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Slavery in American Literature

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Slavery in the United States was a form of unfree labor which existed as a legal institution in North America for more than a century before the founding of the United States in 1776, and continued mostly in the South until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865. Most slaves were black and were held by whites, although some Native Americans and free blacks also held slaves; there were a small number of white slaves as well.

. Slavery spread to the areas where there was good-quality soil for large plantations of high-value cash crops, such as tobacco, cotton, sugar, and coffee.

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By the early decades of the 19th century, the majority of slaveholders and slaves were in the southern United States, where most slaves were engaged in a work-gang system of agriculture on large plantations, especially devoted to cotton and sugar cane. Such large groups of slaves were thought to work more efficiently if directed by a managerial class called overseers, usually white men.

Slavery was a principal issue leading to the American Civil War. After the Union prevailed in the war, slavery was made illegal throughout the United States with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. 11] Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. —Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution[103] Southern states prohibited the teaching of reading and writing to Black slaves. As slaves were illiterate, there are few accounts os slavery written by slaves. A few managed to learn.

The first slave to public an account of slavery was Olaudah Equiano. Perhaps the most eloquent accont was written by Harriet Jacobs. Sojurner Truth and Stephen Douglas laster wrote powerful accounts. Several great pieces of American literature addressed the slave issue. Harriet Beecher Stowe The most important ante-bellum (pre-War work)was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Stowe was virtually unknown when she wrote the book. She was influenced by the experience s of two teenage Maryland slave girls, Emily and Mary Edmonson, who were rescued from being sold as “fancy girls” to New Orleans bordellos.

The story of Eliza , Topsy, Uncle Tom, and Simon Legree electrified northern readers and theater goers, affecting northern attitudes toward slavery. While a melodramatic account, it is arguably the single most important book in American history. The abolitionist movement existed before her book, but it was an often criticised movemnent, seen as imporal or treasonous by many in the North. The book had the impact of legitmizing the movement. Southern Ban Enraged Southeners argued that Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an exageration and that slaves were in fact trated well.

Stow published a second book, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin which describe the research she conducted before writing her novel and includes a discription of the ordeal of the Edmonson girls. Her brother, Henry Ward Beecher helped rise money to buy the Edmonson girls out of slavery. The Southern states banned abolitionist literature, surely the greates violtion of the First amendment in Ameican history. This action by the Southern states is silent testimony to the fact that it was an uneven debate. The ban did not end with the Civil War. The Kenticjky state legislture banned plays portraying slavery in a negative light (1906).

The legislature apprive an Act on March 21, 1906 that banned anyone “to present, or to participate in the presentation of, or to permit to be presented” in any “opera house, theater, hall, or other building under his control” any play “that is based upon antagonism alleged formerly to exist between master and slave, or that excites race prejudice. ” Violations of this act were to be punished by fines of not less than one hundred dollars or more than five hundred dollars or imprisonment for not less than one month or more than three months or both fine and imprisonment.

The slave narratives also gave Northerners a glimpse into the life of slave communities: the love between family members, the respect for elders, the bonds between friends. They described an enduring, truly African American culture, which was expressed through music, folktales, and religion. Then, as now, the narratives of ex-slaves provided the world with the closest look at the lives of enslaved African American men, women and children. (in incheiere) Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a tremendous impact. The character Uncle Tom is an African American who retains his integrity and refuses to betray his fellow slaves at the cost of his life.

His firm Christian principles in the face of his brutal treatment made him a hero to whites. In contrast, his tormenter Simon Legree, the Northern slave-dealer turned plantation owner, enraged them with his cruelty. Stowe convinced readers that the institution of slavery itself was evil, because it supported people like Legree and enslaved people like Uncle Tom. Because of her work, thousands rallied to the anti-slavery cause. Southerners were outraged, and declared the work to be criminal, slanderous, and utterly false. A bookseller in Mobile, Alabama, was forced out of town for selling copies.

Stowe received threatening letters and a package containing the dismembered ear of a black person. Southerners also reacted by writing their own novels. These depicted the happy lives of slaves, and often contrasted them with the miserable existences of Northern white workers. (Summary? ) Quotes “We don’t own your laws; we don’t own your country; we stand here as free, under God’s sky, as you are; and, by the great God that made us, we’ll fight for our liberty till we die. ” – Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ch. 17 A day of grace is yet held out to us. Both North and South have been guilty before God; and the Christian church has a heavy account to answer. Not by combining together, to protect injustice and cruelty, and making a common capital of sin, is this Union to be saved,–but by repentance, justice and mercy; for, not surer is the eternal law by which the millstone sinks in the ocean, than that stronger law, by which injustice and cruelty shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God! ” – Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ch. 45 Mark Twain.

The most important work on Amrerican slavery after the War was Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884), viewed by many as the greatest American novel. Huck’s developing relationship with Jim and wrestling with his conscious is one of the great struggles in American literature. A much shorter opiece by Twain often forgotten is “Pudin Head Wilson” a brilliant short story on slavery and still relavent today as an indictement of racial prejudice. The theme of slavery is perhaps the most well known aspect of Huckleberry Finn. Since it’s first publication, Twain’s perspective on slavery and ideas surrounding racism have been hotly debated.

In his personal and public life, Twain was vehemently anti-slavery. Considering this information, it is easy to see that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn provides an allegory to explain how and why slavery is wrong. Twain uses Jim, a main character and a slave, to demonstrate the humanity of slaves. Jim expresses the complicated human emotions and struggles with the path of his life. To prevent being sold and forced to separate from his family, Jim runs away from his owner, Miss Watson, and works towards obtaining freedom so he can buy his family’s freedom.

All along their journey downriver, Jim cares for and protects of Huck, not as a servant, but as a friend. Thus, Twain’s encourages the reader to feel sympathy and empathy for Jim and outrage at the society that has enslaved him and threatened his life. However, although Twain attacks slavery through is portrayal of Jim, he never directly addresses the issue. Huck and Jim never debate slavery, and all the other slaves in the novel are very minor characters. Only in the final section of the novel does Twain develop the central conflict concerning slavery: should Huck free Jim and then be condemned to hell?

This decision is life-altering for Huck, as it forces him to reject everything “civilization” has taught him. Huck chooses to free Jim, based on his personal experiences rather than social norms, thus choosing the morality of the “natural life” over that of civilization. The slaves in Gone With the Wind, notably Mammy, Uncle Peter, and Prissy, are well drawn people who have individuality and dignity. Mammy is a strong woman who understands people and their personal relationships better than any other character in the novel. Uncle Peter, for want of a (white) male resence, oversees Aunt Pittypat’s home, in a stern but thoughtful manner. Prissy has a sweet, manipulative, and sometimes exasperating teen-age charm. They speak an African-American dialect, which in the text Mitchell spells in a way that anticipates present-day Ebonics. In Gone With the Wind, Mitchell treats the institution of slavery as a fact of life. Up until the 19th century slavery in human societies was considered to be a normal state of affairs, crossing racial lines. Some free blacks in the South owned African-American slaves, and people of other races when defeated in war have been sold into slavery.

Cite this Slavery in American Literature

Slavery in American Literature. (2017, Mar 24). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/slavery-in-american-literature/

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