Fanny Kemble's America by John Anthony Scott

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Fanny Kemble's America Analysis

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Scott states that he writes “for young people of all ages, from elementary school to the graduate level.” His many books dealing with aspects of American history, including both slavery and those who struggled against it, attest his belief in making available to young Americans the historical heritage that they share.

The name of Fanny Kemble is no longer universally known, although, as Scott points out in Fanny Kemble’s America, this neglect is certainly undeserved. She was a most independent but generous woman who supported herself on the stage, although she had no desire for an acting career, and who rescued her father’s theater from ruin when it was at the point of bankruptcy. Her American tour was for her parents’ benefit, and, at her marriage to Butler, she generously renounced her share of the proceeds and gave the money to her father.

Kemble was unaccustomed to idleness; the life of the theater was usually grueling, and, although an upper-class wife, she was unwilling to have servants supply her every need. She frequently turned to writing, both letters and journals, to satisfy her need for activity. Scott, drawing from these writings as well as from historical records, paints a vivid picture of the torment that Kemble experienced when she learned that her husband was the owner of a large plantation that included slaves. In 1835, married only a year, Kemble prepared a journal of her American tour and included in it a lengthy attack upon the institution of slavery. Butler was outraged and forbade her to publish it. After many quarrels and much editing on his part, the book was published, but without the material on slavery.

Kemble’s torment increased when she encountered the realities of the slave plantation and was forced to acknowledge that the man whom she had married had no interest in or feeling for these human beings that he owned. Nevertheless, despite her agonies, Kemble maintained a journal of her experiences during the winter of 18381839 on the Butler plantation in Sea Islands, Georgia. She described in detail conversations that she had with slaves and plantation owners, sights that she witnessed, and actions that she took, sometimes without her husband’s knowledge, to better the conditions of the slaves’ existence. Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 18381839 is brilliant, an honest and intelligent work of literature and an enormous contribution to knowledge of Southern society in that period.

Her journal, however, was not published for many years, as Kemble believed that it would be a breach of confidence to reveal what she had experienced as the wife of Butler and was also fearful that she would never be united with her...

(The entire section is 690 words.)