16 November, 2008

Jolly exciting, all this!

Going back to what I was saying last night:

Essentially, Stowe's argument is that slavery dehumanizes people by treating them like "isolated selves", as though they were individual pawns to be separated from ties of family and friends at the whim of their masters. There is no recognition in law of their personal identity in terms of their family or larger community. You see this in her constant centering of the plot around various types of homes: we start in the "ideal" slave-owning household where the slaves are treated with incredible kindness by their owners. The lack of respect in law for their community however results in Uncle Tom and Eliza (for her son's sake) being torn from this community in order to satisfy his master's debts. The first dozen chapters end with Eliza arriving safely at the idyllic Quaker home in the north. The second dozen follow Uncle Tom south to where we find Eva, a sort of symbol of purity in the midst of the deep south, saddened by the sin of her own home and longing for an eternal one. Finally we have the tragic scene where Uncle Tom is killed yet dies a freer man than any of his murderers because he has held on to the one community - the Christian (real Christian) community that no earthly law can rob him of.

This is all pretty evident from even the most brief summary. The real controversy remains whether this is at all what Douglass and Jacobs are trying to say. (Fortunately we only have to deal in detail with Douglass for the paper - if we had to treat Jacobs too, this really could get to dissertation length.) Just as with Stowe's book, Douglass's argument becomes much more apparent if you start by looking at it from a more architectonic standpoint. Chapter 1 opens with Douglass' regrets that he knows neither his birthday nor his father nor his mother. Chapter 2 centers around his lack of a home and on the slaves' innate attraction to the idea of the "Great House Farm" which will be not just their master's but theirs as well. In chapter 3 we get an account of his inability to live the way he wishes to - not just of his lack of independence to do whatever he feels like, but of his freedom to live well: he speaks of how slavery creates a disjunct between the "thoughts of the heart" and one's moral obligations, and what the slaves must in fact say and do. They are forced to lie, to ignore familial bonds, to keep their own self-interest at the forefront of their minds if they are to survive at all. The introduction of the overseer in the fourth chapter and accounts of killings perpetrated by him and his ilk for which the slaves have no hope of legal redress emphasize the lack of protection in law for their community. (Isn't this cool stuff?) Finally, in chapter five and following, Douglass learns to read. This reintroduces him to a community, gives him a notion of it that in turn gives him the courage to claim his freedom. Once able to read he has "reached the period in [his] life when [he] can give dates"; he receives a new set of "fathers" in the figures of the Founding Fathers and others whose writings educate him in a sense of his humanity; in the language of scripture, he receives a new mother tongue. When he finally has this new sense of community (sense of time, forebears, church), of where he belongs as an individual in relation to other people, he fights to preserve it.

So that's the idea, more or less, from an architectonic point of view. Seven pages will leave plenty of room for explicit quotations and so forth, which will be fun.

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