The word made exhibition: Protestant reading meets Catholic worship in Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Gates Ajar.
Certainly both Stowe and Phelps are possessed of impeccable Protestant credentials. Stowe was daughter and sister, respectively, to prominent clergymen Lyman and Henry Ward Beecher; Phelps was raised in a family of two generations of Andover seminarians. Stowe's Protestant influences have been persuasively and extensively tracked, as have Phelps's. (1) But Stowe developed a robust, if vexed, relationship with Catholicism. Jenny Franchot argues that in writing Agnes of Sorrento ten years after Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe "Catholicize[s] her narrative" on the rhetorical level "by imitating the liturgical practices celebrated by the plot" (250). Anthony E. Szczesiul finds that in her religious poetry "Stowe openly expresses a desire for the 'imagistic' tradition of Catholicism--the sights, smells, and sounds of Catholic ritual' and he argues that Stowe portrays Eva and Tom according to specifically Catholic conventions of sainthood (par. 13). Little Eva is an evangelist, certainly, but a Catholic one. In Phelps's novel, characters openly voice appreciation for Catholicism. The hero of The Gates Ajar, Winifred Forceythe, worries, "In our recoil from the materialism of the Romish Church, we have, it seems to me, nearly stranded ourselves on the opposite shore" (110). Winifred's daughter Faith kisses a portrait of her dead father nightly, as if it were an icon, an act of devotion that startles the narrator Mary when she first sees it.
Wanting to win their readers to the abolitionist cause or to console them for the losses of the Civil War, Stowe and Phelps act as both novelists and practical theologians. They take it that reading can save the soul, a foundational Protestant view that inspires their projects as authors. But the reading they imagine goes against the grain of Protestant injunctions to sit alone and pore over the pages. Reading is instead a communal and emotional, a visual and almost tactile, experience. (2) In this way, Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Gates Ajar attempt to find a middle ground between competing models of human contact with God: private reading that goes deep between the lines, or a public sacrament that relies on the sharable, visual, and material. The interpretation of texts that is key to Protestant devotion begins, in their hands, to resemble Catholic worship. This holds both for the kind of reading Stowe and Phelps portray in their fiction and for the kind of reading their fiction aims to generate in its own readers.
The theological debate that informed Stowe's and Phelps'S. fictional practice was frequently cast in terms of surface and depth, especially by Protestant commentators, whose faith in the Bible's salvific potential demanded a specifically deep reading. The Massachusetts Sabbath School Society published a guide to Bible interpretation urging believers to read beneath the surface. Ordinary reading, as of "a common book" or newspaper, would fail to attain the proper depth; at best the reader would "gather up, perhaps, a few fragments that lie upon the surface" (52). The ideal reading, by contrast, would feel more like diving into dark water and finding a gem: "As by steadily and intently gazing into waters which at first appear dark and fathomless, you by degrees penetrate their depths, and see the lost jewel that lies at the bottom, so by dwelling with earnest meditation upon the deep things of God, light comes to the mental eye" (55). The reward for such reading-as-diving was the reader's penetration to the deepest level of the text, where its true meaning hid, and an illuminating merge with the spirit of the text. By "endeavor[ing] to find the treasure which is there hidden from the world," good readers might "be penetrated and filled with the spirit and life of the Divine word" (56). Deep reading, at its best, would spiritually incorporate the word and afford contact with that word's author, God. The promise that reading might, by penetrating to the depths of the text, fill a reader with divine life effectively elevated it to the level of a sacrament.
As the review in La Civilta Cattolica makes clear, this implicit claim to sacramentality was, from the Catholic view, precisely the problem. Catholic doctrine held that while reading the Bible might be salutary, it could not be the instrument of grace, because no text could deliver the spirit and presence of its author. "Christ alone can make men Christians," the Catholic World, an American monthly, reminded its readers: "And no account of Christ is Christ. ... [N]obody nowadays needs to be told that the contents of a book, whatever these may be, are powerless to place its readers in direct contact and vital relations with its author. ... All effort is in vain to ... stop the cravings of a soul for .the living Saviour with a printed book!" ("Protestantism versus the Church" 4). Here the Protestant argument for deep reading is refuted on its own terms: There is no possibility of standing within a book, or of spiritual communion with its author. The notion that some deep reality lies in wait beneath the surface of the printed page is a fantasy. Rather than charge the reader with transforming paper and ink into contact with the divine, Catholic faith relied on church tradition to interpret the Bible and to mediate access to God. And church tradition dictated that God's grace came not through reading but through the sacrament of communion: tangible, publicly consumed, and, in the hands of a priest, capable of transubstantiation. This sacrament was not a matter of invisible feeling or mental light but "a sensible means, instituted by Christ, to convey grace to the soul" ("Protestantism versus the Church" 10).
I explore the surface/depth binary in Catholic and Protestant discourse at more length below. This is by no means a full treatment, and I do not mean to reduce these doctrinal differences to a contest between people who believe in words and abstractions and people who believe in wafers and crucifixes. I focus on the conflict to show how Stowe and Phelps reconfigure in their novels the distinct relationships between surface and depth codified in Protestant versus Catholic ideas of worship. The exhibitional style they develop rehabilitates what Protestant Bible-reading guides would characterize as mere surface without abandoning the Protestant will to depth. We can see the exhibitional style crystallize in scenes of Bible reading and musing about heaven, and it pervades both novels in formal choices that run contrary to a core Protestant insistence on private feeling. In light of the positions staked out by the Sabbath School Society and the Catholic World, we can see more clearly how the scene of Torn and Eva's reading (discussed at length below) reaches toward what Winifred calls "the materialism of the Romish Church." Stowe portrays an interpretive act of worship that requires penetration neither of the surface of the text nor of its scenic analog in the smooth surface of the lake. Tom and Eva are reading their way to salvation, like good Protestants. But what they do is not figured as diving into depths or meditating on the deep things of God, but as gathering fragments from the Bible's textual surface and creating a shared imaginary vision of it. Mary and Winifred's discussions of heaven in The Gates Ajar work according to similar principles. These models of reading depart from the ideal that the Sabbath School Society proposes and attempt to make reading into a more "sensible means" of conveying grace.
