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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1917

First published: 1863

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical romance

Time of work: 1861

Locale: Tennessee

Principal Characters:

Penn Hapgood, a Quaker schoolmaster

Mr. Villars, a blind clergyman

Virginia, and

Salina, his daughters

Lysander Sprowl, Salina's estranged husband

Augustus Blythewood, a planter

Mr. Stackridge, a Unionist farmer

Carl, a German boy and friend of Penn

Old Toby, a freed slave

Cudjo, and

Pomp, runaway slaves

Silas Ropes, a bully

The Story

In 1861, Penn Hapgood, a young Quaker, was the schoolmaster in the small Tennessee town of Curryville. Because he made no effort to conceal his antislavery convictions, he was unpopular among the hotheaded Secessionists of the community. The Unionists, on the other hand, had offered him a commission in the militia unit that they were secretly organizing. Penn refused the commission offered him on the grounds of his religious faith.

His unpopularity grew after he aided Dan Pepperill, a poor white, flogged and ridden on a rail because he had befriended a whipped slave. Penn's friend, a kindly young German named Carl, offered him a pistol to use in self-defense if he were attacked, but the schoolmaster saw no need to arm himself. A short time later, a party of ruffians seized Penn and tarred and feathered him. Carl, unable to save his friend, searched for some Union sympathizers to defend Penn, but by the time the rescue party arrived at the schoolhouse, the young teacher was not to be found. It was learned, however, that he had gone to his boardinghouse, where his landlady, Mrs. Sprowl, had refused to let him in. She had acted on the orders of Silas Ropes, the leader of the mob.

Penn had found shelter in the home of a blind clergyman, Mr. Villars. The minister's household was made up of his two daughters, Virginia and Salina, old Toby, a freed slave, and Carl, the young German. Old Toby and Farmer Stackridge, a staunch Unionist, tended to Penn and put him to bed in the clergyman's home. While he was still resting, Augustus Blythewood, a planter in love with Virginia, appeared at the house. Although she was little attracted to her suitor, Virginia entertained him graciously in order to conceal the fact that the fugitive was hidden nearby. Another caller was Lysander Sprowl, the son of Penn's landlady. Salina, the older sister, and young Sprowl were married, but they had separated some time before.

Sprowl, having learned Penn's whereabouts, promised to lead the villagers to the schoolmaster's hiding place. The aroused townspeople accused Mr. Villars of hiding an Abolitionist. While they were threatening the old man, Penn disappeared from the house under mysterious circumstances.

A mob, aroused by Blythewood, seized old Toby and prepared to flog him in an effort to learn Penn's whereabouts. Carl managed to cut Toby's bonds before the mob could carry out its threat. Toby, escaping, ran into Blythewood and recognized him. The planter then called off the mob and went to the minister's house, where he pretended great indignation at what had happened.

Penn, meanwhile, was safe in Cudjo's Cave, a hideout known only to runaway slaves. Having heard the angry townspeople threatening Mr. Villars, he had in his half-delirious condition fled into an adjoining field before he fainted. When he came to, he found himself beside a fire in a cavern, with Cudjo and Pomp, two escaped slaves, ministering to his wants. They had befriended Penn because of the help he had given Pepperill several weeks before. Pomp, in particular, was a magnificent old fellow, almost heroic in his dignity and spirit. Both slaves had suffered at the hands of Blythewood and Ropes, the town bully. Through the two, Penn sent word to Mr. Villars that he was safe. The clergyman sent Penn's clothes and food to the hiders.

When he was able to travel, Penn decided to set out for the North. Near Curryville, he fell into the hands of a small detachment of Confederate soldiers. Convicted at a drumhead trial, he was sentenced to be hanged unless he joined the army. He refused. Carl, who had helped his friend before, volunteered to enlist in Penn's place. Set free, Penn was again in danger from a group of townspeople led by Ropes and Sprowl, but with the aid of Farmer Stackridge, he managed to elude his pursuers. Blythewood, hearing of his escape, was furious that Penn had slipped through his fingers.

Penn did not go far, however, for he was unwilling to leave the Villars family without protection. His fears were justified. When he returned secretly to the minister's home, he learned that Mr. Villars had been seized and carried off to prison. Penn himself was captured a short time later, and among his fellow prisoners, he found the blind clergyman. Because Carl was one of the soldiers detailed to guard them, he and the minister were able to make their escape. Stackridge was guiding them to a place of safety in the mountains when they were again captured. As the soldiers were about to run their bayonets through Penn, one of their number dropped dead. The others ran away. Pomp and Cudjo appeared and led the fugitives to Cudjo's Cave.

