkerchief depicting Little Eva and Uncle Tom reading the Bible in the arbor.

I couldn't understand this object. "Would someone actually blow their nose in this?" I asked Dawn. She assured me that the handkerchief would not have been put to such blasphemous use. "Oh, no," she said, "this handkerchief was 'for show, not blow.'"

"OK," I said. "I understand why someone wouldn't blow their nose in it. But what would someone do with it?" And we were both perplexed. Neither of us could quite imagine how this handkerchief would have been used. The question troubled me for years, because I knew that if I didn't understand the handkerchief in use, then I didn't understand the handkerchief itself, and I was therefore missing some key understanding of how Uncle Tom's Cabin functioned as material culture. Much later, when I read Claire Parfait's excellent book, The Publishing History of Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852–2002, I learned that John P. Jewett, the first American publisher of Stowe's novel, had invested significant labor and expense in creating the handkerchief, which he reissued several times. Jewett commissioned Hammatt Billings to create the engraving of Tom and Eva in the arbor, he commissioned John Greenleaf Whittier to write a poem about Little Eva and her death, and he hired Manuel Emilio to set the poem to music. Then he hired a printer to put all these elements together on a handkerchief. But after all that effort, Jewett seems not to have sold the handkerchief, but instead to have given it away--quite possibly to customers who had already bought Uncle Tom's Cabin. This deepened the mystery for me: why did Jewett work so hard, and spend so much money, to create something that generated no income--and whose use was so unclear to me?

Meanwhile, I was developing a theory of how material things prompt, invite, or "script" their own use (I write about "scriptive things" in Racial Innocence and also in an article in Social Text, and I explain my key ideas in an interview with the Association for Theatre in Higher Education). So one day it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps the Jewett handkerchief could tell me how to use it. So I looked again. And there was my answer, plain as day:

The first line of Whittier's poem answers my question in the imperative: "Dry the tears for holy Eva!" Whittier's poem, Billings's image of Eva predicting her own death, Emilio's hymnlike music, and the material properties of the handkerchief all combined to invite the user to weep and then to use the handkerchief to dab the tears--those treasured signs of nineteenth-century sentiment. (For a discussion of why the handkerchief's prompt toward weeping and tear-drying matters politically and culturally, see pp. 8-13 of Racial Innocence.)

This handkerchief, then, inspired some of the key theoretical moves in Racial Innocence. And the Stowe Center was the place where that journey began. So it was, to say the least, a deep pleasure and honor to return to the Stowe Center to discuss material culture.

When Katherine Kane, the Stowe Center's Executive Director, invited me to speak, I proposed to do a "show and tell" rather than read a paper. Katherine, Program Coordinators Sonya Green and Amanda Roy, Director of Education & Visitor Services Shannon Burke, and especially Collections Manager Beth Burgess all made this event possible.

Amanda Roy, me, and Beth Burgess

Together, Beth and I chose an amazing set of items from the Stowe Center's archive, and Beth made all these items available to the public.

Here you can see paper items: an 1850s American card game, a German card and dice game, and figures for a "toy theatre" that was a popular plaything in the nineteenth century.

Here are some Staffordshire figurines and different editions of Uncle Tom's Cabin, all of which I discuss at length in Racial Innocence. You can see the edge of the Jewett handkerchief in the lower right hand corner of this photo. (By the way, if you'd like to see more Uncle Tom's Cabin artifacts, check out the "Tomitudes" page of the fantastic University of Virginia website, Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture.)

Beth and Amanda kindly carried the items into the audience so people could see everything close up:

I can't offer enough thanks to Beth and the entire Stowe Center staff for making these rare items available to the public for this event. Thanks also to a wonderful audience (including some members of my family!) that asked super questions. The material culture of Uncle Tom's Cabin is an amazing window into the intersection of consumer culture with both racial justice and racial oppression. By understanding the ways in which quotidian household items invite physical engagement, we can understand how our everyday lives connect to the broadest and most urgent of political stakes.

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