The largest political agenda of the nineteenth century, the antislavery movement, typically brings to mind a single work of literature. After selling more than 300,000 copies in the United States in its first year, Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811–1896) Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) was later translated into more than twenty languages and sold an astounding 1.5 million copies worldwide. Reportedly greeted by Abraham Lincoln as "the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war" in an 1862 visit to the White House, Stowe immediately reached iconic status for her phenomenally successful and provoking depiction of the horrors of slavery. At the same time, though, that her abolitionist efforts would be celebrated around the world, more radical-minded antislavery activists would denounce the problematic implications of the novel—implications that would ultimately characterize Stowe's legacy throughout most of the twentieth century. Riddled with racist stereotypes that have come to define modern-day memories of the novel—the submissive "Uncle Tom" character being the most (in)famous—and aligning itself with the conservative "Colonization" mission that advocated shipping slaves off to Africa, Uncle Tom's Cabin provides a compelling representation of the complex and highly fraught abolitionist movement. Stowe's novel, which would become the most recognizable abolitionist title, emerged from an already well-established tradition of literary projects that sought to end slavery and it played a role in the negotiation of various political agendas within the movement itself.
The success of Stowe's abolitionist novel depended upon the existence of antislavery newspapers, which came into being three decades before the novel's publication. Before it was published in book form, Uncle Tom's Cabin was initially serialized in 1851–1852, in the Washington, D.C., abolitionist weekly, National Era, then under the editorship of Gamaliel Bailey (1807–1859). In addition to serialized fiction, abolitionist newspapers also printed essays, letters, speeches, sermons, and editorials, as well as short fiction and poetry. Starting with the 1821 launching of Genius of Universal Emancipation by the Quaker publisher Benjamin Lundy (1789–1839), the number of abolitionist newspapers would grow to more than twenty over the next thirty years. The most prominent among these, The Liberator, was launched in 1831 by Lundy's estranged disciple, William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), who would become one of the movement's most recognized leaders.
Although the newspapers would eventually serve multiple and often competing political agendas, Garrison's editorial preface to the first issue of The Liberator announced a resounding mission statement for the abolitionist newspaper tradition. In it he declares, "On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation . . . urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present . . . I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and i will be heard." The Liberator, which Garrison published in partnership with Isaac
|SOURCE: Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: Norton, 1982), pp. 134–135, 538–539; Negro Year Book (Tuskegee, Ala.: Negro Year Book, 1913), p. 75; Penn, The Afro-American Press and Its Editors (1891; New York: Arno, 1969).|
|Freedom's Journal||New York||30 March 1827|
|Rights of All||New York||28 March 1828|
|Weekly Advocate||New York||January 1837|
(formerly the Weekly Advocate)
|New York||4 March 1837|
|National Watchman||Troy, New York||1842|
|People's Press||New York||1843|
|Genius of Freedom||1845|
|Ram's Horn||New York||1 January 1847|
|North Star||Rochester, New York||1 November 1847|
|Moral Reform Magazine||Philadelphia||1847|
|Impartial Citizen||Syracuse, New York||1848|
|Colored Man's Journal||New York||1851|
(formerly the Christian Herald )
|Mirror of the Times||San Francisco||1855|
|Herald of Freedom||1855|
|Anglo African||New York||23 July 1859|
Knapp, had a direct impact on the careers of many of the most influential abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), Wendell Phillips (1811–1884), Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880), and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911). The Liberator also published literature from some of the nineteenth century's foremost literary voices, such as poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892), whose famous poem "The Branded Hand" (1845) pays homage to abolitionist sea captain Jonathan Walker, who was branded "ss" for "slave stealer": "Then lift that manly right hand, bold ploughman of the wave! / Its branded palm shall prophesy, 'Salvation to the Slave!'" (ll. 41–42).
While his newspaper would bring together an impressive list of emerging and veteran abolitionists, Garrison was by no means a representative of a unified, cohesive movement. Rather, as an unyielding and steadfast leader, he evoked dissent as much as he inspired followers. Having diverged himself from the leanings of Lundy and the American Colonization Society, in 1833 Garrison was a principal organizer of the American Anti-Slavery Society, a group that opposed colonization efforts and sought the immediate emancipation of slaves. A pacifist, Garrison urged fellow abolitionists to abandon political activity in a government that upheld slavery. The Garrisonian faction's belief in moral suasion, rather than political activism, as the preferred means for abolishing slavery, together with the growing number of antislavery newspapers, led to a phenomenal proliferation of literature that attempted to expose the evils of slavery to slaveholders and Northerners, including slave narratives and sentimental fiction.
