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The Uncle Tom's Cabin of Commercial Law

posted by Buce

In an earlier post, I offered a few acerb thoughts about William Dean Howells and what I might perhaps have called the Jimmy Stewartization of bankruptcy. I could have generalized here: one of the great themes of 19th Century American is what you might call the Response to Commerce—together with a theme I did not mention before, namely the relationship between the marketplace and women.

For my money, there are two great sources here—one, George Santayana in his seminal Genteel Tradition essays (link),  and the other, more directly relevant, Ann Douglas’ classic The Feminization of American Culture (1977) (link).

Douglas catches the essence of her own work in this discussion of the first great domestic potboiler, the Uncle Tom's Cabin of commercial law-- The Wide, Wide World (link), by Susan Warner:  

The story apparently turns on the unwillingness of the old-fashioned little girl, Ellen Montgomery, to participate in the ‘wide, wide world’ of masculine competition and business into which a cruel fate thrust her. All Ellen’s miseries begin when her father is clumsy enough to lose a vital lawsuit, and with it, his income. Mr.Montgomery’s surly incompetence and insecure aggressiveness threaten the idyll of feminine sensibility shared by his wife and daughter. Ellen makes a rather unfilial point of evading her father, but she cannot long escape the forces which he represents. When her ailing mother ends her off alone on her first adult mission to select some material at a store, a rude and busy clerk cheats, humiliates, and dismisses her because she is unused to the chicanery of commerce, because she is a child and a girl. Although a benevolent elderly gentleman indignantly intervenes and Ellen accomplishes her errand, Warner has made her point.

Douglas, at least, has no doubt as to what that point is: 

Ellen is completely dislocated from her economic past; those who control the production of her apparel are utterly foreign to her. It is Ellen’s distinction that she must be rescued from the world. She never requests or wishes in any way actually to function within her society. Brewing consolatory cups of tea for her several beloved and diseased lady friends is the full extent of her productive effort. Her undeclared hostility to her culture’s competitive forces is too enormous to allow her to contribute to its economic life. The Bible and those who love it are Ellen’s only business.

Douglas embroiders this sketch into a larger theme: a more general conspiracy of (otherwise powerless) women and clergymen into a general posture of clucking disapproval over the heart of American economic life.   

It would be fascinating but, lucky for me, beyond the scope of this blog entry, to trace the cultural history that links the feminization of culture to the feminization of bankruptcy.

Personal Aside: my mother and her siblings were orphaned in childhood, in the respect that their father was carried off in a bout of pneumonia, not litigation.

Their mother held the family together in a prodigy of heroism and good luck that I can only begin to fathom. The sisters—there were five of them—cut their literary teeth on The Wide Wide World. Years later in adulthood, they had come to recognize that it was trash. Yet the old appeal remained, and they could reduce themselves to rueful hysterics by remembering its mawkish energy.


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