The escape from bondage of the slave Eliza, infant in tow, is one of the most remarked upon portions of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. I have never read Uncle Tom's Cabin. My first encounter with Eliza came this Friday, while I was on a plane to Nashville.
As it happens Eliza is a historical person, and enslaved woman who escaped, child in tow, from slavery in Kentucky. Her story is brilliantly depicted by Fergus Bordewich in his book Bound For Canaan: The Epic Story of The Underground Railroad, which I have excerpted below. I was in the middle seat as I read about Eliza and it was only with some work that I kept from breaking down on a neighbor's shoulder. All of this to say you should strap yourself in for this one.
On a bitter night in the winter of 1838, a heavy-set black woman picked her way furtively down Tuckahoe Ridge toward the frozen river. She followed the familiar track from the plantation where she was enslaved, careful to keep herself out of sight when she reached the snow-covered flood-plain, moving close to the ground. In her arms, she carried an infant whom she had wrapped in a shawl against the cold air.
She was leaving her other children and a husband behind, hoping that if she was not caught, and if she did not die, she might be able to return for them someday. She had fled abruptly for the same reason as so many other fugitives: a day or two earlier a slave trader had appeared at her master's estate to negotiate her price or that of her child. She knew that she might die crossing the river, but if she did nothing she would die a different kind of death, to be sold away south, and away from her family forever.
In some accounts, the woman begged help from an elderly Scotsman or Englishman who lived near the shore, and who sheltered her until she heard the baying of dogs on her trail. As she ran from his house she grabbed hold of a plank and raced to the river's edge. When the ice was solid, teams of horses could cross it. But there had been a thaw and the ice was rotten, full of air holes and cracks, and the water was running over it, and it was ready to break up.
No one had ventured onto it for the past two days, but she had no choice. Her first step broke though. For a moment she stood paralyzed in freezing water. Then she plunged forward, carrying her baby in one had and the plank in the other. The ice seemed firmer as she ran toward the Ohio shore, but then without warning she broke through again, this time up to her armpits. She pushed the baby of her onto the ice, then levered herself up with the aid of the plank.
Laying the plank across the broken ice, she crept along it until she fell through once more. Again she managed to throw the infant ahead of her before she sank. Crawling back onto the ice, she continued her progress in this fashion until the ice disintegrated beneath her again. This time she sank in only to her knees, and she knew that she was close to the Ohio shore. When she finally touched solid land she collapsed, physically spent.
She was safe for the moment, she thought. But she was not alone. A white man had come up out of the darkness and loomed over her. Had she known who he was she would have recognized him as her worst nightmare. He was a Ripley man named Chancey Shaw, a sometime slave catcher who often prowled the northern bank of the river on the lookout for fugitives. He had watched attentively as the woman made her way across the ice, and he was preparing to seize her when, he later admitted to a local abolitionist, he heard her baby whimper and something unexpectedly moved inside him. Surprising himself, he heard himself tell her, "Woman, you have won your freedom."
Instead of arresting her, he led her, soaked and freezing to the edge of the village. There he pointed to a long flight of steps that ascended a bare hill, at the top of which the rectangle of a farmhouse and a light were visible. He told her to make for the light saying, "No nigger has ever been got back from that house.
The house was famed abolitionist John Rankin, a native Southerner who'd moved to Ohio as the South increasingly became a place where open opposition to slavery became a capitol offense. In Ripley, Ohio, Rankin preached abolition, ran a prolific Underground Railroad station, and waged gunfights with slave-catchers.
This story really wrecked me. And Bordewich has many just like them in his book. The epoch of slavery is, to my mind, the definitive epic poem, the quintessential romance of American history. It may well be the most powerful story of the Enlightenment wars.
I urge you to check out Bordewich's book. it's excellent.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Beyond the Wall,” the sixth episode of the seventh season.
Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
“Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.”
Ever since it was first published in 1982, readers—including this one—have thrilled to “Total Eclipse,” Annie Dillard’s masterpiece of literary nonfiction, which describes her personal experience of a solar eclipse in Washington State. It first appeared in Dillard’s landmark collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk, and was recently republished in The Abundance, a new anthology of her work. The Atlantic is pleased to offer the essay in full, here, until the day after the ‘Great American Eclipse’ on August 21.
It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering. We had crossed the mountains that day, and now we were in a strange place—a hotel in central Washington, in a town near Yakima. The eclipse we had traveled here to see would occur early in the next morning.
The cartoonist defended the president in a podcast debate with Sam Harris. The portrait he painted of Trump supporters was not flattering.