Nevertheless, Garrison's insistent opposition to political and militant efforts and his commitment to other human rights agendas, namely women's suffrage, led to divisiveness within the abolitionist movement. As a result, a growing number of people distanced themselves from the mainstream abolition movement, prioritizing antislavery as their single mission and advocating political activity to end slavery. Two such antislavery groups formed in 1840, the Liberty Party, a political organization committed to abolishing slavery, and the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, a group which refused to admit women. Several antislavery newspapers sprang from the faction that splintered away from Garrisonian abolitionism, including the first African American–owned-and-operated newspaper published in the United States, John Brown Russwurm (1799–1851) and Samuel Eli Cornish's (c. 1795–1858) Freedom's Journal (1827–1829), as well as, among others, Frederick Douglass's North Star (later Frederick Douglass' Paper, 1847–1860), and Henry Highland Garnet's (1815–1882) National Watchman (1842–1843). Whichever faction they represented, the subversive nature of abolitionist newspapers presented a constant threat to their creators. Editors were frequently victims of violent attacks, and in 1837, Elijah Parish Lovejoy (1802–1837), editor of the Alton Observer (Illinois), was murdered while trying to protect his printing press from a proslavery mob. Despite the brutal opposition to their production and dissemination, though, abolitionist newspapers succeeded in cultivating audiences for voices and messages that might otherwise have gone unheard, particularly those of slave narratives.
The most compelling force in the antislavery movement to emerge from, and eventually diverge from, the auspices of Garrison and The Liberator was Frederick Douglass. As a speaker for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass's abolitionist career began to follow the path of moral suasion, rather than political or militant activism. To that end, Narrativeof the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) poignantly recounts the author's experiences in slavery, including his successful attempt to "steal" literacy from his oppressors, his reliance on and protection of fellow slaves, his fight with slave "breaker" Covey, and his eventual escape from slavery. Douglass's direct account of his life in slavery appeals to values that include the importance of family and religion, such as, for instance, when he regrets the lack of connection to his mother: "Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of [my mother's] death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger" (p. 19). With a frank and straightforward delivery that contrasts with the sentimental abolitionist writing of the day, Douglass's Narrative records as valuable a memory of the experience of slavery in the United States as of the rhetoric of African American antislavery discourse. As a reviewer for Garrison's Liberator (30 May 1845) reflected, "Its stirring incidents will fasten themselves on the eager minds of the youth of this country with hooks of steel. The politics of the land will stand abashed before it, while her more corrupt religion will wish to sink back into the hot womb which gave it birth" (p. 86).
Although his Narrative opened with conventional white-authored prefaces (one by Garrison and another by Wendell Phillips) that attested to the legitimacy and authenticity of the narrative, Douglass's reliance on white sponsorship would be short-lived. In 1847, just two years after the publication of his Narrative, Douglass began his own antislavery newspaper in Rochester, New York, the North Star (later changed to Frederick Douglass' Paper). Finally, Douglass completed his break from Garrison in 1851, when he announced to the American Anti-Slavery Society that he intended to urge North Star readers to use political and militant means to end slavery, an agenda in direct conflict with Garrison's insistent pacifism and opposition to political activity. In his later autobiographies, Douglass would remark upon the role Garrison played in the early period of his career, including, significantly, the white abolitionist's heavy-handed editing of his Narrative.
Douglass's efforts, and particularly his initial alliance with Garrisonian abolitionism, were joined in 1843 by William Wells Brown (c. 1814–1884), who also served as a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society. He would eventually become the most prolific African American writer of the mid-nineteenth century, with such distinctions as first African American playwright and novelist, but Brown's career as an abolitionist writer is highlighted by the 1847 publication of his personal account of slavery, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. In addition to its memorable descriptions of his experiences as a slave in St. Louis, Missouri, Brown's Narrative contributes the earliest detailed and compelling representation of the Underground Railroad. Brown's account of the system that supported slaves in their flight north draws upon his own experiences escaping with the help of Wells Brown, a Quaker whose name he later adopted, as well as his own work as an Underground Railroad "conductor," facilitating the escape of other slaves on a Lake Erie steamboat.