The exhibitional style appears, too, in these authors' appeal to their own readers. As Tom and Eva read the Bible, for the pleasure of sharing the text as a spectacle rather than for the pleasure of diving deep, so Stowe and Phelps encourage us to read their novels. They want to show us how to live rightly. But if there is to be salvation in reading, it does not, for these authors, require us to plunge through the fiction to make contact with the real author. Their prose solicits us to enjoy what the text shows without requiring it to harbor secret meanings in "waters which at first appear dark and fathomless." Their handling of language quells the urge to lift the veil or strike through the mask, resisting what Winfried Fluck calls the "'hermeneutical' romance" in Hawthorne or Melville (431). They want us to picture bodies, not just spirits, and to see concrete objects as much as ideas. If we are to picture heaven, it will not be as abstract as the one John Humphreys describes to Ellen Montgomery in The Wide, Wide World; it will have carnations and gingersnaps, as Winifred and Faith claim (Phelps 139, 183) (3) The exhibitional style develops from within the sentimental mode, then, out of its wrestling with theological concerns, but it is not fully continuous with the sentimental.
This impulse to privilege surfaces in the act of reading carries on in later, decidedly secular, fiction. The exhibitional style reappears, minus the evangelicalism, in the work of an author like Elizabeth Stoddard, who makes her characters legible to each other through their dress and room decorations. Theodore Dreiser might be said to use the exhibitional style against itself, to preach against the power of surfaces. And while the exhibitional style does not characterize the silent and private vigil of Isabel Archer, which is figured in terms of abstract propositions and speculations, it does reappear when Henry James taps what he calls the "exhibitional charm" of a narrative focal point like Maggie Verver, whose mental depths are pictured as a jumbled closet and whose doubts take shape as a giant pagoda (22). In other words, then, I am claiming that when J. Hillis Miller notes that in The Golden Bowl characters' thoughts must be "'coutered' in ... words or other signs," he is identifying a later version of a rhetorical strategy Stowe and Phelps develop in response to theological concerns (286). The exhibitional style adapts itself to modernist mores in James's insistence on the scenic and in his rendering his characters continuous with the things around them. As Rachel Halliday's rocking chair speaks for her, so Bob Assingham's shoes speak for him.
The exhibitional style, then, marks an embrace of the surface that crosses generic boundaries. It does not equally characterize every production we might call sentimental. But it does add to our understanding both of these two novels and of the sentimental mode more broadly. If Stowe and Phelps worked in their own prose to sidestep the depth-reading model idealized by the Sabbath School Society (and by other Protestant clergy, as we will see), if as novelists they were seeking a way to balance the "recoil from the materialism of the Romish Church," then the proliferation of spin-offs, theatrical and material, that each novel generated takes on a theological appropriateness. The Uncle Torn stage shows seem like a natural crossover for a fictional technique that wanted to abjure the privileged position of private reading in favor of a more public worship experience. Similarly the merchandizing of The Gates Ajar, the funeral wreaths and cigars that Lucy Frank analyzes, might afford the "external means" for attaining a kind of grace from the novel. (4) Reading through theological concerns grants these phenomena a layer of meaning beyond their now-familiar critical status as symptoms of consumer culture. (5) We can see more clearly how such performances and knickknacks might have been invested with the weight of a route to salvation. There are more general implications for the sentimental mode, as well. The keepsake, one of the defining conventions of the sentimental, as Joanne Dobson argues in her delineation of sentimental style, may be understood as a Protestantized relic, an unacknowledged borrowing from Catholicism for the management of grief. Most broadly, we can see a resonance between the Catholic reliance on the social sacrament of mass and the social model of emotion that June Howard argues is characteristic of the sentimental, in that both resist making private feeling the standard of authenticity. (6)
Insofar as the exhibitional style links the sentimental with the communalism of Catholic practice, this account fits within the familiar effort to "[define] sentimentalism in terms of an anti-individualist ethos that emphasizes connective over autonomous relations," as Elizabeth Maddock Dillon puts it (498). My understanding builds on the work of critics like Glenn Hendler and Mary Louise Kete, as well as that of the sentimental novel's early champion, Jane Tompkins, who emphasize the group subjectivities that the sentimental produces. (7) But I am not simply redescribing as "Catholic" the motifs of material culture and communalism that other critics have located in the sentimental. These motifs had theological stakes for Stowe and Phelps, and they emerge from these novels' querying how and whether people can access God, or at least goodness, through a book. In what follows, I aim both to historicize the novels, juxtaposing them with contemporaneous Christian thought, and to closely read them. My analysis in no way displaces one like Frank's, which takes Gates as a "revealing example of the ways" fiction "can register the impact of--indeed, be generated by--traumatic national events and rapid social change" (165). But this essay does not mean to read these novels as windows on, or as generated by, historical movements. Rather, it reads theological history as a context within which to understand how Stowe and Phelps created a style for American fiction that might make good on the novel's potential to offer contact with transcendence.
