I've already written about some of the books I'm looking forward to reading this spring, such as Robert Ferguson's Inferno: Anatomy of American Punishment and John W. Compton's The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution. Both of those will be published by Harvard University Press in the spring. I now want to branch out to Cambridge University Press' spring list and talk about Sarah N. Roth's expansive volume, Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture. Cribbing now from the CUP website:
In the decades leading to the Civil War, popular conceptions of African American men shifted dramatically. The savage slave featured in 1830s' novels and stories gave way by the 1850s to the less-threatening humble black martyr. This radical reshaping of black masculinity in American culture occurred at the same time that the reading and writing of popular narratives were emerging as largely feminine enterprises. In a society where women wielded little official power, white female authors exalted white femininity, using narrative forms such as autobiographies, novels, short stories, visual images, and plays, by stressing differences that made white women appear superior to male slaves. This book argues that white women, as creators and consumers of popular culture media, played a pivotal role in the demasculinization of black men during the antebellum period, and consequently had a vital impact on the political landscape of antebellum and Civil War–era America through their powerful influence on popular culture.
I had the chance to read an earlier draft of this book and I have to say that I'm really excited to see the final version. She talks about a lot of literature that I'd never heard of -- including some outrageously proslavery science fiction and some other really obscure work. This will expand dramatically the sense of antebellum fictional literature. Though Roth's interest is largely in the fictional literature of both the anti-slavery and the pro-slavery sides, I think the dramatically changing images of men of African descent can be very readily and profitably applied to the judiciary. (The short version here is that in the 1820s/1830s enslaved men were depicted as savages by both anti-slavery and proslavery literature. That shifted in the 1840s and 1850s as abolitionists depicted enslaved men (and other men of African descent) as people deserving citizenship. The proslavery forces responded to that critique by accepting -- largely -- that men of African descent were not savages. The proslavery forces replaced that with an image of enslaved people generally as happy and child-like, not vicious and rebellious.)
What interests me is that this framework correlates with what was happening in state legislatures and also in the judiciary. I want to look closely at cases where judges discuss slaves' character -- such as cases involving torts by slaves against white people and against each other, cases invovling slaves' rights to freedom following travel in free states and because of the wills of their owners, and even criminal prosecutions. Based on some as yet unscientific looks at judicial opinions I think that southern judges were talking in similar terms to Roth's subjects about slave personality over the period 1830 to the mid-1850s. (And I think this follows, generally, academic thought, too. On this I'm going to have a lot more to say right soon.) But one thing that I notice in particular is that as the Civil War approached -- like in the late 1850s -- southern judges were talking again in dramatic terms about men of African decsent as savages. That is, as they prepared for war the talk turned -- unsurprisingly -- to enslaved men as savages who had the power to wreck havoc and maybe even destroy the white slave-owning south. Justice Harris' viciously proslavery opinion in Mitchell v. Wells in 1859 is an example of this. I'd like to write an essay about this once the book comes out, because I think this is a very good way of thinking about the sine curve of proslavery southern thought, 1830 to 1860, especially in the judiciary.
But that's dealing really with only a part of Roth's book; the majority of it is focused on the depiction of enslaved men in antislavery literature. One thing that I like about this -- and I should also say I find bold (or maybe brave is a better word?!) -- is the sense that white women were not just gauges of changing attitudes towards enslaved men, but their widely-read literature helped change the dominant image of them. That is, white women in particular helped free enslaved men. This is certainly true to some extent -- Harriet Beecher Stowe is a key person here. (I've written some about her assessment of jurisprudence and I think it a fairly easily supported case that she not only critiqued law but helped change attitudes towards it. Caleb Smith's written about this too, of late.) The key question is just how much the independent variable of antislavery fictional literature produced by white women contributed to the the multiple regression equation that explains the huge change in our nation's attitudes towards enslaved people (and men in particular). On this I suspect there will be a very lively debate coming soon to the history journals.
And with that I'll say happy new year!
The illustration is a print of the Nat Turner rebellion, which is from the early era of Roth's study, when enslaved men were depicted as savages.