Sam Harris, the atheist philosopher and neuroscientist, has recently been using his popular Waking Up podcast to discuss Donald Trump, whom he abhors, with an ideologically diverse series of guests, all of whom believe that the president is a vile huckster.
This began to wear on some of his listeners. Wasn’t Harris always warning against echo chambers? Didn’t he believe in rigorous debate with a position’s strongest proponents? At their urging, he extended an invitation to a person that many of those listeners regard as President Trump’s most formidable defender: Scott Adams, the creator of the cartoon Dilbert, who believes that Trump is “a master persuader.”
Their conversation was posted online late last month. It is one of the most peculiar debates about a president I have ever encountered. And it left me marveling that parts of Trump’s base think well of Adams when his views imply such negative things about them.
The scientists are all talking like it’s a sure thing.
On August 21, the “moon” will pass between the Earth and the sun, obscuring the light of the latter. The government agency NASA says this will result in “one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights.” The astronomers there claim to have calculated down to the minute exactly when and where this will happen, and for how long. They have reportedly known about this eclipse for years, just by virtue of some sort of complex math.
This seems extremely unlikely. I can’t even find these eclipse calculations on their website to check them for myself.
Meanwhile the scientists tell us we can’t look at it without special glasses because “looking directly at the sun is unsafe.”
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
The country’s exceptionally thin safety net prompts residents—especially those with less-steady employment—to view partnership in more economic terms.
Over the last several decades, the proportion of Americans who get married has greatly diminished—a development known as well to those who lament marriage’s decline as those who take issue with it as an institution. But a development that’s much newer is that the demographic now leading the shift away from tradition is Americans without college degrees—who just a few decades ago were much more likely to be married by the age of 30 than college graduates were.
Today, though, just over half of women in their early 40s with a high-school degree or less education are married, compared to three-quarters of women with a bachelor’s degree; in the 1970s, there was barely a difference. The marriage gap for men has changed less over the years, but there the trend lines have flipped too: Twenty-five percent of men with high-school degrees or less education have never married, compared to 23 percent of men with bachelor’s degrees and 14 percent of those with advanced degrees. Meanwhile, divorce rates have continued to rise among the less educated, while staying more or less steady for college graduates in recent decades.
Jen Hatmaker says the “days of silence are over” in polite evangelical culture.
By her own estimation, Jen Hatmaker is “low-grade Christian famous.” She has written 12 books, starred in an HGTV series with her family, built a large social-media following, and gone on tour with other prominent female Christian writers.
In some circles, Hatmaker is also controversial. Last fall, she told the writer Jonathan Merritt she thinks LGBT relationships can be holy. LifeWay, a large Christian retailer, pulled her books from their stores. Some of her followers were “angry or shocked or confused,” she said, and her interview set off a round of debate on the authority of evangelical women in ministry. This spring, Hatmaker wrote on her blog that she has “[become] painfully aware of the machine, the Christian Machine.”
A tour of the solar eclipse’s path reveals a nation that fought to maintain a different sort of totality.
Totality is everything, say those who chase solar eclipses. When the moon fully obscures the sun and casts its shadow on Earth, the result is like nothing you’ve seen before—not even a partial eclipse. A merely partial eclipse does not flip day to night, because the sun is bright enough to light our fields of vision with only a tiny fraction of its power. But when the sun and moon align just so, a little piece of Earth goes dark in the middle of the day. In this path of totality, night comes suddenly and one can see the shape of the moon as a circle darker than black, marked by the faint backlight of the sun’s corona. Astronomers and eclipse chasers chart carefully to be sure that they can watch from exactly the right place at the right time. They know that you cannot compromise with the sun. For a dark sky, the sun must be banished altogether.
The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history.
When did America become untethered from reality?
I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004, after President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. “Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books.
Many presidential appointees face an agonizing choice—leave the president with fewer restraints on his darker impulses, or stay to serve the republic even if it costs their integrity.
John Kelly’s stricken look, head slumped on chest, as President Trump brayed a defense of the “fine people” on both sides in a Charlottesville march of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, said it all. A man raised to believe in a code of decency and honor had to endure language from his boss which would have earned one of Kelly’s Marine lieutenants the chewing-out of a lifetime. And he had to listen knowing that despite his efforts to instill discipline in the White House, he could expect more rhetoric—lies, bombast, and provocation—that would inflame some of the worst memories and darkest impulses of the American soul. If Kelly had not chosen to be there fully aware of who Donald Trump is, one might have felt sorry for him.