GOING DEEP: PROTESTANT BIBLE READING
In the rhetoric of Protestant Bible study guides, the opposition of inside and outside was deployed in concert with related binaries--surface and depth, public and private--to define real reading, and real worship, as deep, interior, and solitary. Reading that went deep enough, or got the reader far enough inside the text, would enable a felt contact with God's otherness that might yield salvation. The English Baptist clergyman Joseph Angus stresses the inside/outside binary in his description of how to read:
First, we are not to contemplate this glorious fabric of Divine truth as spectators only. It is not our business to stand before Scripture and admire it; but to stand within, that we may believe and obey it. In the way of inward communion and obedience only shall we see the beauty of its treasures. It yields them to none but the loving and the humble. We must enter and unite ourselves with that which we would know, before we can know it more than in name. (2)
For Angus, deep reading allows the reader to unite in a meaningful way, "more than in name" only, with the spirit that authored the book. Such reading enables the Christian to grow stronger in understanding and in loving the god--not just the implied but the real author--that she meets in the pages of the Bible. The point is not to admire the Bible for its mere surface; rather, that surface must be penetrated so that the real beauty of the text, the beauty that came through its offer of union with divine truth, could be known fully.
Catholic doctrine claims instead a union of surface and depth, imagining the material consumed at mass as at once spirit and flesh, representation and reality. Visible matter, as much as invisible feeling, is the agent of salvation. Invisibility is, in fact, a stumbling block to belief that God mercifully removed. A nineteenth-century Eucharist meditation thanks God "that in pity to our dark and feeble apprehensions, [Thou] hast ordained outward, and obvious, and visible signs to represent to our minds Thy Grace which is invisible" and affirms that "the Bread that we break, and the Cup that we drink, are not bare signs only, but the real Communion of Thy Body and Blood" (Fletcher 31, 32). The presence of God, rather than depending on a believer who is alone, focused, and emotionally susceptible, exists mysteriously in things that can be eaten and drunk. "A sacrament," according to the Catholic World, "is no idle ceremony or mere outward sign, or rite, or symbol" ("Protestantism versus the Church" 252). The refutation of "idle" and "mere" by German Catholic apologist Johann Adam Moehler, like the prayer's caveat that bread and wine "are not bare signs only," recognizes the need to defend ceremony and materiality from charges of shallowness. But "Catholics firmly hold," writes Moehler, that God "changes the inward substance of the consecrated bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ" (310-11). For Moehler, as for his Protestant counterparts, the aim is union with the transcendent. But that aim would be achieved through the act of eating the host: "[D]ivine matter impregnates the soul of man, vivifies it anew, [and] establishes it in the most intimate communion with God" (281). It takes matter, not a book, to begin a process that ends in intimacy.
Protestant writers, in their effort to limn the conditions needed for attaining such intimacy through reading, stressed concentration and privacy. If reading failed to produce a sense of God's presence, it was likely the reader's fault for reading too shallowly. Charlotte Bickersteth Wheeler admonishes the young women who were her audience that "[i]f a chapter does not seem to speak to you, to have any message for you, it is generally because you have not been searching it. You have not read it in a prayerful spirit, but with your mind's eyes partly shut, or even looking another way; or your heart has been full of something else" (311). Surface-level reading, looking around the text rather than searching it deeply, cuts off the believer from God's presence. Deep reading, on the other hand, has the power to make the text speak and deliver its messages. To foster such a relationship with the divine in the first place, the reader is directed to isolate herself for a one-on-one encounter with the text. The Massachusetts Sabbath School Society guide advises readers to "lay aside all the cares and business by which our attention is liable to be diverted ... and seek a place of stillness and seclusion, where we may listen undisturbed to the voice that speaks from heaven" (45). The titles of the works of two English Non-Conformists, Rev. Thomas Watson and Rev. Samuel Lee, "The Bible and the Closet" and "Secret Prayer Successfully Managed," reissued together in 1842, clearly signal the alignment of privacy with devotion. Shallow reading habits fed by secular print culture would hamper the encounter with the Bible. Watson warns, "Some can better remember a piece of news than a line of Scripture; their Memories are like those ponds where the frogs live"--muddy and shallow--"but the fish die," for lack of deep water (24). The more deeply the mind absorbs the word, the more vitally nourishing the word can be for the reader. And indeed that word must move from the head, where it first enters, deeper into the body, to the heart, where it can take full effect. This sounds like the digestive act of the Catholic sacrament. But if Protestant guides do at times reach for bodily metaphor, one key difference stands firm. For Catholics taking communion is, crucially, a work of group participation. As a communal act, the Catholic sacrament deemphasizes the individual's inward feeling. "It is not however the interior acts of thanksgiving, adoration, and gratitude, which [the church community] offers up to God," says Moehler, "but it is Christ himself present in the sacrament" that enables the sanctifying work of grace. That sacrament is performed by a social self: "[T]he community, in the person of the priest, performeth this" (314). Such a model of community performance is absent from Protestant Bible-reading guides.
From the Protestant view it is, finally, up to the reader to be properly susceptible to God's presence in the pages of the Bible, in part because there are no material props to aid the believer in feeling that presence. "We need, therefore," says Angus, "to supply by our thoughtfulness and solemnity, the feelings which were produced of old by sensible images of the Creator's presence and authority" (65). The real believer does not need such images to feel that God is near, but can generate that feeling from words alone. No doubt Stowe and Phelps, as novelists, felt the power of this model of the reader-text relationship. But their writing shows that they felt, too, the power of Catholic warnings of the consequences of Protestant inwardness. The Catholic World charges that "[m]an is not a bodiless spirit, and a sacrament without a sensible sign or medium is not fitted for the twofold nature of man" (10). Without "sufficient external appliances and supports," religious devotion risks falling prey to perversions like the Salvation Army and revivalism. Such reactions of misguided enthusiasm naturally would follow the stripping of the tangible and visible from worship practices. The Protestant will to keep the spiritual separate from the material "betray[ed] heretical tendencies" and threatened to "end in spiritual death" ("Protestantism versus the Church" n). The idea that surfaces (whether images, the materiality of earthly "supports," or the Bible's rhetorical flourishes) had to be abjured or broken through to access depth (contact with God) is an absurd reduction to the Catholic mind. (8) And it was, as we will see, uncongenial to the exhibitional style that Stowe and Phelps would develop in their fiction, precisely to try to make reading more tangible and communal.
