Harriet Beecher Stowe Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp Introduction
by Harriet Beecher Stowe

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp Harriet Beecher Stowe

The following entry presents criticism of Stowe's Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856). See also, Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly Criticism.

Dred is Stowe's second antislavery novel, following the more popular and influential Uncle Tom's Cabin. While it still promotes the abolitionist cause, Dred is less optimistic about the possibility of achieving a non-violent end to slavery.

Biographical Information

Stowe was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on June 14, 1811, the seventh of eight surviving children in a deeply religious family. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a Presbyterian minister, and her mother, Roxanna Foote, was a well-educated Episcopalian from a prosperous family. When Stowe was five years old, her mother died of consumption, and her older sister Catherine took over as a mother figure to Harriet and her younger brother Henry Ward. Stowe's disposition as a child has been described as sad, even depressed. Hoping to ease this depression, Catherine took her younger sister, at the age of thirteen, to Hartford to live in the woman's seminary she had established. Stowe began teaching at the school in 1827. In 1832 Stowe's father was appointed as president of Lane Theological Seminary, and the family, including Stowe, relocated with him to Cincinnati, Ohio. There, on the border between free and slave states, Stowe gained firsthand knowledge of the increasingly volatile debates over slavery. It was in Cincinnati that she met her husband, Calvin Stowe, who taught biblical studies at Lane. They married in 1836 and had seven children by 1850.

The financial strain of raising such a large family inspired Stowe to begin writing in order to supplement her husband's meager salary. In 1850 the family moved to Brunswick, Maine, where passage of the Fugitive Slave Law prompted Stowe to write Uncle Tom's Cabin in an effort to persuade northern readers of the necessity of abolishing slavery in America. The book was enormously successful, earning Stowe not only financial independence, but international recognition as well. None of Stowe's later works, including Dred, approached Uncle Tom's Cabin in critical acclaim or popularity with readers. When Stowe's husband retired from teaching in 1863, the family again moved, returning to Hartford, Connecticut, where Stowe continued to write for many years. She died on July 1, 1896.

Plot and Major Characters

Dred is a lengthy novel, with a number of characters, plots and subplots. The central character in Dred is Harry Gordon, a faithful slave who is tied by blood or circumstance to most of the other characters. The son of a slave and a slaveowner, Harry's half-siblings include Nina Gordon, the socialite daughter of a North Carolina planter, and Tom Gordon, a dissipated alcoholic who lusts after Harry's wife. There is also Cora Gordon. Like Harry, she is of mixed lineage. Unlike Harry, she is free and married to an uncle of Tom and Nina. When her husband dies, she inherits his plantation and Tom sues to force Cora back into slavery while obtaining the property for himself. Tom also attempts to buy Harry's wife for his own purposes, a battle that he loses in the short term. In the meantime, Nina is in love with Edward Clayton, an opponent of slavery and the son of a local judge. Edward and his sister Anne attempt to institute a series of utopian reforms on their plantation, Magnolia Grove. When Edward defends a slave woman in his father's courtroom, Judge Clayton abides by the letter of the law, demonstrating that slaves, as property, have no rights regardless of circumstances. Critics maintain that the failure of Edward's idealism before the law suggests that Stowe's faith in a non-violent solution to slavery was wavering. This is evident in the character of Dred, the militant leader of a band of fugitive slaves hiding out in the swamp. Dred advocates violent revolution and revenge against slave owners. An altogether different perspective is...

(The entire section is 1,172 words.)