Slave Narratives

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How do contemporary representations of white slave masters compare with earlier literary representations?

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As one might imagine, slavemasters aren't typically portrayed as terribly sympathetic characters in literature, although they normally employed overseers to dispense discipline and/or cruelty to the slaves as needed to keep the plantation running smoothly.  Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery at the age of twenty and published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845, believed his father to be his mother's master, a plantation owner he called Captain Anthony.  Douglass wrote that he, like many children born of liasons between plantation owners and their slaves, was treated cruelly by the master, the overseer and half-siblings that existed from the marriage of the plantation owner and his wife.  Douglass saw Captain Anthony's overseer, a cruel man named Mr. Plummer, tie up and severely beat his Aunt Hester for disobeying the edict to stay in at night. 

When Harriet Beecher Stowe met President Abraham Lincoln, he reportedly said, "So you're the little lady who started this great big war", referring to her controversial novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852, just under a decade before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter.  Stowe's depiction of the horrible Simon Legree, a cruel master who beats his slave to death, galvanized public opinion and created a new outrage in the North about the ills of the slavery institution. 

By comparison, in 1936, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind portrayed the lives of the Tara Plantation slaves as being idyllic and the slaves themselves as being happy and not terribly bright. Scarlett's father is a bit of a rough man, but he loves his wife and his plantation, and loses his mind when they are both gone.  Gerald O'Hara's slaves are never shown being disciplined, and are allowed to discipline their owner's children.  They are amicable workers who sometimes receive gifts for good work and willingly stay with the family when the war has ended and they're free to go.  Indeed, the slaves that choose to leave are viewed by the O'Hara slaves as being disloyal to the plantation and the family.  The O'Haras have an overseer, Jonas Wilkerson, whose most notorious activity is impregnating a girl from a poor family nearby.  There is no suggestion that Wilkerson was cruel to the slaves of Tara. 

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