‘At the heart of contemporary American fiction there is a failure of communication’

For Dorothy Allison’s River of Names – communication is a terrifying, fractured thing. The piece’s very title implies a torrent of words, a veritable outpouring of data that has merged into an incommunicable mass. This river – in its sheer speed and number of component names – has erased all sense of individuality.

This deficiency of identity is addressed from the opening paragraph as the narrator describes finding Tommy’s dead body. It is not the body the narrator finds first, but instead the body’s shadow, an ethereal remnant of a once-living person. His face too – the focal point of identity, the font of communication – is obliterated, ‘black’; a non-colour. We see the narrator deprived of the usual omnipresent powers of their privileged position, instead they can only resort to calling other characters ‘someone’ – like Tommy, they remain faceless, their names unknown. As Allison ends the paragraph, her mother is said to have ‘turned my eyes away’, depriving her of sight, removing a fundamental sensation, a means of receiving information.

This deprival of sight occurs again shortly later as the narrator lies in bed with Jesse – here though it takes on a more intimate nature. The irony though is that even in the most close, affectionate of settings, there is still a breakdown of basic communication. It is here, in the most direct manner of the entire passage that Allison addresses the issue: ‘I cannot say a word’. This juxtaposition of intimacy and failed communication is emphasised in the couple’s pillow-talk, Jesse pressing ‘her face against my ear, to whisper’ – even with this level of closeness, all that can be managed is a simple whisper, a pale, weak form of regular speech.

These juxtapositions are summed up best in the line ‘I do not want to remember and cannot forget’ – there is an awful sense of being stuck in limbo, between saying one thing and meaning another. The narrator is confined to the limitations of language, unable to fully express how they really feel. This ties in to how so many of the family members in the photos have been forgotten, they undoubtedly exist, but their names elude the tongue – as the narrator puts it: ‘The mystery is how many no one remembers’. Just as intimacy has become tainted by a failure of communication, so too has family – one by one the narration is transforming the most close of bonds into memories pierced by mystery and gaping blanks.

The awful reality of this is concluded in the finality of the sentence ‘They died and were not missed’. Here, death is the ultimate end; not just of life but of the memory of the person too – further elaborated on as she describes the deaths of various cousins, they ‘disappeared and were never found’. Any further communication regarding them fails; they become ‘multiplication tables’ – something cold, impersonal, mechanical. And just as the stories of these people are brought to a premature end, it is made clear that the narrator’s story will one day end too as she states she ‘will not have children’. There will be no one to continue her legacy, her story, communicate her life on to the next generation.

The theme of tainted intimacy again emerges in the narrator’s description of rape. The horrible intensity of the acts is summed up in one word ‘strangers’ – this most intimate of acts is perpetrated but unknowable men and the narrator is unable to offer more information; a greater number of words are even afforded to the location of the rape: ‘a parking lot’. The acts become even more terrible when dressed up in the formal reporting language of the newspapers: ‘persons unknown’. It is the overbearing weight of this unknown nature that places itself on Pammie, condemning her to ‘never [speak] again’ of the deeds. Even more terrible, this affliction of silence is contagious, spreading out to the narrator who confesses that these words in the newspapers are ‘too terrible to understand’. It is not just the act of communication that has been lost, but also comprehension.

This inability to express herself is highly ironic then when Jesse tells the narrator that ‘You’ve got a gift for words.’ In a piece that deals with problems of communicating properly, words do not feel like a gift, instead they appear as something intensely problematic, something that must be struggled with. This is addressed in the next line as the narrator seeks to actively avoid communication: ‘Don’t talk’, she says – the urgency stressed in the way this is not merely a request, but that the narrator ‘begs’. Again, communication is wrapped up in a tangled web of juxtaposition – Jesse believes the narrator is a skilled speaker, but the narrator is keen to avoid this, ending the conversation immediately. For her, true intimacy is ‘blessedly silent’. Of course, a further level of juxtaposition also exists; the fact that to express silence and end the communication, the narrator must communicate it within the text. It is perhaps only the finality of the full stop and the end of the paragraph that offers a real end to the communication.

Such is the extent to which communication fails in the piece that eventually even the narrator’s own identity is lost. Looking back over old photographs, the narrator wonders ‘Which one was I?’ – she can no longer recognise her own face. Here, even a seemingly infallible reproduction of life – a photo – has failed to communicate an image of the past. The questions continue: ‘Am I supposed to say something, do something, be something?’ – in a rapid-fire list of actions, speech is the first to fail, swiftly followed by action, and then the notion of ‘being’ entirely. Communication is not merely a process in its own right, but a component part of one’s whole, and with its removal, the narrator’s whole existence is damaged too.

This notion of communication – and more specifically language – being something highly elusive and changeable is made throughout the piece through the use of repetition. One instance of utterance is clearly not enough; phrases must be repeated twice for them to have effect: ‘Please, Daddy. Please, Daddy’, ‘Don’t talk… don’t talk’, ‘Hold Me. Hold Me’, ‘I love you. I love you.’, ’screams and screams’, We an’t no different. We an’t no different’. The repeated phrases come again and again, a river-like onslaught of words having to work doubly hard to leave an impression.

