Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 647
After the Civil War, slavery became the subject of much fiction, written at first largely by whites but later also by African Americans. Of the nineteenth century novels, the most significant is Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). In some ways Jim, the runaway slave and friend of Huck,...
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After the Civil War, slavery became the subject of much fiction, written at first largely by whites but later also by African Americans. Of the nineteenth century novels, the most significant is Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). In some ways Jim, the runaway slave and friend of Huck, continues the representation of stereotypical views of African Americans; he generally submits to Huck and is superstitious rather than rational. Yet he and Huck also develop a friendship, and Huck learns to see him as a person rather than an object. The novel’s view of African American identity is a complex and sometimes contradictory one, painting slavery as evil on one hand, yet using the character of Jim for comedy on the other. A second significant work of the late nineteenth century is George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes (1880), a novel about New Orleans in 1803 that depicts slavery as barbarous and cruel.
In the twentieth century two significant works by white writers are William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). The former novel, like much of Faulkner’s work, deals in part with the destruction and ruin of the South after the Civil War. In the portion of the narrative that takes place before the war, Faulkner writes of the difficult relationship between slaves and the poor whites of the South. The novel itself is a novel of identity; it has as its crux the discovery that a white man is partially of African descent. Styron’s historical novel re-creates the 1831 slave revolt led by Nat Turner in Southampton, Virginia; Nat is represented as a merciless, if complex, man following his visions of God. Slavery is shown as brutal and dehumanizing. Following initial acclaim, the novel has received criticism from African American writers, essentially for the white Styron’s appropriation of the African American experience.
Among the twentieth century novels by African American writers dealing with slavery and its effects, works by Octavia E. Butler, Charles Johnson, and Toni Morrison stand out. Butler, who is largely known as a science-fiction writer, has written of American slavery in several of her works, notably Kindred (1979). Butler uses the device of time travel to write a contemporary version of the autobiographical slave narrative. The narrator, Dana, is married to a white man, and when they travel to the plantation past, the novel explores the difference between white and black experiences of slavery in the past and the present. Johnson, in his novel Oxherding Tale (1982), also transforms the slave narrative into fiction; his novel is the story of escape from slavery to freedom. The narrator, Andrew, is the son of a slave and a plantation owner’s wife, a reversal of the usual historical pattern, in which the children of female slaves were fathered by the masters. Significantly, Andrew’s journey to freedom is eased by his white parentage; he has not only been educated but is able to pass. Johnson’s Middle Passage (1990), the story of a freed slave who inadvertently takes a job on a slave ship going to Africa, partially rewrites “Benito Cereno”; on the return voyage from Africa the slaves (some of whom share names with Melville’s characters) mutiny. The novel raises questions about the economic forces surrounding slavery, as well as examining the complicity of freed slaves with oppressive white power structures. Morrison’s novel Beloved (1987), arguably the most significant novel about slavery by an African American writer of the twentieth century, tells the story of an escaped slave, Sethe, who murders her daughter in order to prevent her from being taken back into slavery. The novel, set in southern Ohio after the Civil War, moves back and forth from the consequences of that act (Sethe meets a young woman whom she believes to be the ghost of her murdered child) to Sethe’s memories of slavery.