READING THE SURFACE: TOM, EVA, AND THE EXHIBITIONAL STYLE
I want to turn now to the fiction that responded to the competition between surface and depth I have just sketched in the religious discourse. How do Stowe and Phelps recuperate surfaces for a sacramental reading experience? What does the hybrid of Catholic and Protestant amount to as a rhetorical strategy I call the exhibitional style? First, the exhibitional style lets us read characters on the surface. Its characterization typically looks onto, rather than seeing into, the visible surfaces of body, dress, appearance, and the things that surround a person.' Second, for the exhibitional style, understanding functions through surfaces. Consciousness materializes into visible, and thus sharable, signs and gestures; it works through an audience rather than through private soul-searching. The selves we find in these novels are inescapably social, modeling performative, rather than expressive, emotion. Finally, the exhibitional style addresses its own readers as such selves. Rather than prod the reader into long mulling to gain an ever-deeper and ever-truer understanding of the text she reads, Stowe's and Phelps's prose encourages the reader to read on the surface, without being called upon to penetrate it. She can respond to what the text shows her without requiring it to harbor, or to give up, secret meanings. The reader-text encounter sponsored by the exhibitional style of the sentimental novel encourages readers to conceive their emotional responses publicly, as part of a network of shared emotions, rather than to privilege their intimacy with the book. These assumptions about identity and experience--the body and its accouterments as constitutive of subjectivity, the social and scenic nature of emotion and judgment--serve to bridge the surface-depth tension in the exhibitional style.
In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe's descriptions assume that appearance is equivalent to the truth of a character, an equivalence that recalls the unproblematic union of spirit and matter that Catholic sacraments propose. She makes her characters practically allegorical, as Tompkins argues (135). Eva and Tom are saints; St. Clare is the cosmopolitan cynic; Simon Legree is the villain. One consequence of this allegorizing is an effacement of individuality. Just where we readers might be most inclined to grieve for losing Eva, for instance, Stowe makes the point that Eva is in fact completely generic. "Has there ever been a child like Eva?" Stowe asks, and immediately answers, "Yes, there have been." In fact there have been multitudes. She expects that every family will have a "legend [of] the goodness and graces ... of one who is not" (269). Angelic, doomed children like Eva are not rare; they are actually the convention, interchangeable with any other such child. Such universally shared losses call for public rather than private grieving.
Again, whereas Protestant reading depends on focused solitude, Stowe's novel makes understanding an event that functions through and with an audience. This model of understanding helps account for the dramatic quality that propelled Stowe's novel so successfully to the stage. Senator Bird's conversion--his decision to help Eliza escape in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act--is proposed as the triumph of "private feelings" over against Congress and the Union (85). But we can see that private feelings here still must be generated within a community who all witness the same tableau of a beautiful mother and son. Similarly, Stowe presents us with the "tears and sobs" of the slaves as Eva distributes locks of her hair, handing out relics of herself just before her death, as an emotional response we might take as a model for ourselves (297). Eva's deathbed scene is laid out with careful attention to setting, because it assumes setting is continuous with character. Stowe tells us that St. Clare had furnished Eva's "room in a style that had a peculiar keeping with the character of her for whom it was intended" (291). We are given a detailed catalog of the window hangings, the design of the rug, the bamboo furniture, the general color scheme of rose and white, and the knickknacks themed on angels and lilies. Stowe seems to take it that, to register Eva's death fully, readers need to visualize the surfaces that surround and in effect compose her.
The match between Eva and her decor and the dispersal of her hair points to another assumption the exhibitional style borrows from the yoking of surface and depth proposed by Catholic faith. The body and the things that surround it extend a person's subjectivity out into the world. Subjectivity takes on a transitive quality, whereby prolonged physical proximity enables the spread of selfhood from the animate to the inanimate. If subjectivity is not dependent on the hidden depths that we understand, say, furniture to lack, then it follows that things can speak as well as persons. Thus Rachel Halliday's rocking chair has a life of its own, which it shares with Rachel. Stowe can shift seamlessly from a description of Rachel's loving brown eyes to the chair Rachel sits in: "It had a turn for quacking and squeaking,--that chair had,--either from having taken cold in early life, or from some asthmatic affection, or perhaps from nervous derangement." The need to specify "that chair" in the sentence admits to the possible confusion between chair and woman. The tone here is comic, yet the fondness of Stowe's presentation of the chair equals the fondness with which she presents Rachel. Both are worthy of love. The chair's "subdued 'creechy crawchy'" is beloved by the family because "for twenty years or more, nothing but loving words and gentle moralities, and motherly loving kindness, had come from that chair;--head-aches and heart-aches innumerable had been cured there,--difficulties spiritual and temporal solved there,--all by one good, loving woman, God bless her!" (140). The agency hovers around the chair at the beginning of the sentence and only settles distinctly on the "good, loving woman" sitting in it at the end. The slipperiness of the line between beloved possession and character indicates a breakdown in the model of depth, suggesting that we might be what we own and wear. (10) Certainly for Stowe the things we own and wear are worth loving, in spite of--or perhaps because of--their lack of depth.