While best known for his slave narrative, Brown also wrote what are believed to be the first African American–authored plays, Experience; or, How to Give a Northern Man a Backbone (1856) and The Escape; or, A Leap For Freedom (1858), as well a collection of his poems, Anti-Slavery Harp (1848), and several volumes of black American history. Also, in Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853), the first African American novel, Brown relates the story of Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his slave mistress Sally Hemings (1773–1835). Originally published in England, the novel eventually came to U.S. readers, but only after it had been significantly revised, with references to the president removed. Much like the evolution of Douglass's anti-slavery agenda, Brown began his career as a pacifist who boycotted political abolitionism in the 1840s, but his writings over the course of the following decade reflect his growing militancy and preference for political activism to end slavery.
Henry Bibb (1815–1854) was another African American writer who evolved into a radical antislavery figure, eventually becoming a member of the Liberty Party. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave (1849) tells the hair-raising story of the author's repeated escapes from slavery, as he was recaptured and escaped several times. Bibb's Narrative also gained attention for being one of the rare representations of slavery in the Deep South (Louisiana), as well as for offering one of the earliest depictions of slave folklife, including "conjure" traditions. What makes this narrative distinct from other slave narratives is the central emphasis it places on the role of marriage and family in slavery, as the author recounts his terrifying expeditions to free his wife and child. An advocate of militant and political means to end slavery, Bibb eventually moved to Canada, where he began the first black newspaper in that country, the Voice of the Fugitive.
Because of the highly political subject matter and the practical need for endorsement by male-centered abolitionist societies, in addition to many other racial and gender biases, the slave-narrative tradition was dominated by the male perspective. Significantly, one of the few female-authored, full-length slave narratives offers a unique and graphic portrayal of the sexual exploitation of women in slavery. Published under the pen name Linda Brent, Harriet Jacobs's (c. 1813–1897) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) tells the extraordinary story of the writer's seven-year refuge in the seven-foot by nine-foot and merely three-foot-high garret of her grandmother's house, where she hid to avoid the sexual advances of her master, "Dr. Flint." While Incidents features the white sponsorship conventional of the genre, in the form of an introduction by Lydia Maria Child, it is Jacobs's own preface that asserts the unparalleled value of the firsthand perspective of slave narratives: "Only by experience can any one realize how deep, and dark, and foul is that pit of abominations" (p. 126). Even more significantly, Jacobs's preface also appeals directly to white women readers, a rhetorical strategy typical to sentimental abolitionist literature: "But I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse" (p. 126). With its emphasis on family, sexuality, and female virtue, Jacobs's narrative belongs as much to the slave-narrative tradition as to the sentimentalist tradition it simultaneously adopts and subverts.
POLEMICAL ABOLITIONIST LITERATURE
Slave narratives have clear political and social agendas, as they seek to expose and record the evils of slavery, but some of the most compelling antislavery writing appeared in nonliterary genres, as well. While many abolitionists adopted several different genres (e.g., Garrison, Douglass, Brown, and Child all wrote in literary and nonliterary forms), several are known chiefly for their polemical writings. Before his mysterious death, David Walker (1785–1830) worked to circulate to African Americans in both the North and South his controversial Walker's Appeal, in Four Articles, Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America (1829). Inciting its African American audience to overthrow the system of slavery, Walker's Appeal provoked many Southern states to enact stronger laws against teaching slaves to read. "If any are anxious to ascertain who I am," writes David Walker near the end of his Appeal, "know the world, that I am one of the oppressed, degraded and wretched sons of Africa, rendered so by the avaricious and unmerciful, among the whites" (p. 71). From that perspective, Walker's rebellious messages especially outraged white readers, even including some abolitionists. In a Liberator editorial in 1831, Garrison himself denounced Walker's incendiary Appeal, reminding his readers that he and his followers "do not preach rebellion—no, but submission and peace. . . . the possibility of a bloody insurrection at the south fills us with dismay."
African American antislavery activist Henry Highland Garnet's radical "Address to the Slaves of the United States of America" also appalled pacifists, including Douglass and Brown, at the National Convention of Colored Citizens in Buffalo, New York, in 1843. In his address, Garnet implores slaves to use any means necessary to revolt, and he encourages militant political activism among abolitionists. Comparing slave rebellion to the patriotic rebellion of the American Revolution to motivate his audience, Garnet insists that it is the blacks' moral and religious duty to end slavery: "Fellow men! patient sufferers! behold your dearest rights crushed to the earth! See your sons murdered, and your wives, mothers, and sisters doomed to prostitution. In the name of the merciful God, and by all that life is worth, let it no longer be a debatable question whether it is better to choose liberty or death!" (p. 409).
