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Posts Tagged ‘William Wells Brown’

Rugged Individualism in Slave Narratives

In American History, Arts & Letters, Emerson, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Slavery on August 1, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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Law in Melville and Hawthorne

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Historicism, History, Humanities, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Writing on July 11, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Law was a common trope in the writing of nineteenth century American authors.  The jurist Roscoe Pound referred to nineteenth century America as a “frontier society” that was struggling to define what law was.  Justice John Marshall was carving out the jurisdiction of the nation’s high court, even as Andrew Jackson challenged Marshall’s authority to do so.  (Jackson supposedly said, in regard to Worcester v. Georgia, that Marshall had made his decision, “now let him enforce it.”)  American jurisprudents were seeking to reconcile the contradictions between liberty and equality on the one hand—the ideals of the revolutionary generation—with the peculiar institution of slavery on the other.  The ethos of republicanism and the ideal of open discourse clashed with the legislative attempts among the Southern states to resurrect Roman code to validate slave laws, even as the judiciary, on all levels and in all states, attempted to incorporate British common law into a new setting with unique problems.  In short, law was in flux during the nineteenth century in America, and writers like Melville and Hawthorne picked up on this problem and gave it unique and sometimes troubling articulation in their literature.

The “facts” in Benito Cereno are strikingly similar to the facts in one of America’s most memorable cases: U.S. v. The Amistad, in which John Quincy Adams, among others, served as an attorney.  In both “cases,” slaves took over a slave ship, killed some of their white captives, and demanded that the remaining white shipmen return the boat to Africa.  Rather than doing that, however, the white shipmen steered a path toward America, where the unsuspecting crew of another ship, sensing something wrong, came to assist.  These fact patterns raise sensitive and disturbing questions about the law.  What is justice?  How should it be determined?  Which party is right, and what does it mean to be right or to have rights?  For that matter, what is the law to begin with?

In Benito Cereno, Cereno is the captain of the ship bearing slaves, and it is from Delano’s perspective that we learn, gradually, that a slave revolt has occurred and that Cereno is being held captive by Africans.  Delano is the captain of a different ship who has come aboard Cereno’s ship to assist Cereno’s apparently distressed crew.  The leader of the slave revolt, Babo, himself a slave, is always by Cereno’s side, thereby giving Delano the impression that Cereno has a loyal servant.  What Delano eventually discovers is that the slaves have spared the lives of only Cereno and a few other whites in order that these whites return the ship to Africa.

In Amistad as in Benito Cereno, the African slaves had been removed from their homeland, without their consent, and taken to a foreign land among alien peoples for the sole purpose of perpetual enslavement.  On the other hand, the white shipmen had, it could be argued, complied with the law of the sea in conducting these actions, and they were murdered by mutinying slaves.  The problem here is that neither side seems to represent an unquestionably moral or obviously right position.  Slavery is evil, but so is murder.  Melville, perhaps realizing the literary possibilities created by this tension, subjects this challenging set of circumstances to rigorous interrogation by way of a captivating narrative. Read the rest of this entry »

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