It is fitting, then, that Tom and Eva read each other with a vision that takes in appearance, manner, and surrounding props. They grow closer and closer, but not by virtue of seeing more and more deeply into each other; neither one possesses any depth to see into. Neither they nor we readers are privy to their interior states of mind. We see Eva through Tom's eyes as if she were a Catholic icon: Tom "gazed on her as the Italian sailor gazes on his image of the child Jesus,--with a mixture of reverence and tenderness" (266). Her image does not prompt Tom to search for her core; it pushes his attention outward, to refer him to other familiar sacred images. Such is the process of attention by which he comes to know and to love her. If the exhibitional style renders Eva as all surface and no depth, she is nonetheless easy to love, and to appreciate aesthetically, which amounts to the same thing here. Stowe's characterization relies on the point that looking onto the other, rather than into the other, can inspire love.
The surface reading solicited by the exhibitional style is thus not penetrative but appreciative. And Eva and Tom demonstrate a Bible reading that corresponds to this style. When the Catholic Eva begins to learn, through Tom's influence, the Protestant hope of salvation through reading the gospel, the effect is magical: "At first, she read [aloud] to please her humble friend; but soon her own earnest nature threw out its tendrils, and wound itself around the majestic book; and Eva loved it, because it woke in her strange yearnings, and strong, dim emotions, such as impassioned, imaginative children love to feel" (267). Eva's yearnings and emotions are here invisible and internalized, appropriate to Protestant depth-reading. But the winding tendrils Stowe invokes to describe Eva's reading hint at a different model. Eva's interest in the Bible takes the form of a plant-like embrace that wants to hold and grasp the book around the outside, rather than penetrating its interior meaning. In the case of Tom's reading, Stowe tells us he marks up his Bible--"bold, strong marks and dashes" in "a variety of styles and designations"--to indicate "the passages which more particularly gratified his ear or affected his heart" (151). The very feeling that Protestant depth-reading calls for, Tom's gratification, expresses itself in a decorative embellishment that layers image on top of word and extends the text's range on the page. Tom's stylized marginalia may serve as a reminder that he is new to literacy and still reads with a neophyte's pictorial imagination, but they seem also to suggest a desire to illuminate the scripture, to translate the text from words into something closer to pictures. Tom's marks seem to work less as exegesis than as a visual response to the text. Such reader response offers one way to bridge the divide between surface and depth.
Tom and Eva's climactic scene together is a scene of Bible reading. Stowe's language solicits the same kind of reading she portrays here: reading as a horizontal movement across surfaces, rather than the more vertical surface-to-depth penetration imagined by Protestant clergy. Stowe sets the stage vividly: "It is now one of those intensely golden sunsets which kindles the whole horizon into one blaze of glory, and makes the water another sky. The lake lay in rosy or golden streaks, save where white-winged vessels glided hither and thither, like so many spirits, and little golden stars twinkled through the glow, and looked down at themselves as they trembled in the water" (268). This horizontal spread--horizon stretching out, vessels gliding across the surface--evokes the kind of reading that the exhibitional style calls for. The surface of the lake matters because its reflective quality makes the vertical distance between sky and lake blur into indistinctness: The "water" is simply "another sky." The water and sky both become a freely shared representational space for Eva and Tom that allows them to reimagine and visualize the Bible text together. They are not hoping to merge with the soul of the text or to unite here and now with its author. Instead the two are trying to make the Bible concrete and visible and thus shareable. When Eva reads, "And I saw a sea of glass, mingled with fire," she interrupts herself: "Tom: said Eva, suddenly stopping, and pointing to the lake, 'there 'tis." She shows him how the lake is that sea of glass, and Tom sees it. In response, he sings a verse from a hymn about how "Bright angels should convey me home, / To the new Jerusalem?' When Eva asks him where that Jerusalem might be, Tom says, "0, up in the clouds, Miss Eva." Eva responds to the suggestion by seeing what he says the text means: "Then I think I see it said Eva. 'Look in those clouds!--they look like great gates of pearl' (268). She asks Tom to sing another hymn, and again to his verse describing angels "robed in spotless white," she declares "Uncle Tom, I've seen them" and claims further that she is going there (268), (269). Tom asks where, and in answer Eva stands and points to the sky. As Stowe presents it, Torn and Eva understand each other, and they understand the Bible. They are not looking into each other's souls; they are looking around each other and out into the world through the mediation of the text. Likewise they have not dredged up meaning from the depths of the text, but they have refashioned the Bible's words into a shared spectacle. If their expectation of attaining grace through reading the gospel is Protestant, the character of Eva and Tom's reading--their shared materialization of the biblical text--is tinged by Catholic practice. This hybrid reading, an understanding that is full without being deep, is the aim of the exhibitional style.
