Barter on Yothers, 'Reading Abolition: The Critical Reception of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass'

Author: 
Brian Yothers
Reviewer: 
Faith Barter

Brian Yothers. Reading Abolition: The Critical Reception of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass. Studies in American Literature and Culture: Literary Criticism in Perspective Series. Rochester: Camden House, 2016. 200 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57113-577-3.

Reviewed by Faith Barter (Vanderbilt University) Published on H-Early-America (April, 2018) Commissioned by Joshua J. Jeffers (Middle Tennessee State University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51134

In Reading Abolition: The Critical Reception of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass, Brian Yothers offers an impressive history of the critical context for two of American literature’s most widely read nineteenth-century authors. Yothers is the editor for the Studies in American Literature and Culture: Literary Criticism in Perspective series in which Reading Abolition appears. A meta-perspective on literary criticism animates the series, which offers critical histories of important but frequently neglected writers. Reading Abolition likewise proceeds from an interest in Stowe and Douglass as major figures in American literature, while simultaneously examining the ways in which the literary criticism of each writer has tended to contribute to their occasional marginalization. In Stowe’s case, Yothers argues, critics have overlooked her literary contributions for several different reasons. In some historical moments, women’s writing was overlooked in general, rendering Stowe’s oeuvre invisible or under-studied. In the first half of the twentieth century, Yothers claims, attention to the racial stereotypes and politics of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) dominated other critiques of Stowe’s work. In the case of Douglass, Yothers argues that scholars have only turned to literary criticism as a mode of engagement relatively recently. For much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scholars regarded Douglass primarily as a historical figure ripe for biographical examination, rather than as an author. For Yothers, as notions of canonicity and authorship have evolved, Douglass has entered literary criticism as an authorial subject as opposed to merely a historical one. Framed as an exploration of how critical studies accrue around these two abolitionist writers, Yothers predicates his joinder of these two writers on what he considers a shared tradition of scholarly neglect and misreading. While the book explores each author in depth, generating suggestions of interconnected textual afterlives, there is little time spent discussing their reception in terms of one another specifically. The book’s greatest contribution is perhaps the work it does to record the nuances of canon building, particularly around the ways that marginalized authors and texts move in and out of canons.

Reading Abolition offers a comprehensive history of the reception of these authors’ works, balancing early archival research with contemporary critical studies. The book’s first, and largest, section concerns the critical reception of Stowe’s best-known work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, tracing the footprint of this sentimental abolitionist novel in critical studies from its original publication into the twenty-first century. In an effort to recuperate Stowe in light of twentieth-century criticisms that called attention to the problematic racial politics and stereotyping in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Yothers examines the novel’s enormous popularity and cultural significance in the context of what he reads as its eventual neglect in the American canon. While taking seriously the criticism of James Baldwin and others, Yothers focuses instead on what he describes as Stowe’s literary “genius,” and he reads the twenty-first-century interest in Uncle Tom’s Cabin as evidence of a revival of Stowe’s narrative talents. This section also contains a chapter on the reception of Stowe’s other works, adding depth to an already comprehensive study of Stowe’s place in the nineteenth-century American canon.

Section 2 offers a similar study of the critical reception of Douglass’s works. Paralleling the section on Stowe, Yothers devotes part of this section to Douglass’s best-known texts, his autobiographies, as well as a separate chapter on the reception of Douglass’s broader oeuvre, including antislavery speeches and journalism. Yothers argues that Douglass moves within the American canon from historical figure to author. He demonstrates how early scholarship on Douglass tended toward the more biographical and historical; over time, that scholarship has increasingly favored the literary dimensions of Douglass’s oeuvre. That shift, argues Yothers, marks Douglass’s critical transformation from historical subject to author.

Reading Abolition offers an impressively researched history of the literary reception of Stowe and Douglass, historicizing their constantly shifting places in American literature. Despite the book’s title, it focuses less on abolitionist literature and more on Douglass and Stowe as individual writers working from an abolitionist perspective. In a brief epilogue, Yothers speculates that each writer offers as yet unexplored critical possibilities for scholars, particularly with their lesser-known works. While the book supplies a thorough and richly contextualized study of each writer individually, it would nevertheless benefit from a more considered examination of the different stakes of white and black abolitionist writing and a deeper interrogation of what it means to pair these two writers together. Given how skillfully the book elucidates the literary and cultural networks of Douglass and Stowe, as well as how these networks reverberated in critical studies over the subsequent decades, a reader might ultimately wonder about the basis for pairing these writers in the first place.

One of Yothers’s more noteworthy claims in this section includes his observation of critics’ tendency to pair Douglass with other canonical writers such as Herman Melville or Edgar Allan Poe. While Yothers does not explicitly connect that tendency with this book’s pairing of Douglass and Stowe, the book here raises important questions about the terms on which Douglass enters critical literary and theoretical conversations in the first place. While Yothers does not explicitly explore these questions, the attention to these pairings causes a reader to wonder whether the whiteness of writers like Melville and Poe have served as legitimizing or authorizing gestures needed to warrant Douglass’s consideration in his own right in moments when the canon of American literature was considered closed to non-white, non-male authors. Yothers’s broader argument about Douglass’s gradual transformation into literary figure and author tends to support that notion; as critics began to take Douglass more seriously as author, and to broaden their views of canonicity, it stands to reason that their work would no longer need to pair him with white writers. That trajectory, however, also raises the question of why Yothers pairs Douglass with Stowe in this particular project. While Yothers does not make a claim that Stowe’s presence somehow legitimizes Douglass’s, the book does devote considerably more space and attention to Stowe.

Perhaps because the book reads Stowe as a forgotten writer later rediscovered by several critical trends, Reading Abolition feels most committed to a recuperative reading of Stowe’s racial politics and an instantiation of her work alongside the most revered American literary texts. The book’s investment in the rhetoric of Stowe’s “literary genius” is occasionally a troubling substitute for a more nuanced critique of her white abolitionist politics. The use of the language of genius is often distracting as a term that signifies along value determinations without specifying its critical or formal underpinnings. What is a literary genius, the reader wonders? And is “genius” a scholarly category that literary critics should be invested in protecting? To these points, it feels unnecessary to argue for Stowe’s literary genius as somehow overcoming her politics; after all, one need not erase what is undeniably problematic about the racial politics of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in order to praise what Stowe does there and elsewhere to popularize both women’s and religious writing. At times, the reader gets the feeling that the book recasts legitimate critiques of Stowe as examples of critical neglect—a characterization that the book’s otherwise impressive archival history tends to undermine. In comparison to the over-consideration of Stowe’s intentions and craft, by contrast, the book occasionally feels under-invested in Douglass, who occupies only about one-third of the book’s total pages.

Despite these questions about the book’s larger stakes, it is nevertheless a rich and wide-ranging text that manages a valuable meta-narrative about the formation of the American literary canon by using Douglass and Stowe as illustrative case studies. This aspect of Reading Abolition is truly fascinating, and it affords a rich bibliography of scholarship on nineteenth-century literature more generally. Reading Abolition would make especially good reading for graduate students, as it offers a rare combination of coverage along several metrics: field, author, historical period, and archival history. Among its more impressive contributions is its ability to put these long critical histories into conversation with each other, offering the reader a sense of how criticism itself has both history and narrative. 

Citation: Faith Barter. Review of Yothers, Brian, Reading Abolition: The Critical Reception of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. April, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51134

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.