Slavery in Literature

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What vital role did literature play in informing the general public of the evils of slavery in a pre-industrialized age with no mass communication?

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The pre-industrial era of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not have the forms of mass communication, such as the internet, television, movies, and radio, that we enjoy in the present day. However, the era did have books, newspapers, and other printed material that was published and widely distributed. These were the forms of mass communication that existed back then, and because they were the only means that people had to stay in touch with what was happening in the world, they were extremely popular. Because of the lack of other methods of communicating information to a wide audience, literature played a vital role in exposing the evils of slavery.

One of the means by which people became aware of slavery's evils was through slave narratives. These were first-person accounts by slaves of what it was like to live in slavery. Sometimes former slaves wrote these accounts themselves, but because many slaves were illiterate, some dictated them to abolitionists.

The first popular slave narrative was The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olauda Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. Published in 1789 in two volumes, it became an international bestseller. It follows Equiano's life through boyhood in Africa, crossing the Atlantic on a slave ship, and eventually attaining freedom and becoming a British citizen.

Another popular slave narrative, first published in 1845, was The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Douglas wrote his autobiography on his own, and in it he equates physical freedom with the intellectual freedom won through literacy.

Perhaps the most influential (among white Americans, at least) work of literature on the evils of slavery was Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This book caused a significant uproar when it was first published in serialized form in 1851, with sympathetic white and black people praising it and southern slave-owners condemning it. Many people today consider Uncle Tom's Cabin a racist work, but at the time it was written, it caused many white Americans to become aware of slavery's evils and made them sympathetic to the plight of slaves.

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