Many radical abolitionists opposed the inclusion of women's voices, mostly for fear that women's suffrage might overshadow the antislavery agenda, but abolitionist societies increasingly invited women's participation by mid-century. Although their messages were less likely to appear in published polemical forums, the voices of women were nevertheless present throughout the major episodes of the abolitionist movement. In an 1860 meeting of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, for instance, Lucretia Mott (1793–1880), a Quaker, spoke about John Brown (1800–1859), who led the infamous raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry with the intention of arming slaves for revolt. In her speech, Mott expressed her own interpretation of pacifism: "I have no idea, because I am a non-resistant, of submitting tamely to injustice inflicted either on me or on the slave. I will oppose it with all the moral powers with which I am endowed. I am no advocate of passivity. Quakerism, as I understand it, does not mean quietism."
By the time of Mott's speech in 1860 American audiences were gradually becoming more accustomed to hearing women's voices in public, but the propriety of women participating in political forums was still hotly debated only a few decades earlier, as illustrated by the famous exchanges between Angelina Emily Grimké (1805–1879) and Catharine Beecher (1800–1878). Along with her sister, Sarah Moore Grimké, Angelina Grimké was among the first women to speak in the abolitionist lecture circuits by the time her first piece of polemical literature, Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, was published by the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1836. In response to Grimké's public plea to fellow Southern women to join the abolitionist cause, Beecher (sister to Harriet Beecher Stowe) published An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, with Reference to the Duty of American Females (1837). In that publication, Beecher discourages Grimké, and American women readers in general, from engaging in public speech and political activism, reminding them of the expectation that women restrict their influence to the private sphere of the domestic circle, rather than extend it to the public, political sphere. "The peculiar qualifications," she insists, "which make it suitable for a man to be an Abolitionist are, an exemplary discharge of all the domestic duties; humility, meekness, delicacy, tact, and discretion, and these should especially be the distinctive traits of those who take the place of leaders in devising measures" (pp. 150–151). The following year, Grimké published a long-awaited response to Beecher's critique of her political activism, in Letters to Catherine E. Beecher, in Reply to an Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, Addressed to A. E. Grimké (1838). In this lengthy series of letters that defend her own role as an abolitionist, Grimké also provides a fascinating representation of many of the biggest figures and personalities in the abolitionist movement, including Garrison, whom she defends against implications in Beecher's essay. Most significantly, though, her exchanges with Beecher compelled Grimké to develop an extensive defense of her position, which led her to articulate a more secular argument against slavery as well as a firmer assertion of women's political rights.
The public debates between Beecher and Grimké between the years 1836 and 1838 made the controversy over women's role in abolitionism famous, but Lydia Maria Child's own experiences had already demonstrated the devastating effects of polemical publications on a woman author's career. A very successful and famous novelist in the 1820s, Child's popularity plummeted when she outraged her readers with the publication of her first abolitionist piece in 1833, An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. With chapters that delineated the "Brief History of Negro Slavery" and offered a "Comparative View of Slavery, in Different Ages and Nations," Child's Appeal presented a rational argument in favor of immediate abolition of slavery and, most radically at the time, full integration of African Americans into society. Child situated her Appeal in logical, rather than sentimental, reasoning, and the ruinous consequences of that decision on her career indicate the restrictions women writers faced. For the most part, after she was vilified for participating in a masculine tradition, Child shifted her political campaign into her sentimental fiction writing, a genre carved out by and, mostly, for women.
The Boston-based antislavery gift book series The Liberty Bell, which ran from 1839 to 1858, provided the ideal forum for Child's abolitionist fiction. Child's Liberty Bell stories exemplify the emotionally charged emphasis on slavery's devastation of family and home that would become conventional in abolitionist fiction. In the short story "Charity Bowery" (1839), for example, the title character, a former slave, tells the narrator the story of how she came to be separated from each of her sixteen children. In this illustration of slavery's desecration of the mother-child bond, Child portrays the slave mother's struggle to keep her children and her tearful memories of how she lost each of them, including one that was killed by his master. Two other Liberty Bell stories, "The Quadroons" (1842) and "Slavery's Pleasant Homes" (1843), both expose the incompatibility of the slavery institution with monogamous marriage, a critique that developed into a common element of abolitionist fiction.