As dramatic as this constant repetition may appear on the page, it does not represent the climax of the failed communication in the piece. This comes in the usage of ‘screaming’. As the piece reaches its latter stages, the word appears more frequently; a wordless shout, no speech, just chaotic noise. We are not told what words constitute the screams, or how long they last – it is an uncontrollable sound, a raised volume of noise that washes over any other dialogue. As with the repetition, its effect is to overpower the reader, functioning like the river of the piece’s title to sweep them away.

Equally abrasive is the sheer lack of answers provided – while questions are plentiful in the piece, answers are less forthcoming. On page 20, seven questions in all are asked, but none are given a proper answer. Whether these are greeted with silence or we as readers are not privy to the answers provided is left open – not only is there are breakdown of communication between the questioner and the one being questioned, but there is a further breakdown in this information being conveyed to the reader. Even when an answer to a question is provided, it is hazy, indeterminate – Melvina talking of how many children she has: ‘Four… or eleven’.

This indeterminacy presents the scope for failed communication lapsing away into a kind of fiction. Where no accurate facts are provided, guesswork must take precedence. This is illustrated in Melvina’s answer, presenting two options – as with the unanswered questions and the ‘unknown’ rapists, we are given only half the story.

It is this elusive notion of truth that forms the crux of the piece’s final paragraph where the narrator reveals: ‘But I lie.’ Has everything written in the last few pages been completely false? Is some of it true, with some elements of fiction? It is impossible for us to know. In a cyclical manner, the first page of the piece also addresses lies, the narrator informing us there: ‘I lie to her the way I always do’ – here, communication has failed completely, every part of it is pure fabrication. But it could also be argued that if the lies are believed then this communication has actually succeeded, of sorts. Is the desire to carefully construct a fiction, a representation of truth, or is the narrator merely ‘making up words’? Does it, in fact, matter which?

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Discussing the way in which Uncle Tom’s Cabin deals with “Life among the Lowly”

Published in 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was in many ways a direct response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This act made it illegal to assist a runaway slave, adding further layers of oppression to an already oppressive system; as such, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel is not just a creation of narrative and characters, but a politically and morally motivated piece of rhetoric. It has a clear agenda writ into every page and stands not just as a piece of literature, but an important document of social change. By sub-titling the piece ‘life among the lowly’, Stowe taps into this theme, positioning the novel as actively engaged with a genuine issue of the age.

In the 19th century, the ‘lowly’ represented a genuinely significant proportion of the American populace – the number of blacks involved in slavery was huge, with the number doubling every thirty years from 1808 onwards. Slaves lived through horrific conditions on the plantations and officials in the South such as James De Bow were determined that they were not even considered a true part of the American populace. Instead, slaves were treated more like property, something which could change hands in exchange for money.

The economics of slavery are addressed early in Uncle Tom’s cabin as Shelby deals with a slave trader. The slaves are generalised into a faceless entity by the trader: ‘They fetch a good price’, further dehumanised when he claims ‘these critters ain’t like white folks’. The language is grossly dehumanising, reducing the slaves into something less than human. Family bonds are irrelevant to the trader – Stowe is clear to highlight how slavery forces families apart and causes, in some cases, almost irreparable damage to the normal upbringing of a child.

This is best shown in the character of Topsy, who, bought by St. Clare, is described as ‘one child, who is a specimen of thousands among us’. Topsy is not just an isolated case but an example of a social trend present across America. Topsy steals, lies and is generally badly behaved in the St. Clare household – Jim O’Loughlin comments:

‘What was unique was Stowe’s conflation of the wild child with the slave child. This act of articulation made a particular political use of the wild child trope by literally making slavery responsible for an ongoing concern of white, middle-class America, the motherless child in an economically uncertain world’.

Topsy ultimately only changes her ways through the influence of Eva – Stowe’s politically-focused portrait of slave life is of something damaged, incomplete – it is only through intervention that it can be fixed.

This plays into another central theme of the lives of the characters in the novel – Christianity. The religion forms a crucial part of Stowe’s argument; Eva’s ardent Christianity, as well as that of Tom, positions them as personas that can be better empathised with by the predominantly Christian readership of the time – whether white or black, the religion acts as a unifying concept. The lives of slaves such as Tom and Topsy may be lowly, but their Christianity, their faith, offers them a glimpse of something better – sustaining them through hardship.

This point is illustrated best in George’s impassioned speech to Mr. Wilson:

‘Look at me, now. Don’t I sit before you, every way, just as much a man as you are? Why am I not a man, as much as anybody?’

This is not just George’s speech, but Stowe’s own voice operating through him – she argues for the universality of slaves and non-slaves, that every man and woman is actually the same, regardless of skin colour. If characters like George and Tom are ‘lowly’, then by association, white slave-owners must also be lowly for allowing this oppressive situation to continue.