REMATERIALIZING IN HEAVEN
The exhibitional style of Uncle Tom's Cabin gives us a selfhood constructed through surface appearance and accessories, and consciousness as a social phenomenon that requires an audience and a setting. Stowe's writing suggests that surfaces offer all the interpretive nourishment we need. Stowe does admit the value of depth, though, insofar as she hypothesizes a depth-reading for the afterlife: The reader of the Bible "folds" the "unknown' hieroglyphics" of its mysterious passages "in her bosom, and expects to read them when she passes beyond the veil" (267). In The Gates Ajar, Phelps takes on the task of realizing that hypothesis. And her novel discovers that whatever depth might be imagined for selves in the afterlife is irreducibly tied to those selves' surfaces. The self cannot remain simply, abstractly, deep, since depth has no meaning, no purchase on the hearts of characters (or readers), without surfaces. The tension between surface and depth is pitched higher here, and the exhibitional style accordingly has to work harder to negotiate that tension. Phelps's characters prize depth in themselves and in their loves, but they struggle to empty themselves of egoism. They hate idolatry, but they only know and love each other through what they can see and touch. Phelps's use of the exhibitional style is further complicated by her choice to frame the novel as a first-person diary. The diary promises us privileged access to the narrator's depths, but Phelps, we will see, must repudiate that promise. Her formal negotiations will lead The Gates Ajar to a union of surface and depth, one more fraught than Stowe's, but like Stowe's indebted to Protestant understandings of Catholic practice.
As in Stowe, characters in Phelps can reliably read each other's surfaces, and their selfhood relies on bodies and the material things that surround them. But the diary form means that Phelps's is a less theatrical, less visual, novel. Mary Cabot, the novel's narrator-protagonist, never gives a catalog of interior decoration in the course of her entries. The action and dialogue take place in fairly unspecified rooms and gardens. And because Mary never describes herself to her diary, we cannot clearly envision her surface or adore her as Tom adores Eva. This absence of a visible surface forces us to think of Mary as a disembodied voice, a vague interiority. The story of Mary's development from a deeply romantic rebel into an exemplary Christian takes shape mostly outside the visual register, through shared reading and dialogue. But we can see the shaping influence of the exhibitional style in the way Mary's Aunt Winifred trains Mary to exchange her deep private consciousness for a publicly sharable one--trains her how, in effect, to be less like herself and to be more like Christ. Mary ends by accepting a selfhood that is de-individualized and communally integrated.
She has a long way to go from the novel's opening pages. Mary's diary begins by recording her anguish after she hears of her brother Royal's death in the Civil War. Her fiercely self-insulating grief shuts out all would-be comforters: She rejects the efforts of the community to ease her pain and resists the social conventions that would govern her emotion. In the immediate aftermath of the news, she pictures herself as in solitary confinement: "Those two words--'Shot dead'--shut me up and walled me in, as I think people must feel shut up and walled in, in Hell" (4). We take these pages as Mary's private thoughts, truer than what she can say to the condolence callers she resents. But Mary will not remain so private and deep. After less than two weeks she condemns her own introspection and quits the diary. She quits it, curiously, for reasons that are in conflict with each other. On one hand Mary stops writing because she realizes that the journal is cultivating a self-involvement that for her amounts to selfishness, an indulgence of the "luxury of grief" (23). Her brother, she reflects, would not approve. On the other hand, Mary distrusts her journal writing as a record of the mere surface of her emotion: "On looking over the leaves [of the journal], I see that the little green book has become an outlet for the shallower part of pain" (22). The trouble with Mary's journal is that it threatens to make her both too deep and not deep enough. She fears that writing will overprivilege all that is deepest within her; she fears that her writing will shortchange all that is deepest within her. This is the beginning of the conflict in the novel between the urge toward surface and the urge to privilege depth: the competition between a public self whose emotions are governed by Christian norms and a private self (a self nurtured by the promises of sacramental reading) felt to be more real and more authentic than any shareable, visible self could be.
That Mary privileges depth over surface at first comes through most sharply in her reaction to Dr. Bland's sermon at the Homer First Congregational Church. Bland's heaven is built on universal, not particular, love; he speculates that in the joy of contemplating infinite truth, a man might forget to think of his wife for thousands of years. There will be no individual depths, but a perfect transparency of each soul to every other. Bland quotes "an eminent divine" who speculates that in heaven "[t]he soul will have no interests to conceal, no thoughts to disguise. A window will be opened in every breast, and show to every eye the rich and beautiful furniture within!" Mary records this idea with withering scorn: "I wonder if he really thought that would make 'a world of bliss'" (71). The transparent selves and universal love that Bland anticipates, by opening up depths to the surface, would effectively destroy individuality for Mary and Winifred. Such individualism was not a key issue for Stowe, as we have seen, but in Phelps's novel love and understanding depend on recognizing the particularity of the self. Aunt Winifred's love of her is more valuable, Mary says, because "[s]he seems to love me a little, not in a proper kind of way, because I happen to be her niece, but for my own sake" (58). Real love must be love of the unique individual according to its private quirks and merits, not according to conventional forms.
When she and Winifred parse Dr. Bland's sermon later, Mary brings up this transparency of heart and its accompanying universalization of love as a cause of anxiety. "I would rather be annihilated than to spend eternity with heart laid bare,--the inner temple thrown open to be trampled on by every passing stranger!" (79). The interior is sacrosanct here: The self is no mere container but a temple. And Winifred, the voice of wisdom in the novel, agrees. She calls Dr. Bland's notion "nonsense" because it would destroy the self by rendering its depths as surfaces for all to see. Winifred argues that transparent hearts and indiscriminate loves "would destroy individuality," leaving us "like a man walking down a room lined with mirrors ... till he seems no longer to belong to himself, but to be cut up into ellipses and octagons and prisms" (79, 80). This passage is remarkable for its rejection of the surface/depth equivalence the exhibitional style tries to negotiate and its Protestant reinscription of the privilege of depth and the unreliability of surface. Faced with fragmentary reflections of ourselves, we would lose our crucial sense of private self-ownership and go mad. Winifred concedes that in heaven we will have extra moral legibility to one another, but such legibility could not violate the privacy of one's own hidden self.
