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

Harriet Beecher Stowe


(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 provided by Harry's fellow slave, Milly, whose fourteen children have all either died or been sold. She embodies the message of Christian love and forgiveness that dominated Stowe's first novel. Harry is torn between his devotion to Nina, his respect for Milly's example and his desire for retribution against Tom Gordon through Dred.

Major Themes

As in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe was attempting in Dred to expose the evils of slavery so that her readers would support reform, if not outright abolition. Where the first novel was directed at northerners, however, the second was aimed at the citizens of the South, some of them slave owners themselves. By concentrating on the legal aspects of slavery, Stowe was able to demonstrate that slavery was not the benevolent paternalistic institution depicted in sentimental versions of southern life. The law, in fact, upheld the master's complete power over slaves whose rights, whether natural or legal, were considered nonexistent. Through her representations of the sexual exploitation of slave women by their masters—involving Nina's father and Harry's mother in one instance, and Tom Gordon and Harry's wife in another—Stowe forces her readers to face the shame and corruption beneath the genteel surface of southern plantation life. The choice Harry must make—between rebellion and Christian forbearance, between the conflicting appeals of Dred and Milly, and between the half brother he hates and the half sister he loves—mirrors the choice America faced during the 1850s while the slavery debate grew more intense after the failed Missouri Compromise and violent events in Kansas.

Critical Reception

Because of the similarity in subject matter, Dred has inevitably been compared to the far more successful Uncle Tom's Cabin. Initially the comparison was largely unfavorable; Lisa Whitney reports that the second novel's ‘failure’ was attributed to Stowe's inability to muster the same inspiration she employed so well in Uncle Tom's Cabin. However, Whitney insists that such an assessment is not valid because Stowe's goals were not the same in the two works. In recent years many critics have begun to reassess Dred as less sentimental and perhaps more realistic than its predecessor. Alice C. Crozier acknowledges that the call for patience and Christian love, so prominent in the earlier work, is reiterated in Dred, but Stowe's attitude has changed as she “has apparently lost confidence in its strength to prevail.” Richard Boyd would concur, stating that the novel's conclusion, particularly the banishment of Milly to New York, is “indicative of a deep pessimism over the possibility of a nonviolent end to slavery.” Robert S. Levine believes that the novel has also been ignored because of racial politics. Despite charges that Stowe was unable to comprehend slavery from the slave's perspective, Levine claims that, in fact, Stowe was so affected by her interactions with black writers that Dred should rightly be considered “an African-American inspired revision of Uncle Tom's Cabin.” In the same vein, Jeannine Marie DeLombard suggests that the real significance of Stowe's novel is that it questions the appropriateness and effectiveness of white abolitionists and novelists speaking on the slave's behalf, amounting to a radical difference from the message in Uncle Tom's Cabin.