Slavery in American Literature

Table of Content

Before the United States was founded in 1776, slavery was an established legal institution in North America for over a century. It was mainly practiced in the Southern region and remained so until its abolition with the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865. Slaves were mostly of African descent and owned by white slaveholders, although there were cases where Native Americans, free blacks, and a small number of whites were also held as slaves. The spread of slavery occurred in regions with fertile land that could be used to grow profitable crops like tobacco, cotton, sugar, and coffee.

In the 1800s, the southern United States was predominantly made up of slaveholders and slaves. The majority of slaves were employed on large plantations that focused on cultivating cotton and sugar cane. These plantations utilized overseers, who were usually white men, to supervise groups of slaves in a work-gang system designed to improve efficiency.

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Slavery played a significant role in the American Civil War. After the Union emerged victorious, the Thirteenth Amendment was introduced into the United States Constitution, effectively banning slavery nationwide. According to this amendment, slavery and involuntary servitude are illegal except as punishment for convicted crimes.

Besides enslavement, Southern states also prohibited Black slaves from learning how to read and write. Consequently, there is a shortage of written accounts by slaves themselves due to their generally illiterate status. Nevertheless, a small number managed to acquire literacy skills.

Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, and Stephen Douglas all wrote about slavery. However, the most significant work on the issue was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Stowe drew inspiration from two teenage Maryland slave girls named Emily and Mary Edmonson who were saved from being sold to brothels in New Orleans.

The story of Eliza, Topsy, Uncle Tom, and Simon Legree had a profound impact on readers and theater goers in the North. It significantly transformed their perspectives on slavery. Despite its melodramatic nature, this book is widely acknowledged as the most influential literary work in American history. Prior to its publication, critics in the North condemned the abolitionist movement as immoral or traitorous. However, Stowe’s book played a crucial role in validating the movement. Although some angered southerners claimed that Uncle Tom’s Cabin exaggerated slave treatment and depicted slaves as well-treated, it still garnered strong support for the abolitionist cause.

Stow’s second book, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not only discusses her research for her novel but also includes a depiction of the hardships endured by the Edmonson girls. Stow’s brother, Henry Ward Beecher, played a crucial role in raising funds to secure the freedom of these enslaved girls. The Southern states went as far as forbidding any literature advocating abolition, which is arguably one of the most severe violations of the First Amendment in American history. This ban clearly demonstrates that the debate surrounding abolition was heavily one-sided. It is worth mentioning that this prohibition did not end with the conclusion of the Civil War; even in 1906, Kentucky state legislature prohibited plays that depicted slavery negatively.

In 1906, the legislature enacted a law that banned individuals from presenting, participating in, or allowing the presentation of any play depicting the supposed history of master-slave conflict or promoting racial prejudice. This prohibition extended to opera houses, theaters, halls, and other controlled buildings. Violators faced fines ranging from one hundred to five hundred dollars, imprisonment for one to three months, or both penalties.

The slave narratives not only revealed the lives of slave communities, but also portrayed the love and respect within families, the bonds between friends, and the reverence for elders. These narratives showcased an enduring African American culture expressed through music, folktales, and religion. Additionally, these accounts by formerly enslaved African American individuals continue to offer the most comprehensive understanding of their lives. Moreover, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a significant societal influence as well. The character Uncle Tom, an African American who remains faithful to his fellow slaves even at great personal cost, serves as a symbol of integrity.

The white community admired Stowe’s portrayal of the protagonist Uncle Tom and his principled Christian beliefs despite harsh mistreatment. However, they were angered by Simon Legree, the antagonist who was a former slave trader and now a cruel plantation owner in the North. Stowe effectively argued that slavery itself was immoral as it allowed individuals like Legree to prosper while subjecting others like Uncle Tom to enslavement. This perspective inspired many people to join the anti-slavery movement. Nevertheless, Southerners vehemently condemned Stowe’s work as criminal, defamatory, and completely false. In fact, a bookseller in Mobile, Alabama had to leave town after selling copies of the book.

Stowe received threatening letters and a package containing the dismembered ear of a black person. Southerners also responded by writing their own novels that depicted happy lives of slaves and contrasted them with the miserable existences of Northern white workers. Stowe’s quote from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Chapter 17, expresses the determination of slaves to fight for their liberty. She also highlights the need for repentance, justice, and mercy in order to save the Union, as stated in Chapter 45. The text also mentions Mark Twain.

The most significant work on American slavery post-War was Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884), acclaimed as the finest American novel. Huck’s evolving bond with Jim and his internal conflict stands as a monumental struggle in American literature. Overlooked to a great extent, Twain’s shorter piece “Pudd’nhead Wilson” is a brilliant short story addressing slavery and maintaining relevance today as a reflection of racial prejudice. The topic of slavery forms the most renowned aspect of Huckleberry Finn. Since its initial publication, Twain’s perspective on slavery and ideas concerning racism have sparked intense debates.

Twain was strongly against slavery in both his personal and public life, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn serves as an allegory to illustrate the wrongfulness of this institution. In the novel, Twain utilizes Jim, a slave who is also a central character, to portray the humanity of enslaved individuals. Through Jim, Twain depicts the complex emotions and challenges faced by slaves as they navigate their lives. In order to avoid being sold and separated from his loved ones, Jim escapes from his owner, Miss Watson, and strives to achieve freedom so that he can eventually emancipate his own family.

Throughout their journey downriver, Jim takes care of Huck and protects him, not in the role of a servant but as a genuine friend. Twain’s intention is to evoke sympathy and empathy for Jim while also inspiring outrage towards the society that has enslaved him and put his life at risk. However, Twain does not directly confront the issue of slavery in the novel. The topic of slavery is not debated or discussed by Huck and Jim, and the other enslaved characters in the book hold minor roles. Only in the final part of the story does Twain delve into the central conflict of slavery: should Huck set Jim free and face potential damnation?

This decision is life-altering for Huck, as it compels him to reject all that “civilization” has taught him. Huck opts to liberate Jim, based on his personal experiences rather than societal norms, thereby choosing the morality of the “natural life” over that of civilization. The slaves in Gone With the Wind, including Mammy, Uncle Peter, and Prissy, are well-developed individuals with their own distinctiveness and self-respect. Mammy is a resilient woman who possesses a deep understanding of people and their personal relationships, surpassing any other character in the novel. Uncle Peter, in the absence of a (white) male presence, dutifully administers Aunt Pittypat’s household with sternness yet thoughtfulness. Prissy exhibits a charming and occasionally exasperating teenage persona with her sweet and manipulative nature. They communicate in an African-American dialect, which Mitchell renders in a manner that foreshadows present-day Ebonics. In Gone With the Wind, Mitchell portrays slavery as an established reality. Prior to the 19th century, slavery was regarded as a commonplace aspect of human societies and transcended racial boundaries. Some free black individuals in the South owned African-American slaves, and individuals of various races who were defeated in war were sold into bondage.

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