But if Phelps begins her novel favoring the private depths of self, those depths will yield to her interest in models of faith and of selfhood that match Winifred's appreciation of Catholicism. As I noted at the start, Winifred's little girl kisses a photograph of her father at night as if he were a saint, and Winifred herself worries about being "stranded" by the Protestant "recoil from the materialism of the Romish Church" (110). The social self we saw invoked in the Catholic mass will play a role in reintegrating Mary into the community as it moves her attention from the inside to the outside, from depth to surface. To begin with, Mary must loosen her investment in privacy and adopt a more publicly available selfhood. If it is too absurd to imagine a man who "no longer [belongs] to himself" in heaven, as Winifred says in repudiating Dr. Bland's sermon, much of the guidance she provides to Mary nudges Mary precisely not to belong to herself, at least while she lives on Earth. Instead, she urges Mary to belong to others. When Mary revives her journal, it is in the interest of cultivating selflessness. She returns to her diary only when Aunt Winifred arrives, and only then, she says, for the "excellent reason" that "I have something else than myself to write about" (24). She becomes acquainted with the poor, cultivates "week-day holiness," and concludes that "one's self becomes of less importance, which seems to be the point" (145, 193). We know that Mary is healing when we see her reach out to others; it is a sign she is regaining her true self, which, as Phelps's novel progresses, comes to mean her communally constituted self. It is a sin to sit upstairs meditating on one's interior life rather than to respond to dull Mrs. Bland's social call. By the end of the novel, Mary has achieved selflessness. Her diary no longer records her inner pain, only her anticipation of a heavenly union with Jesus and her brother.
Winifred, like Stowe's characters, takes the Protestant view that salvation comes through reading the Bible. But Winifred, in a manner somewhat at odds with the Protestant doctrine of sola scripturci, understands the Bible through spiritual authorities, never reading alone but with a community of earlier interpreters. Widow of a Congregationalist minister, she has read a library's worth of theologians. She calls up names and cites passages by heart: Thomas Chalmers on "spiritual materialism," Isaac Taylor, even Swedenborg (whom she likes but does not accept) and an unnamed "grand old Catholic singer" whose hymn about heaven she quotes at length (125, 175). Under Winifred's influence, Mary trades her private reading of German romantics for conversations about Christian texts. The social aspect of reading--being able to externalize rather than internalize the text--becomes the point for Mary, and in this way Phelps rejects the Protestant emphasis on reading alone.
Moreover, although Phelps gives over much of her novel to theological speculation rather than concrete imagery, she values the physical as much as Stowe does. Although Mary never becomes the sort of icon that Eva does, appearance remains a reliable index of character. Winifred, for instance, simply looks more spiritual than Deacon Quirk. Mary sums them up thus: "'Of the earth, earthy. Of the heavens, heavenly.' The two faces sharpened themselves into two types" (157). And the inner temple that Mary abhors to imagine laid bare is inconceivable without the hair, eyes, and arms that embody it. What Mary misses in her brother, what makes him lovable, is his eyes, arms, smile, hair, the weight and cadence of his walk. It grieves her above all to imagine that body in the ground. Phelps has Dr. Bland, who proposed that heaven would be a place of forgetting the individual, learn this lesson the hard way when his wife dies, and only Winifred's material vision of the afterlife can console him. If Mary locates the core of the self in a heart that must remain unseen by all but the beloved, her grief shows that individual identity depends on concrete surfaces, on bodies and things. The novel wants to preserve the idea of sacred depths. But the love that makes those depths sacred demands faces, hands, and hair to love; it demands carnations and gingersnaps, as we have seen, as well as houses and pianos, to love with (139, 154).
In the course of Mary's diary, too, we see that she comes to know and love Winifred through an appreciation of Winifred's style. Here too there is tension: Winifred both arouses surface desire (and frequently sanctions it by telling Mary that of course she and Roy will have bodies in heaven) and denies it. Before she meets her aunt, Mary is drawn to Winifred's letter for its specifically material and formal qualities. Mary loves Winifred's handwriting, and her careful choice of words, and then loves her voice and her face. And in the voice and handwriting, she loves the form of Winifred's words, the vessel in which those words find delivery. Their love also relies on reticence. Winifred wins Mary's heart at crucial moments by not speaking, by holding her or stroking her hair instead. Such reticence might seem to privilege depth over surface by suggesting that what is deepest suffers diminishment by surfacing into expression. That was the fear that partly motivated Mary to quit her diary early on. But in Phelps's novel reticence instead yields space for the physical to promote real self-other understanding. At crucial moments, the body and hands communicate more effectively than the abstractions of mind and words. During Dr. Bland's sermon about heavenly transparency, Mary recounts, "Aunt Winifred slipped her hand into mine under her cloak. Ah, Dr. Bland, if you had known how that little soft touch was preaching against you!" (71). Phelps makes this touch effect a deep mutual understanding across the body's surfaces, exactly the solution that the exhibitional style aims toward.
Yet Phelps never stops plying the tension between the surface of the body and the depth imagined within that body. Near the novel's end, after Winifred has schooled Mary in her notion of heaven and brought her safely back to the fold of the community, Winifred wonders aloud about the keepsakes from the dead--"a lock of hair to curl about our fingers; a picture that has caught the trick of his eyes or smile; a book, a flower, a letter"--that the living hold dear. "Yet who loves the senseless gift more than the giver,--the curl more than the young forehead on which it fell,--the letter more than the hand which traced it?" (199). By casting the choice here in terms of material relic versus real person, Winifred distances herself from idolatry. She maintains the Protestant distinction between inside and outside, false show and genuine core. But this valuation--Winifred's claim that what we really love is the soul within, not the hair or the mere look .of the face--runs counter to the novel's portrayal of how love works. For the novel shows that love of depth can only function along with love of the surface. In fact, though Winifred's comparison seems to renounce the mere physical relic, the terms of her comparison only propose that real love is a matter of favoring one physical surface over another, the body over the traces it leaves: the forehead more than the hair, the hand more than the handwriting on the sheet of paper, the eyes or smile more than the photograph of them.
