Reading the word : Harriet Beecher Stowe and interpretation

Smith, Gail Katherine, English, University of Virginia
Levin, David, English, University of Virginia
Lott, Eric, English, University of Virginia

Harriet Beecher Stowe's work has experienced a renaissance in literary studies in the last decade. Yet despite their renewed attention to Stowe, critics have largely ignored what I consider a central concern in Stowe's writing: hermeneutics, the interpretation of sacred and secular authoritative texts. In many recent analyses, Stowe often seems little different from evangelical sentimental writers like Susan Warner and Maria Cummins. Given her unique place as a member of the Beecher family, however, and her familiarity with theological subtleties and controversies, Stowe's place in literary history is in fact quite different from that of other evangelical sentimental writers. Although Catharine Sedgwick and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, for instance, occasionally wrestle with issues of interpretation and the place of the Bible, they do not approach Stowe's constant preoccupation with questions of textual authority, inspiration, and interpretation. Stowe's work takes shape amid an explosion of conflict over the interpretation of the Bible, as well as political documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the law, with most of these interpretive conflicts centering at first on the question of slavery. Stowe's fiction and nonfiction reveal her as a thoughtful reader of the word, one who wrestles with and represents in her work the problem of interpreting texts--most especially the Bible, but also the secular, political documents which shape the American republic.
Stowe's concerns, then, match in many ways those of the "classic" American Renaissance writers. Even more explicitly than her contemporaries Melville, Emerson, Hawthorne, Poe, and Thoreau, Stowe was profoundly concerned with the problem of reading to determine truth and highly conscious of her own entanglement in the complex relations among author, text, and reader. Sacvan Bercovitch, Jonathan Arac, and Myra Jehien have written extensively on the uses of interpretation in Hawthorne and Melville, with The Scarlet Letter becoming something of a sacred text in the ongoing debate on the relation between nineteenth-century American literature and the politics of interpretation. I argue that Stowe belongs at the center of this discussion. Over the course of a 45-year career, from her first published piece, "Modern Uses of Language" (1833), to her late study, Woman in Sacred History (1873), Stowe works through problems of authorship, the status of textual truth, and the role of the reader. In her own deliberate use of language, and in her characters' methods of reading, Stowe demonstrates the difficulties involved in reading the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, or the law to determine truth. In her fiction and nonfiction, Stowe forces her readers to participate in the hermeneutic conflicts she saw sundering America.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
hermeneutics, evangelical, sentimental writers, textual interpretation, nineteenth century
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