Augustus Blythewood proposed to Virginia Villars, but she, realizing his dislike for Penn, would have nothing to do with the young planter. Meanwhile, Stackridge and a party of his Unionist friends were skirmishing with the Confederate soldiers in the woods nearby. Virginia, while searching for Penn, was captured by a Confederate soldier, but she was relieved when she discovered that her captor was Carl. Before the young German could lead her out of the forest, set afire by the skirmishers, he himself was captured by Ropes's men. After she had climbed to a rocky ledge, the fire having cut off her escape on both sides, she was rescued from her predicament by Penn and Cudjo, who led her to the cave. That night, rain put out the forest fire. In the morning, old Toby appeared at the cave. He was overjoyed to discover that his mistress and her father were both safe.

Lysander Sprowl, in the meantime, had taken possession of Mr. Villars' house and forced Salina to serve him there. When Toby returned with a note to tell Salina that her sister and her father were safe, he tried to deceive Sprowl as to the fate of the fugitives, but Salina, who still loved her worthless husband, incautiously showed him Virginia's note. Sprowl brutally ordered Toby flogged in order to learn where Mr. Villars and Penn were hidden. Angered by Sprowl's cruelty, Salina set fire to her father's house and, under cover of the confusion, helped old Toby to make his escape.

Sprowl, encountering Carl, demanded that the young German lead him to the cave. Carl pretended to agree, but along the way, he managed to hit the bully over the head with a stone. While Sprowl was still unconscious, Carl dragged him to the cave, where he was securely bound. Meanwhile, old Toby and Salina made their way to the cave, and they arrived about the time Carl appeared with the wounded Sprowl. Pomp had also led to the cave the band of Unionists guided by Stackridge. They prepared to turn their quarters into an underground fortress.

Before long, a party led by Silas Ropes discovered the location of the cave. He and his men guarded the entrance in the hope of starving the occupants into submission.

Salina, ever changeable, loosened Sprowl's bonds so that he was able to escape. He went at once to the troops under Blythewood and arranged to have a squad of men sent to attack the cave. When Sprowl, at the head of the attacking force, reached the entrance of the cave, he found it defended by his wife. She fired at her husband, wounding him fatally, and was herself bayoneted by one of the Confederate soldiers. Virginia and her father were captured and taken before Blythewood.

The planter again pleaded his suit with Virginia, but she received his offers with contempt. While they argued, apart from the camp, Pomp suddenly appeared and told his former master that any sudden move would mean his death. Carl and Penn were covering Blythewood with their guns, and he was taken a prisoner to the cave. There Pomp compelled his former master to sign a safe conduct pass for the defenders and an order for the attackers to cease the fight.

Under safe conduct, the defenders left the cave. Mr. Villars, Virginia, Penn, and Pomp set out for Ohio. They left the body of Salina behind them in the cave, as well as those of Cudjo and Ropes, who had killed each other during an earlier attack. Pomp returned long enough to free Blythewood before joining his friends on their way to safety.

Penn and Carl went from Ohio to Pennsylvania, where they enlisted in the same regiment. Pomp served the Union as a scout. In many battles of the war, Penn did heroic service, earning for himself the nickname of "The Fighting Quaker."

Critical Evaluation:

Written during the Civil War, CUDJO'S CAVE mingles elements of propaganda with its historical setting and romantic theme. Because the novel displays deep sincerity, however, and a considerable degree of literary skill, it has enjoyed a popularity outlasting by many years the political issues which gave it birth. The book presents clearly and forcefully the problem of the rural population in Tennessee during that difficult time of decision at the beginning of the Civil War period. In that particular time and place the problem was peculiarly acute because Tennessee was a border state and its citizens had many reasons for indecision when faced by the realities of conflict between North and South. John Townsend Trowbridge, working close to actual history, dramatized effectively the guerrilla warfare fought among the people of Tennessee and Kentucky.

At times, the plot comes close to melodrama, but the narrative strength and the skill of many characterizations manages to raise the action to a higher level. The villains in the tale are the least convincing characters; most of the time, they are no more than sketches, without depth or subtlety. No doubt many men committed such vile acts, but the reader is given no insight into their deeper instincts or motivations. Another flaw in the book is the dialogue, which is at times stilted and unrealistic. In particular, Old Toby's black dialect and Carl's German accent are both unconvincing, falling perilously close to stereotypes. Cudjo's speech and actions occasionally slip into stereotypical patterns as well.

Pomp, however, is a character at once noble and believable. Although on the surface he seems almost too perfect to be true, the reader comes to feel an affection for this extraordinary black man. The author penetrates Pomp's personality and creates in him one of the two best characters in the novel. Penn Hapgood, the Quaker schoolmaster, is the other character who lifts the book above the ordinary. The Abolitionist Penn is shown to be an idealist of subtle feelings and courage, a man willing to risk his life for what he believes. His speeches against the system combine propaganda with genuine emotion. He shows his wisdom when he declares that "education alone makes men free" and acknowledges that many white men might be considered slaves. Pomp's testimony to the joys of freedom, however precarious, is a moving and powerful statement. Throughout the long novel, Penn and Pomp stir the reader's interest and sympathies.

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