Ultimately, Mary and Winifred will solve the problem of surface and depth by making selfhood a matter of materiality, though it is a materiality that is only fully allowable and fully sanctified in heaven, where Christ's body redeems it. They invest in an uneasy, and deferred, Protestant doctrine of transubstantiation. Beginning from a model of self that favors depth, Winifred and Mary arrive at a self that is constituted bodily and socially. Depth is privileged, insofar as the reward for resisting its lure on earth is its enjoyment in heaven, but even in heaven depth is finally unimaginable without surface. To put it another way, love for Phelps is finally strong enough to make the distinction between surface and depth, a distinction that Protestant faith and its hermeneutics would otherwise oblige her to insist on, irrelevant. Phelps, like Stowe, thus makes a novelistic virtue of the insight that depth without surface is meaningless.
Reading these novels through the lens of Catholic and Protestant discourse enables us to take into account the theological stakes of the negotiation between surface and depth these novels effect. Stowe and Phelps develop the exhibitional style through recourse to specifically Christian resources. But their way of marrying surface and depth offers a useful model for secular literary criticism, mapping onto broader debates about how to read today. We can see, for instance, Phelps and Stowe grappling with the same interpretive dilemma that motivated Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus to argue recently for an alternative to symptomatic or suspicious reading, for what they call a "surface reading" that reads for "a constellation of multiple surfaces understood as concealing nothing" (9). Heather Love, who pegs the motivation to close reading to the history of sacred hermeneutics, has also lately called for a reading that "rel[ies] on description rather than interpretation," one that is "close but not deep" (375). To produce such a reading was a goal very much in Stowe's and Phelps's sights as novelists, precisely because of their investment in a faith that promises that reading offers access to sacred truth. They understood that the possibility that a text could open onto the divine might work as much through its surfaces as through what might otherwise be called its depths.
(1.) For recent instances of such work, see, for instance, Coleman, who argues for Stowe's narrative voice as homiletic (266-67), and Farrell, who shows the influence of Puritan primers on her prose (245-46). Smith catalogs Phelps's "personal exposure to currents in biblical hermeneutics" (108).
(2.) This is not to deny that secular reading was frequently a communal practice. Hochman observes that recent studies of reading history have stressed public reading: "[B]ooks consolidate communities--imagined or otherwise. Gone is the figure of the solitary reader" (848). But guides for the specifically devotional reading that I discuss here stress privacy, solitude, and focus.
(3.) Early in World, Warner describes Ellen reading the Bible privately in just the manner recommended by the Sabbath School Society: "She used to get alone or into a corner with it, and turn the leaves over and over; looking out its gentle promises and sweet comforting words" (65). In later scenes, when Ellen does have theological companions, their talk is more abstract than it is in similar scenes in Stowe or Phelps. John encourages her to look past the material world to the spiritual, for instance telling her that a white camellia is an "emblem of a sinless, pure spirit" (385).
(4.) Frank reads Phelps as "exploiting the power of commodities" to respond to the shocks of postbellum grief (167). My reading emphasizes Phelps's sacred, rather than secular, motives for embracing materiality, falling in line with Candy Gunther Brown's contention that "evangelicals configured commerce as a religious instrument" (19).
(5.) For work that tracks the links between the sentimental mode and consumer capitalism, see, for instance, Gillian Brown, who argues that Stowe's "love of things" offers only an illusory escape from the market, one that ultimately abets capitalist growth (52; see also her introduction, especially pp. 2-3). See also Merish, for whom sentimental novels "[reinvent] capitalist economic and Commodity structures as the forms of interiority proper to 'private,' domestic life" (2-3).
(6.) Howard approvingly surveys a range of social-scientific research on the social context of emotion, citing one study, for instance, that finds that "the social and the bodily nature of sentimentality characterizes emotion in general," and another that construes emotion as social rather than individual and internal" (66, 67).
(7.) Kete argues for an understanding of "sentimentality's role in the construction of a personal subjectivity that was not at odds with, but a necessary condition of, community" (7), and Hendler reads sympathy as "always a public sentiment, oriented as it is toward implied and actual audiences" (128).
(8.) Franchot cites Mohler as arguing from a theological understanding of symbiosis between interior and exterior. "From his perspective," she writes, "Protestant theology was characterized throughout by a rupture between internal and external that left the human creature only partially regenerated, the church insufficiently materialized, and the relation between body and spirit antagonistic" (330).
(9.) Colbert notes that the tenets of phrenology offer Stowe a framework for giving "mental qualities a physical dimension" (240). Such assumptions permeated the wider culture of the time, as Halttunen argues. She gives the name "sentimental typology" to the prevailing belief that "all aspects of manner and appearance were visible outward signs of inner moral qualities" (40). That belief takes on a specifically Catholic inflection in the context of Stowe's and Phelps's thematic concern with religious practice.
(10.) Fisher notes that "in Stowe's subtitle [Tom] is 'a man that was a thing' and argues that the work of the novel is to render Torn human by extending sentimental feeling so that it included him within its humanizing circle (14). From a different perspective, G. Brown argues that Stowe's utopian project was a vision of a maternal love whose plenitude could wrench commodities from the market economy and personify them (24).
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ASHLEY C. BARNES
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|Author:||Barnes, Ashley C.|
|Publication:||Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2012|
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