Child's short fiction helped to establish some of the major literary tropes to emerge from abolitionist fiction, including, most notoriously, the "tragic mulatto" convention, which would turn into a permanent fixture in American literature, as writers across different perspectives and eras would adopt, adapt, revise, criticize, and respond to the trope in their own literature. Child and other nineteenth-century white fiction writers typically represented the tragic mulatto as a beautiful, nearly white woman, the offspring of a white slave holder and his black female slave. With often only one-eighth black ancestry (or, "octoroon") and tragically unaware of her own and her mother's racial background, the tragic mulatto character usually falls in love with a white man who eventually either dies or abandons her, remanding her to slavery. Over a century after the popularization of the tragic mulatto figure, the African American writer and literary scholar Sterling Brown points out that the white writers' "favorite character, the octoroon, wretched because of the 'single drop of midnight in her veins,' desires a white lover above all else, and must therefore go down to a tragic end" (p. 145).
Despite the popularity of Child's antislavery fiction, Uncle Tom's Cabin would become the most recognizable example of sentimental abolitionist fiction, even though Harriet Beecher Stowe had arrived relatively late to the abolitionist literature scene. In addition to her legendary and controversial novel, Stowe herself practiced the conventions of sentimental anti-slavery fiction in a few "sketches," or short stories. Like Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe wrote "The Two Altars; or, Two Pictures in One" (1851) in response to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, a federal law that prohibited the harboring or aiding of fugitive slaves anywhere in the country, making it harder than ever for a slave to escape to the North. In that short story, Stowe uses domestic settings and emotional family scenes to illustrate the discrepancies between the nation's founding principles and the enactment of a federal law protecting the system of slavery.
After her remarkable entrance into the abolitionist movement, Stowe wrote a second abolitionist novel, Dred, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), which, although very popular in the nineteenth century, was virtually erased from the twentieth-century memory of the writer and of abolitionist literature. Nevertheless, Dred has been recognized as Stowe's attempt to revise her own representations of race in Uncle Tom's Cabin—representations which even many of her contemporaries criticized. In Dred, Stowe creates a revolutionary, rather than submissive, African American title character, and she abandons the Colonization agenda that concluded her first abolitionist novel. Otherwise, this novel maintains the conventional sentimental emphasis on the threat slavery poses to the institutions of family and monogamous marriage. Significantly, Dred even extends that warning beyond the traditional portrayal of weak and impossible slave families to represent fragmented and dysfunctional slaveholding families, as well.
For the most part, the representations of race politics that came from white-authored abolitionist fiction would go uncontested until the latter part of the nineteenth century. An extraordinary exception is a text rediscovered by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harriet E. Wilson's (1825–1900) Our Nig; or, Sketches of a Free Black (1859), which is the first novel published by an African American woman. Bringing together conventions from sentimental fiction and the slave narrative tradition, Our Nig tells the story of a mulatto girl, who, in a significant reversal of the "tragic mulatto" trope, is abandoned by her white mother after the death of her black father. Ironically, the circumstances of Wilson's single-known literary production would seem fitting in a sentimentalist novel, as her novel's candid preface explains that she has written it in order to make a living to support her only son, who, according to historical records, ended up dying from "fever" six months later. Hardly an abolitionist piece, Our Nig would surely have angered white abolitionists with its account of a free black indentured servant's struggle against Northern racism in antebellum America. Wilson's novel nevertheless plays an important role in the history of abolitionist writing because it serves as an important countertext to the representations and stereotypes that emerged from the abolitionist movement.
Another African American writer who adopted sentimentalist conventions in her antebellum writing, often vacillating between adherence to and subversion of those conventions, is Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911). Harper was an abolitionist lecturer, poet, and fiction writer, and her literary productions in the 1850s reflect her keen awareness of the trends in sentimentalist antislavery literature. Poems such as "To Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe" (1854), "Eliza Harris" (1853), and "Eva's Farewell" (1854) respond directly to Stowe's representations in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Although twentieth-century critics would dismiss her for her poetry's apparent alignment with the white perspective, several poems published alongside of these examples, including "The Slave Mother" (1854), seem to resituate white-centered sentimental-ist conventions in the context of African American authorship. Also, in several poems narrated by her "Aunt Chloe" character, Harper adds dimension to the "mammy" figure stereotyped in fiction and minstrelsy. Eventually, in her 1892 novel Iola Leroy, which she sets in the Reconstruction Era, Harper would rewrite the "tragic mulatto" trope made famous in white-authored sentimental fiction, endowing the typically disempowered figure with political agency and racial consciousness. Although her light-skinned heroine still corresponded in many ways to white-authored representations, Harper's rewriting of the most ubiquitous convention of sentimental abolitionist writing would mark the beginning of more radical revisions by African American women writers, from Zora Neale Hurston to Toni Morrison, reflecting the far-reaching impact of abolitionist writing on the history of American literature.
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Emily E. VanDette