Revisiting 'Anti-Tom' Literature
An intriguing moment in Nineteenth-Century American literature comes immediately after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: the book Lincoln almost certainly didn’t say started the Civil War. Almost without time to breathe, Pro-Southern authors started putting out responses to Stowe’s text that amounted to little more than propaganda for the institution of slavery. One of the more remarkable things about this is the way that these texts handle the violence of slavery.
The title of one novel, Aunt Phillis’s Cabin, gives away just how clearly it is a response to Harriet Beecher Stowe. It has few merits as a piece of fiction, being confused, lacking in clear plot structure, and offering wandering into an outright rebuttal of Stowe’s own novel. Given the politics of Eastman and the apparent utility of the text, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that violence in slavery is attributed to the hands of the slaves themselves. In perhaps the most telling example, the white slaveholder actually tells a slave to be careful with his use of a whip. It is the slave himself who insists on the necessity of the action, stating that if he didn’t use it so vigorously the children “woulda been scrunched under the carriage wheels’ fore now.”
By comparison, the slaveholders that we see are given a clean bill of health by Eastman. One of her slaves utters the phrase “No, Master couldn’t do no harm to a flea’, while the text is also full of addresses to the reader about the peacefulness of the scene, and how abolitionist comments to the contrary are invariably lying. Violence perpetrated by whites frequently occurs in the book, however. Since this is a propaganda piece, then you might already anticipate that this violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by Northerners. There are several debates about slavery in the book. They are predictably all ‘won’ by the Southern characters, against a backdrop in which violence is seen to be a particularly common event in the Northern workplace. This is particularly levelled at Irish migrants. In one incident, an Irish man is described as being hit and ‘he was over in a moment. The superintendent, sir, gave him a blow between the eyes, with a fist that was hard as iron. The man staggered, and fell.’ The superintendent’s subsequent comment is ‘I think no more of knocking an Irishman over, sir, than I do of eating my dinner. One is as necessary as the other.’ The gender line offers no protection either, as an Irishwoman working in someone’s home is struck in the face and suffers a bloodied nose for ‘disputing’ with her employer.
Predictably, abolition sentiments are closely linked with violence as well. At one point Eastman has one character declare that ‘The men of the North have set out to emancipate them, and they will do it if they have to wade through fire, water, and blood’. This comment which might occur rather prescient if it were not for the fact that the abolition of slavery only becomes a war aim near the end of the Civil War. But in one of the more telling examples of violence in the text, Eastman manages to combine the two threads we’ve seen so far. A Northern man knocks down a foppish slave, which is enjoyed by all around. The Weston family discuss it and conclude that the slave deserves it because he is both ‘intolerable’ and ‘impertinent’, and all lay the blame for this change in attitude at the door of abolitionism. But for all Eastman condemns others here, the satisfaction her characters take in this black man being forced into his ‘rightful place’ is palpable.
Another novel in this vein is Caroline Hentz’s The Planter’s Northern Bride. This is technically superior to Eastman and is written by a much more successful novelist in her own time (though she is mostly only read by scholars today). Hentz takes a different tack, opting to obscure violence more than to make black characters the perpetrators. The only really telling violent moments in this text come near the end, when there is a threat of slave rebellion. Slaves are threatened with the noose if they do not reveal details of the plot; most slaves are cowed back into submission by the commanding presence of the master. The one remaining rebel is attacked from behind by another slave. Finally, there are a couple of fights between the southern planter hero and the white abolitionist agitator who stokes the flames. Aside from these moments near the climax of the narrative, Hentz does not cast violence as a mainly northern vice but seems to work much more towards intersectional goals.
Consequently, her tactic of choice is to minimise abuse. References to violence more often denote the absence of the things that the title character, and by extension, the reader, might expect to find in the South. Early on in the novel Hentz writes that ‘during our residence in the South, we have never witnessed one scene of cruelty or op- pression, never beheld a chain or a manacle, or the infliction of a punishment more severe than parental authority would be justified in applying to filial disobedience or transgression’, and this gesture is repeated both by the author and by Moreland the planter repeatedly across the novel’s pages.
As is perhaps fitting for something that sits so squarely in the romance genre, then, violence that is present tends to be connected more closely to the passions of the characters. These violent passions are, though, as Hentz is a talented propagandist, kept rigidly in check. But close readings of these texts can usually reveal violence even where it would be hidden. This seems to be a by-product of how she represents the way the master commands. At one point, Moreland says to the slave of another, “speak another harsh insolent word to this child at your peril”. This statement not only draws our attention to the threatened peril itself but invites other questions. Were you to go and look at the source material, you’d say that the slave being threatened has not said anything particularly scandalous. Throughout the novel, Moreland commands slaves easily with a word or even just his bearing, something that Hentz presents as being a natural superiority and fitness to lead. But she also claims that this work is based on her own observations of the South as a northerner. Since no such innate superiority exists, the contemporary reader might wonder if slaves’ knowing not to disobey hints at the way such obedience has been obtained.
Southern writing of the 1850s seems to follow similar patterns to those scholars have uncovered in writing earlier in the nineteenth century. Indeed, anti-Tom literature across the board appears to demonstrate the same tendencies I have found in the most polemical literature of the 1830s. Though the specific effect differs with each text and author, it also appears that the manifestations of violence here offer insights into the lens through which they viewed their slaves. We might eventually conclude that even when writers attempt to draw a veil over the harsher aspects it appears impossible to completely whitewash the South’s peculiar institution.
Peter Templeton is Honorary Fellow in the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University. This blog is derived from a paper first given at a conference in October 2017.