When considering the oppositions of race within Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it is also important to establish the oppositions of gender and Stowe’s status as both author and woman. Through characters like Mrs. Shelby, Stowe is able to position the female sex as a kind of counterpoint to the black slaves – both are, to varying degrees, oppressed by white males. Thus, Stowe enables Mrs. Shelby, casting her in a role of privileged knowledge, able to better perceive the nature of the ‘lowly’ world of the slaves.

Early in the novel, Mrs. Shelby enquires: ‘Why, Eliza, child, what ails you?’ She is the voice of concern, highly perceptive to Eliza’s worries. Contrasted with the male figures in the book, the female character is positioned alongside blacks, able to assist and show compassion to them.

Where the women hold the most power is morally – Stowe emphasises a particular sanctity to them. This is highlighted in Eva, the model Christian – speaking to St. Clare of heaven, she says: ‘our Saviour’s home; it’s so sweet and peaceful there – it is all loving there’. Here, an ‘all loving’ world is posited as the ideal, a stark contrast to the ingrained racism of the real America. In Eva’s speeches, she is given a kind of instant-access relationship with heaven, presenting Stowe’s views of what Christianity should represent to the reader.

In Eva – a child – is a representation of the future; she is the next generation. Despite her young age, she is shown to have fundamentally grasped the ideals Stowe endorses. However, it is through her death that the strongest message is sent – these ideals are fragile, and without protection and cultivation, they will falter – America will remain locked in its oppression of the lowly.

Critic Otto Holsen depicts the status quo of the time in his piece ‘The extent of slave ownership in the southern United States’:

‘White racism was, of course, essential to the existence and preservation of this economic opportunity for whites, and it is important to recognize just how many southern whites had an economic interest in the development, propagation, and acceptance of racism within the South’

Slavery was not just in existence, but actively being preserved by means of racist white logic that it was an essential part of the economy. Stowe argues that it is not with logic that slavery must be considered, but with the heart – it is on seeing Tom’s death that George Shelby is so greatly affected as to set the other slaves free.

Contrasts like these provide a core part of Stowe’s rhetoric, her persuasion. Throughout the book we are presented both private and public spheres of life. As author, Stowe is selective in what scenes she presents to us in detail, and which she can summarise at a distance. When Tom is beaten by Legree, the build-up to the violence is presented as dialogue, but the actual deed itself is not explicitly shown – here, Stowe switches to a far more oratorical style: ‘scenes of blood and cruelty are shocking to our ear and heart. What man has nerve to do, man has not nerve to hear’.

By using the words ‘our’ and ‘man’, Stowe addresses not just the immediate reader, but a readership at large. The novel’s sub-title is not ‘life of the lowly’, but ‘life among the lowly’, and this all-inclusive language places the reader in direct contact with the narrative. The switch between Legree’s thickly accented insults to Stowe’s own sermon-like narration is deliberately jarring – it places ‘realistic’ scenes next to high religious debates where Stowe is free to argue her point, adding a philosophical tone to the book. Stowe is the mouthpiece, providing a voice for the lowly and oppressed.

As a character, Uncle Tom’s iconic nature has even given rise to the use of the phrase ‘an uncle tom’ to describe someone as overly obedient and servile. It can certainly be argued that, at times, Tom is meek, subordinate – yet he is also undeniably strong-willed, refusing to reveal the location of the escaped slaves to Legree. This presents a dichotomy: can a slave be both meek and strong, at once? Just as with Frederick Douglass’s, Narrative of the life – an American Slave, Stowe poses the question: can one truly be an American slave? To be an American is to be free, yet to be a slave is to be possessed – each cancels out the other. Stowe’s sub-title contains within it another similar concept – is the life of the lowly any kind of ‘life’ at all? In Tom’s martyrdom, we see the answer: to him, freedom for his fellow slaves is more important than his own life.

Ultimately, it is the novel’s popularity that stands as the greatest testament to Stowe’s dealing with slavery. Was the portrayal of life she depicted realistic? In a way, this does not matter – people bought into her world in their masses, and with Stowe’s injection of her anti-slavery message in every chapter, that message was undeniably conveyed. Uncle Tom is merely a literary character, but in their reading of Stowe’s novel, every reader gives life to his situation – he is the fictional form depicting real issues.

Bibliography

  1. Jones, Maldwyn, The Limits of Liberty: American History 1607-1992 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)

Beecher Stowe, Harriet, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (London: Penguin Classics, 1981)

De Bow, James, The interest in slavery of the southern non-slaveholder (Charleston: Evans & Cogswell Press, 1860)

McPherson, James Munro, Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)

O’Loughlin, Jim, ‘Articulating Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, New Literary History, Vol. 31, No. 3 (2000)

Olsen, Otto, ‘The extent of slave ownership in the Southern United States’, Southern History [http://www.southernhistory.net/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=9406&mode=thread&order=0&thold=0]

Winship, Michael, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin: History of the Book in the 19th-Century United States’, American Culture Project [http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/interpret/exhibits/winship/winship.html]