The transcendental idealism of Emerson and Thoreau found its most illuminating expression and drew its most ardent followers before the Civil War would temper the spirits of many Americans. Emerson and Thoreau both advocated for removing oneself from the constraints of society and for realizing an inner drive and power for epistemological, spiritual, and political purposes. This individualism had more credence in New England than it did in the Southern states, and it is therefore not surprising that 19th century slave narratives would seek to appropriate that discourse of individualism in order to explain and condemn the realities of slavery. Slavery could be cast as a symptom of the collective mindset, an evil that clearly could be seen as such if only individuals would separate themselves from conformity with the social unit and prevailing ideology.
Frederick Douglass, in both Narrative of the Life and his later work My Bondage and My Freedom, reveals that his childhood in slavery was relatively relaxed compared to that of other slaves, yet as he moved from master to master and was denied education—that is, as he grew into a man—the regulation of his body became harsher and more violent. Douglass, who, as a lecturer, impressed upon his listeners a sense of rugged masculinity, uses his narratives to show how an individual can stand up to an entire institution. In both narratives he vividly depicts his battle with Mr. Covey, a vicious overseer who was determined to train Douglass into docile submission by means of overwhelming violence. It is an inner will as much as brute strength that brings about Douglass’s triumph over Covey, and it is Douglass’s determination to read and to learn that allows him to circumvent white law to achieve the literacy that made both of these works possible.
As an anti-slavery advocate in the North, having attained his freedom, Douglass expressed his individualism in a variety of ways, not least of which in his insistence to remain independent of William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists with whom Douglass had, as it were, a falling out. Douglass also articulated a desire for blacks to embrace the ideal of personal responsibility and to look to their own personhood as a means for pulling themselves out of their unfortunate condition. His enabling rhetoric was intended to be inspirational and to imitate the rhetoric and values of New England whites, without whose support neither he nor other slaves could mobilize political action. Other authors of slave narratives such as William Wells Brown (who, it should be mentioned, had a falling out with Douglass) employ similar tactics and strategies regarding the appeal to individualism. Brown also promoted himself as a masculine figure who realized his autonomy and drew strength from his own will to deliver himself from bondage.
Harriet Jacobs’s narrative couches individualism in more ambiguous terms. She gives herself the name Linda Brent in the narrative, which is addressed explicitly to the “women of the North.” Her narrative is replete with apostrophes to these women readers and, therefore, with signals and coded references meant to gain sympathy and provoke anger at the institution of slavery. When Linda’s master attempts to take her in as his sex slave, she goes so far as to have an affair with a white man, Mr. Sands, as a form of resistance. Knowing the decorum of her audience and the precariousness of her status as a freed slave, Linda repeatedly acknowledges the sinfulness of her act but stresses, too, that she cannot be held to the same standards as white women, who enjoy the freedom to make moral choices. In a system of slavery, Linda suggests, there are no moral choices because one is reduced to selecting between one bad act or another. Like Douglass, Linda finds freedom in the North, and, like Douglass, she spends time in England, where, she indicates, freedom flourishes, at least in relation to the United States. Jacobs’s narrative can be taken as an urgent statement on the agency of slaves in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and the image of the strong woman that she cultivates (not just in herself but in the person of her grandmother) resonates as a powerful trope that others would pick up on.
Elizabeth Keckley’s narrative is the most unusual of all the slave narratives I have read, in part because much if not most of it is about periods of time when Keckley was not a slave, and in part because of her unusual financial comfort, celebrity status, and access to towering figures in American history. Keckley was close friends with both the Lincoln family and the family of Jefferson Davis, and what would become the most scandalous aspect of this book is that it was written in order to redeem Mrs. Lincoln’s reputation for having sold off her clothes out of financial necessity. Keckley’s appeals to the liberating effect of capitalism, her ability to use dressmaking as a means for rising above the evils of slavery, resound as profound endorsements of Northern industry and economy and also of the ethic of personal responsibility maintaining that it is in one’s will to realize the capacity to better one’s condition.
Taken together, these slave narratives answer Emerson’s and Thoreau’s calls for non-conformity and self-reliance as enabling ethics. They express the danger of complying with, and unconditionally accepting, the norms and conventions of society, even as, paradoxically, they make subtle entreaties to social norms and conventions.