Slavery in Literature Summary

The Issue

Slavery existed in North America almost from the beginning of British colonization, but by the late 1700’s it was largely confined to the South. The historian Peter Kolchin argues in his book American Slavery: 1619-1877 (1993) that this condition was a result of the Southern states’ agricultural economy; the slave as farm laborer was a far more intrinsic part of the Southern economy than of the industrial and manufacturing economies of the North. As one part of the nation grew to rely more on slaves while another region prospered without forced servitude, the issue of slavery became an increasingly heated national debate. The slave trade was outlawed in 1808, and by the 1840’s the abolitionist movement was gaining strength. Significantly, this movement coincided with a surge in American thinking and writing, encompassing the American Transcendentalist movement of the 1830’s and 1840’s and with the first publication of the American novelists Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. As America began to establish its own identity through original literature and ideas, the question of whether or not it was to be a nation of slaveholders became more pressing.

Before the Civil War

Much of the writing about slavery before the Civil War took the form of sermons and pamphlets, and most was done by whites; the writing of African Americans consisted largely of autobiographical slave narratives rather than fiction or poetry. While the poetry of the New England slave Phillis Wheatley was widely acclaimed during the 1770’s, much of it is religious or devotional rather than political, and she rarely writes explicitly of her position as an enslaved African. The poet James Russell Lowell’s The Biglow Papers (1848) include satirical antislavery poems, but slavery has largely been the subject of the novel rather than the poem. The first significant antislavery novel is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852).

Uncle Tom’s Cabin became an almost instant best-seller and significantly increased abolitionist sentiment in the United States. It is primarily the story of the slave, Tom, who is sold from a Kentucky farm to a kind master (Augustine St. Clare) in New Orleans and then, upon St. Clare’s death, to the evil plantation owner Simon Legree. The novel concludes with Tom being whipped to death and looking heavenward. While Stowe presumably intended Tom’s last act as a symbol of the goodness of the slave and the hypocrisy of proslavery Christians, the term “Uncle Tom” has come to mean one who is submissive to whites. Stowe’s secondary plot, concerning the escape of...

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After the Civil War

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...

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Identity and Slavery

Slavery’s relationship to identity is a complex one, for African Americans and for white Southerners. African Americans during slavery had to create their identities in a culture in which they did not have ownership or control over their own bodies, in which their families were broken up by the slave trade, and in which they were not treated as human. As generations of slaves were born on American soil, African names, customs, religions, and languages disappeared, leaving the slaves with few ways of shaping identity outside the world of the slaveholders.

Two particular components of slavery that affected identity were color and names. Many of the slave states had rigid rules concerning proportion of African blood; a person having one-sixteenth African and fifteen-sixteenths European ancestry could still be considered black and so barred from any of the legal rights that whites had. Autobiographical slave narratives and fiction often deal with the white slave. A slave who looked white not only had a better chance of escaping but was often treated differently—being assigned to the house rather than the field, for example. In the early twentieth century, a white skin provided access to better jobs and greater opportunity in general, and passing became the subject of literature such as Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) or Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun (1929). The question of the relationship between racial identity and actual skin...

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Suggested Readings

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Random House, 1974. An extensive anthropological study of the culture and traditions created by slaves.

Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619-1877. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993. Thorough history of American slavery.

Plasa, Carl, and Betty J. Ring, eds. The Discourse of Slavery: Aphra Behn to Toni Morrison. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1994. Collection of critical essays on works dealing with slavery by American and British authors.

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