This is the second column in the third round of Reading Room, a collective column on reading and life. In each round, the contributors respond to a prompt chosen by the group. The current prompt is: Can a work of literature change your mind?
What must it have felt like to be Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose landmark abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin outsold every other book in the U.S. published in the nineteenth century except the Bible? Think about that: a woman writer in the fanatically religious, male-dominated U.S. of the nineteenth century whose lone rival in the publishing industry was God. There is the oft-repeated anecdote—to the letter apocryphal but in spirit deliciously true—of Abraham Lincoln welcoming Stowe at the White House with the greeting, “So you are the little woman who started this great war.”
Whether or not Lincoln uttered these words, it’s hard to deny that Stowe authored a book that changed hearts and minds the world over. Although Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s Victorian propensity toward the maudlin clashes with modern tastes, it merits appreciation in any age for the wide sociological canvas it so strategically paints. To an extremely divided country, Stowe delivered a rhetorically sophisticated book that, for just about every major sector of her contemporary white America, offered affirmation of their humanity, sympathy for their positions and temperate yet firm condemnations of their moral failings. (Imagine the prowess it took to juggle so many balls without producing a novel that fell apart at the touch!)
I recall Stowe here not just for the fact that there would seem to be no better candidate in American history for a work of literature that changed people’s minds. I am also fascinated by how many of the circumstances surrounding her book, though published more than 170 years ago, mirror some of the most prominent features of today’s reading landscape. Yet again, we find ourselves in a moment when our best-selling author is a white woman writing about racism.
Like Stowe, Robin DiAngelo, through her virally popular book White Fragility, has made a fortune from reprehending white America with its failures to redress its original sin, slavery and its blighted legacy. Both did so at what appeared to be tipping points in race relations—Stowe when the nation was on the brink of civil war, DiAngelo just a couple of years before that same nation would erupt, from sea to shining sea, into civil protest.
There is, to be sure, glaring irony in the successes of these two writers, who made their marks by exploiting the exploitation of Black people, working at the safer distance of one remove from the founding sin that they decry. The irony is significantly more apparent in DiAngelo’s case, for, seizing the spotlight at a point in history that boasts generations of Black theorists of race and racism, she easily could be viewed as participating in the very system of oppression that her book seeks to dismantle. It is more than a little eyebrow-raising, for instance, to see DiAngelo’s book top best-seller lists, above even such authors as Ijeoma Oluo, Ibram X. Kendi and Michelle Alexander.
But I must leave that particular ethical morass for someone else to wade through, drawn as I am here to the similarities between these two women writers, separated though they are by nearly two centuries. These similarities, I’m persuaded, teach us something about the limits of reading in the pursuit of social justice.
Stowe’s blockbuster novel belongs to what is known among literary scholars as “the sentimental tradition.” At its peak in the U.S. during the first half of the nineteenth century, this tradition foregrounds emotion and believes almost religiously in the power of sympathy to redeem the fallen: seduced maidens, intemperate husbands, unregenerate children—the whole kit and kaboodle of nineteenth-century troublemakers. In sentimental novels, tears are the pivot from bad to good and proof positive that moral transformation has occurred.
The power of sympathy wasn’t thought to stop at the characters, its work over and done with once the book was shut. Writers imagined that their charmed halos of sympathy would radiate beyond the page, encircling readers in their ameliorative embraces. This conviction pervades Stowe’s novel but is driven home in its conclusion. There, imaging a fellowship of readers paralyzed by a problem exceeding their ken, Stowe declares, “There is one thing that every individual can do,—they can see to it that they feel right.”
Guilt is Stowe’s currency. It is also DiAngelo’s. My conjunction of these two authors on this point is likely to elicit skepticism from anyone familiar with White Fragility. After all, doesn’t DiAngelo forbid the very tears encouraged by Stowe, admonishing white readers not to let their self-serving teardrops drown out the experiences of Black people? This move is strategic and not just in the way that DiAngelo advertises. Instead of banishing guilt, this injunction against white weeping has the effect of preserving that guilt. Excoriating this facet of White Fragility, John McWhorter quips that “DiAngelo has white Americans muzzled, straitjacketed, tied down, and chloroformed.” Following McWhorter’s suggestive language might lead us to put the matter in this way: if Stowe and her contemporaries worked up readers for a tearful moral finale, DiAngelo’s book, withholding catharsis, holds out the promise of an interminable tease.
For my purposes, it matters little that Stowe’s book is explicitly fiction while DiAngelo’s is self-help porn for the race. Beyond their successes, they merit comparison for the fact that the feeling in which they traffic, guilt, can turn ostensibly ethical, outward-facing problems into flights into onanism. This insight directly contradicts the terms of Tim and Merve’s debate about “the longing man,” a literary type whose penchant for romantic escapism blinds him to the material injustices of the real world. The genre of “guilt lit” to which both Stowe’s and DiAngelo’s works belong is scarcely less complicit in the aestheticization of the world than works less overtly political. (In a recent post for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sumana Roy explored “guilt lit” as a closely connected phenomenon in contemporary fiction.)
