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St. Clare the Russian Louisianian

August 7, 2014

When I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), I thought one of the characters seemed like a perfect Russian superfluous man of the same era. St. Clare is a good-hearted and capable man born to privilege, an anti-slavery slaveholder for whom society makes it easy to live comfortably but hard to live morally, and who never quite rouses himself to find an outlet for his goodness. So I was gratified to read that Russian readers of the time not only saw slavery as shown in Uncle Tom’s Cabin as analogous to Russian serfdom, but saw St. Clare in particular as a perfect Russian landowner.

From John MacKay’s True Songs of Freedom: Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Russian Culture and Society:

Indeed, in the same letter to Herzen [of December 8th, 1852], [Vladimir] Engel’son offers a whole series of correspondences: Tom is reminiscent of a Russian Old Believer, Miss Ophelia of a German (and therefore Lutheran) from the Baltic region, and St. Clare is quite simply “an educated Russian landowner of [their] own time.” (location 380 of 3875)

MacKay then quotes Engel’son directly:

Everything about [St. Clare] is Russian: his simple nobility, self-centeredness, elegance, indecisiveness (or laziness), and most of all a lack of all lust for power or money… He’s too proud to covet wealth or position, and has too much of a sense of his own worth… to be pushy or a scoundrel… [ellipses in MacKay] (location 383)

Then he quotes the Slavophile Aleksei Khomiakov, in a letter of March 14th, 1855, to Baroness A. D. Bludova:

[St. Clare] is like all of us in his elegant refinement, his artistic nature, the softness and gentleness of his disposition, his slothful philanthropy, his sybaritic egoism, the weakness of his ethical convictions and un-Christian indifference to the general good, which he skillfully justifies with deft sophism. In his soul he casts judgment on evil, after all; and what more should he do? He is right before God and before himself. (location 465)

I was completely drawn into MacKay’s book from the opening dueling epigraphs, where we learn that Marina Tsvetaeva had a high opinion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while Konstantin Paustovskii’s grandmother had a “porcelain statuette of a weeping pug” that he and some other children gave the name “someone reading Stowe.”

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