“A whole, perfect thing”: Sibling Bonds and Anti-slavery Politics in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred

  • Emily E. VanDette


The striking parallels and contrasts between the careers of Hentz and Stowe are legendary: both authors hailed from Massachusetts, were married to unsuccessful men, and moved to Cincinnati and joined the same literary circle in the same year, 1832. Each would proceed to become the leading literary voice of the opposing positions in the slavery debate, each woman authoring the most famous novel to represent her side of the controversy.1 Given the compelling doubling of their literary, personal, and political identities, it is all the more fascinating and meaningful that the device of sibling romance, the appeal, conundrum, and intrigue of lateral devotion and attachment, should surface, almost simultaneously, in the fiction of these contrary writers, who themselves represent a sort of conflicted lateral relationship. Coinciding with the 1856 publication of Hentz’s novel of sibling love and violence, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s second abolitionist novel, Dred, would also seize upon the psychological and social implications of enmeshed sibling attachments, only Stowe would put the intricacies and contradictions of lateral dynamics to the service of a far more overt political agenda. If the sibling bond proved to be an apt mode for Sedgwick, Simms, and Kennedy to imagine civic kinship amid the threat to the Union during the Nullification Crisis, it would continue to have salience for American writers grappling with conflicting categories of national, racial, and civic relatedness as the abolitionist debate gained momentum in the years leading up to the Civil War.


Sibling Pair Biological Family Slave Status Marriage Choice Brotherly Love 
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  1. 1.
    Katherine Adams connects Hentz and Stowe in her chapter, “Harriet Beecher Stowe, Caroline Lee Hentz, Herman Melville, and American Racialist Exceptionalism” in A Companion to American Fiction 1780–1865, edited by S. Samuels (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007). Also, see Amy Elizabeth Cummins, A Common School: Models of Instruction in the United States Common School Movement and the 1850s Literature of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Caroline Lee Hentz, Fanny Fern, and Mary Jane Holmes (PhD Dissertation, University of Kansas, 2004).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Beyond this well-known motto, an idea credited to Josiah Wedgewood (c. 1787) and most famously evoked in the broadsides of anti-slavery poet and activist John Greenleaf Whittier in the 1830s, the appeal to brotherhood was one of the most prevalent devices of abolitionist discourse. In 1843, Rev. Steven S. Foster famously evoked the concept Christian brotherhood in his controversial abolitionist manifesto against American clergy, The Brotherhood of Thieves, or, A True Picture of the American Church and Clergy. On the concept of “brotherhood” as a vital “fighting word” for the development of Black-centered abolitionist discourse, see Timothy Shortell, “The Rhetoric of Black Abolitionism,” Social Science History 28.1 (spring 2004): 75–109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Cindy Weinstein contributes a much-needed analysis of the contrasting sen-timentalism in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its pro-slavery responses, but assertions about the “progressive politics of [Stowe’s] abolitionism” and the “progressive force” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s sympathetic appeals (67) somewhat overstate Stowe’s liberalism, even within nineteenth-century contexts. Cindy Weinsten, Family, Kinship, and Sympathy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    In addition to Weinstein, on the importance of reading Stowe within her historical context, see Susan Ryan, “Charity Begins at Home: Stowe’s Antislavery Novels and the Forms of Benevolent Citizenship,” American Literature 72 (2000): 751–782, maintains the importance of historical context for understanding Stowe.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Acknowledging that “Stowe’s moral and racial politics should be histori-cized more thoroughly” (751), Ryan interprets the interracial politics of Dred through the linkage between national citizenship and benevolence in antebellum America. And, in another important effort to free the novel from beneath the shadow of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Gail K. Smith exposes the politics of reading and interpretation, which is a theme that moves beyond, while couched in, abolitionism. Gail K. Smith, “Reading with the Other: Hermeneutics and the Politics of Difference in Stowe’s Dred,” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 69.2 (1997): 289–313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    The significance of the mother figures in Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been well established, most prominently by Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790–1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985)Google Scholar
  7. and by Elizabeth Ammons, “Stowe’s Dream of the Mother-Savior: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Women Writers Before the 1920s” in New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, edited by Eric J. Sundquist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  8. Other studies that explore the rhetorical significance of motherhood and family themes throughout the novel include the following: Myra Jehlen, “The Family Militant: Domesticity Versus Slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Criticism XXXI.4 (Fall 1989): 383–400;Google Scholar
  9. Carle E. Krog, “Women, Slaves, and Family in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Symbolic Battleground in Antebellum America,” Midwest Quarterly 31.2 (Winter 1990): 252–269;Google Scholar
  10. S. Bradley Shaw, “The Pliable Rhetoric of Domesticity” and Susan L. Roberson, “Matriarchy and the Rhetoric of Domesticity,” both in The Stowe Debate: Rhetorical Strategies in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, edited by Mason Lowance, Jr., Ellen E. Westbrook, and R. C. De Prospo (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994).Google Scholar
  11. 7.
    Moss examines McIntosh’s The Lofty and the Lowly as an attempt to preserve Southern domesticity. Elizabeth Moss, Domestic Novelists in the Old South: Defenders of Southern Culture (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992), 92–98. Jordan-Lake revisits the novel as a product and agent of Southern patriarchy.Google Scholar
  12. Joy Jordan-Lake, Whitewashing Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Nineteenth-Century Women Novelists Respond to Stowe (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2005), 120, 139.Google Scholar
  13. 9.
    C. Dallett Hemphill, Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) is the definitive new source of this cultural history.Google Scholar
  14. See also E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: Harper, 1993);Google Scholar
  15. and Steven Mintz, A Prison of Expectations: The Family in Victorian Culture (New York: New York University Press, 1985).Google Scholar

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© Emily E. VanDette 2013

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  • Emily E. VanDette

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