James Baldwin recognized this in Stowe. In his 1955 essay on Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which he called “a very bad novel”), Baldwin asserts, “the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it [sentimentality] is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.” Contemporary literary theorists—Saidiya Hartman principal among them—have made similarly damning arguments about the nineteenth-century sentimental tradition, explaining how appeals to sympathy in this fiction prompt readers to substitute themselves for the targets of their sympathy.
Although critics of DiAngelo have not considered her in relation to Stowe, the imaginative distortions and erasures for which they have criticized her book belonged to Stowe first. For example, McWhorter’s article shows how White Fragility repeatedly creates what I would call straw Black people—fictive beings created for rhetorical expediency but bearing very little resemblance to any existing reality. (To my mind, the most far-fetched of DiAngelo’s straw Black people are the ones whose reason for resenting when white women cry over being called racist is that they are put in mind of the early-twentieth-century history of white women falsely accusing Black men of rape.) Stowe’s pageant of stock Black characters, caricatured for rhetorical purposes, also have alienated Black readers, a fact most evident in the (wrongheaded) transformation in Black culture of “Uncle Tom” into a term of disparagement.
In addition to her tendency to misrepresent Black people, DiAngelo also shares Stowe’s skill in creating meretricious screens behind which white readers can satisfy subconscious urges. For example, Matthew Legge has linked DiAngelo’s tactics to Freud’s “moral masochism” and to psychologist Yoel Inbar’s recent guilt experiments. Inbar and his team divided their test subjects into various groups, each asked to recall a particular kind of memory (some of guilt, others of sadness, etc.). On recalling the specified kind of memory, the participants were to administer to themselves an electric shock, and the strength of the shock was up to them. Care to guess which group incurred the greatest voltage? No shocker here: the guilty group.
Like the longing that Tim explores, guilt stimulates and, again like Tim’s longing, is sometimes pursued for its own sake, even when it is ostensibly tethered to worthy objects. This includes worthy objects anchored firmly in the material world, such as those conducive to social justice.
In a great variety of writings—fiction, prose, plays, poems—Black writers, from Baldwin to Toni Morrison, have long been exposing the fragility of whiteness. Many have been commercially successful but none so meteorically as Stowe or DiAngelo. Why that is we can only speculate, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it has a lot to do with the safety inherent in exploring the titillating topics of race and racism with someone who is, at least demographically, on your side. It approaches the dynamic of role-play, an aesthetic experience that simulates danger without posing it. (This explanation helps us appreciate the devilish felicity of the title of Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, her trenchant study of the centrality of Blackness to the making of white American culture.)
Role-play’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. Usually, someone gets hurt because the parties involved forget or, worse, never knew in the first place that they were role-playing. This is precisely the risk that guilt lit poses. Whether it be because of the characters conjured out of rhetorical necessity or because of the masturbatory journeys it encourages under the banner of social justice, white-authored books purporting to combat anti-Black racism can fuel just the same escapes from reality laid at the door of “literary romances” by previous authors in Reading Room. But these dangers are more sinister in the case of guilt lit for the simple fact that this literature conceals its egoistic allurements behind political commitments.
In case it is not clear by now, let me say outright that I have my doubts about the capacity of literature trafficking in guilt to change minds for the better. After all, what white person alive in Stowe’s time or our own needs a book to know that their forefathers and foremothers—and at times they themselves—have been guilty of grave injuries against generations of people who do not look like them? And this is why I have characterized the experience of reading such books as being no less solipsistic than the “romantic” books that so exercise Merve. They promote self-stroking. However, my doubts about this genre’s social efficacy shouldn’t be taken as suggestions that I don’t think this literature changes people. I think it does change them, just not usually in favorable ways. In my experience, it has made them more self-righteous (emphasis on self).
I say this from an awkward position—as someone who, for all kinds of demographic reasons, is rarely part of guilt lit’s intended audience, and who yet regularly reads and writes on this material. Of course, the experience of reading these books as an alienated party sometimes evokes solemn feelings, feelings captured by W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous rhetorical question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” But it is mostly amusement that I feel. Amusement at the condescension in both the books and the readers who admire them. Amusement at the chasmic discrepancy between ideals and practices that these books produce—a discrepancy at its most vivid, I think, in white liberals’ embrace of Black people in the abstract yet contempt for them in the concrete. Think Hillary Clinton, whose support in policy for Black people would have helped us a great deal, but whose strained interactions with living, breathing Black people—including the mothers of murdered Black children—gave me frostbite.
In my portrayal of Clinton as the product of guilt lit par excellence, we end where we began—with Stowe. Ironically enough, Stowe recognized what kinds of people are produced by airy commitments to social justice in the absence of concrete contacts on the ground: an army of Miss Ophelias, Stowe’s New England abolitionist who is more revolted than anyone else by flesh-and-blood Black people. It is only through coming to know Topsy, the little Black girl mistreated all her life, that Ophelia transforms. Reading converted Ophelia to the cause; love for a concrete person converted her.
Books can change minds, yes. But, if the change is to be for the better, reading, an exercise in abstraction, must be complemented by full engagement with the real—real people, real problems, real life.
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