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Posts Tagged ‘History’

Outline and Summary of Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Dred Scott, History, Slavery on February 9, 2011 at 2:45 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998).


Race is a historical construction.  It is continually redefined by various parties and for various reasons.  The experiences that defined race in North America were volatile; they changed over the course of two centuries.  The definition of race—and of slave—transformed alongside and because of human interaction.  Slaves defined their history as much as masters did.  Slavery was a “negotiated relationship.”  Even though masters maintained a position of dominance over slaves, slave agency constantly forced masters to revise their relationship to slaves.  Masters and slaves had to concede power to one another.  As the master-slave relationship changed, so did the dynamics of the slave system.  The master-slave relationship was always renegotiated and remade, and the power of the master or the slave was always contingent.  Therefore, the reality of a slave’s life was different depending upon time and place.  No slave experience was the same.  Rather than examining the commonalities and continuities of slavery across time and space, this work seeks to emphasize differences and contingencies.  Discussions of paternalism in the master-slave relationship have dominated slave studies and reinforced the idea that slave conditions were static and fixed in time.  As a result, historians have established misleading tropes.  The author seeks to challenge and undo some of those tropes.  He seeks to unsettle the master/slave binary opposition by emphasizing the messiness in between.  Slavery made class more than it made race.  Nevertheless, slave history is irreducible to labor, even if labor is indispensable to slavery.  Focusing on the workplace, as this author does, provides insights into the quotidian operations of slave life from place to place and time to time.  It reveals, for instance, how slaves resisted their masters through dance and song (among other things).  The author separates North American slavery into distinct regions and experiences to suggest the variety of slave experience from locale to locale.  A society with slaves is different from a slave society because the former does not depend upon slavery in the economic realm, does not produce as many slaves, and does not press the master-slave dichotomy.  The way that societies with slaves transformed into slave societies differed from society to society, but each such society had brutality in common.  Labor and the struggle of master and slave over labor are instructive starting points from which to examine slavery in general.  The ideals of the Enlightenment, as well as democratic movements in America and elsewhere, gave slaves leverage to challenge their bondage on colonials’ own philosophical terms.

Quote:  “Locating the seat of social change in the workplace, rooting those changes in the material circumstances of African-American life, and connecting such material changes to the development of African-American institutions and beliefs offer a structure for historicizing the study of slavery.  The struggle over labor informed all other conflicts between master and slave, and understanding it opens the way to a full comprehension of slave society and the integration of the slave experience into the history of the American workingclass.  It also provides the material basis for an appreciation of agency within the confines of slavery and how resistance that fell short of revolution could be effective.” (11)

This book strives to avoid a totalizing or essentializing narrative of slavery.  It treats slavery on a case-by-case, place-by-place basis. Read the rest of this entry »


Outline and Summary of David Brion Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, History, Slavery, Thomas Jefferson, Western Civilization on January 27, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Allen Mendenhall

This post inaugurates what I hope will become a trend on this blog, and that’s to outline and summarize various books that I’m reading.  This project should benefit students and scholars alike, as it will make information more accessible, comprehensible, and compact.  Let’s hope I don’t run up against copyright restrictions.  I should note from the outset that these posts are not meant as exhaustive explanations–exhaustive explanations aren’t possible, and anyway outlines and summaries are by definition not exhaustive–but they will condense authors’ arguments into easily digestible portions.  With that, then, let us consider this, the first of these endeavors.  

David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1966).


1.       The Historical Problem: Slavery and the Meaning of America

This chapter opens by pointing out a fundamental contradiction in early American values that prized liberty yet perpetuated slavery.  This contradiction is, Davis says, a paradox.  American society rested on the irresolvable contradiction between celebrating freedom and denying freedom.   This contradiction might reflect the difference between ideal and reality. Read the rest of this entry »

Shakespeare, Whitman & Emerson

In American History, Arts & Letters, Emerson, Literary Theory & Criticism, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman on August 9, 2010 at 9:55 am

In Repositioning Shakespeare, Thomas Cartelli situates Whitman’s Shakespeare in contradistinction to Emerson’s Shakespeare.

The phrase “Whitman’s Shakespeare” is, in a way, an odd construction because Whitman did not seek to claim “ownership” of Shakespeare so much as he sought an “appropriation and critical transformation” of Shakespeare (32).  Cartelli submits, in fact, that Whitman “brought a contentiously critical approach to bear on his assessments of Shakespeare” (30).

Although Cartelli pays lip-service to Emerson’s ambivalence about Shakespeare, he concludes that Emerson transformed the Bard of Avon “into a virtual founding father” by attempting “an act of wishful appropriation in which the (literary) model that cannot be superseded is annexed by the (political) model that supersedes” (33).

Cartelli thus seems convinced that Shakespeare shaped Whitman’s and Emerson’s thought, but he seems unsettled about how and why.

Read the rest of this entry »

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