Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Oxherding Tale depicts the startling and varied adventures of Andrew Hawkins as he attempts to negotiate the perilous passage from slavery to freedom, crossing racial barriers and throwing his identity into crisis along the way. Born into slavery on a cotton plantation, Andrew from an early age at the same time becomes an exceptionally sophisticated thinker after being tutored by an intellectual. His status at Cripplegate, a plantation owned by Jonathan Polkinghorne, is deeply ambiguous; conceived by an enslaved butler, given birth by Polkinghorne’s wife, well regarded by Polkinghorne, he attempts to exploit his unusual position to negotiate a path to freedom.
At twenty, having fallen in love with Minty, a seamstress of blossoming beauty, Andrew is emboldened to confront Polkinghorne, requesting a deed of manumission in order to earn money so that he might marry Minty. Polkinghorne sends Andrew to a widow’s distant farm to work for wages and promises to sign the freedom papers only when Andrew returns with the money. Aflame with the possibilities, Andrew sets out to take responsibility for his future, to shape a destiny for himself and his loved ones.
The novel consists of two major parts. Part 1, entitled “House and Field,” is devoted largely to Andrew’s life at the Polkinghorne plantation and to his service at Flo Hatfield’s farm. Most of Andrew’s childhood and adolescence is presented in flashbacks; at the end of...
(The entire section is 629 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Oxherding Tale describes the education a young slave, Andrew Hawkins, receives from a variety of people. It is through synthesizing the different views from these people that he becomes a complete person.
The novel itself opens with “the Fall,” which is how Andrew describes his conception. During a bout of heavy drinking, Jonathan Polkinghorne, the owner of a South Carolina plantation named Cripplegate, and his favorite slave, who is also his butler, decide to swap wives for one night. The master slips into the slave’s quarters, while the slave (George Hawkins) goes to the Polkinghornes’ bedroom. The deception is uncovered by Anna Polkinghorne during the act of intercourse, and although she immediately screams, causing George to run from the bedroom, Anna has been impregnated. This act forces her husband to send George to work in the fields, thus causing him to fall in stature from a house slave to a field slave. George’s new occupation is that of an oxherd.
Even though Jonathan would like the baby to be brought up as the Polkinghornes’ own son since they are childless, his wife insists that Andrew be placed in the slave quarters as though there is no connection between the master and his slave. Consequently, Andrew is reared by George and his wife, Mattie, though Jonathan allows the boy to receive an excellent education with the promise of someday being free.
To tutor Andrew, Jonathan hires an itinerant...
(The entire section is 708 words.)