Slavery and Violence in Antebellum Southern Literature
Updated: Jan 7
When it comes to America’s history with slavery, we are more familiar today with the narratives of the victors: the abolitionists. But Southerners also produced fiction, with one strain – plantation literature – that focused particularly on their own geography and situation. Plantation literature was popular, and the conventions of the genre informed other texts, too. The violence that we can see elsewhere – whether in abolitionist writing, in travel writing by the likes of Charles Dickens, or in the many advertisements for runaways that mention scars and injuries – is effectively erased here as the South is turned into an idyll, and their peculiar institution presented in a more benign form.
There seem to be two major strategies at work in this kind of fiction: firstly, turning the violence of slavery into slapstick, where figures bearing the trace of minstrelsy react to violence against them with a kind of comedic buffoonery that strips the violence of its more disturbing aspects, and secondly, by the very playing down of violence itself and the implication that such aspects make up far less of the institution than abolitionists led people to believe.
John Pendleton Kennedy’s Swallow Barn (1832) is often considered one of the most important texts in the creation of the Plantation Legend, and even though it is often quite critical of a number of Southern attitudes, when we first encounter any slave characters in any number in the text, they are described as ‘sundry little besmirched and bow-legged blacks’ who ‘continually make somersets upon the grass or mischievously waddle across the clothes laid out to bleach.’ There are many other instances in the novel of the same sort of characterisation, whether this is from the free character of Scipio, put up as a poor imitation of the Southern gentleman in his ‘ragged remnant of a regimental coat’ and bouncing up and down in the saddle of a ‘short thick-set pony’, through to Ganymede, whose unthinking obedience causes problems. When he is required to take a message, he needs to be called back three or four times; as every time the end of a sentence is reached, he shoots off into the distance.
It might be hard for a more contemporary audience to believe, but Kennedy’s text has a reputation for being more moderate and not fully given over to Southern clichés. As a result, you can imagine what you can find in texts written by people who are unapologetically pro-slavery. One example can be found in William Gilmore Simms Guy Rivers (1834). This novel is set on the Southern frontier rather than the plantation rather than the plantation, but many of the same conventions still hold. Near the end of the novel, a lecture by a slave called Caesar leads a pedlar, Bunce, to suggest that to show his gratitude, there would be ‘a cut for you from one of my best goods’. The best cut in question is from a whip which falls on the back of Caesar in the following sentence. The timing and wordplay here suggest a comedic intent, and the levity of tone is emphasised because although the blow is said to set the slave off ‘at a canter’, the two are soon reconciled, marching along again as friends by the end of the paragraph. One need not feel for the black character, the book seems to say, because they are presented as being without much feeling themselves.
Another famous novel with this trait is The Kentuckian in New-York, written by William Alexander Caruthers (1834). A number of American characters move around the nation, and the influences of plantation literature can be felt in the clear urban/rural binary that works the benefit of the South. Here, the eponymous Kentuckian, Montgomery Damon responds to a slave highlighting his ignorance of polite etiquette with the promise that, were he to encounter the slave again, he ‘would wipe him down with a hickory towel’ (30). Damon also seems pleased that his horse is so ‘well brought up [that he] he just backs his ears and kicks him’ if a slave is to walk behind him. Similarly, Lamar’s account of the enjoyment of a cigar is peppered with intimations of violence towards any slave foolish enough to interrupt his smoking (200).
Despite these instances of violence against slaves, the focus is generally on white characters in these novels, and this pushing of black characters and their labour to the margins of texts is complemented by fictional attempts to put the pro-slavery case to politically moderate Northerners who seem to have been the largest audience for this kind of fiction. For example, John Pendleton Kennedy goes into the issue in some detail in Swallow Barn in the chapter ‘The Quarter’. This section forgets entirely about the plot of the novel and instead focuses explicitly on slavery through the eye-witness account of Littleton. He begins by reiterating that Frank Meriwhether is kindly and just with his slaves, before making mention of his relations with overseers who he does not trust completely because ‘there are few men who have the temper to administer wholesome laws to any population, however small, without some omissions or irregularities; and that this is more emphatically true of those who administer them entirely at their own will.’ (451)
It is this distinction that allows Kennedy to acknowledge the abuses in the slave system without laying responsibility at the door of the Southern planter. By admitting that overseers can potentially overstep the bounds of decent society, the blame is laid not at the door of the institution of slavery, but rather at specific individuals. The implication is that Frank Meriwhether administers his overseers and slaves to prevent abuses of the system, and by this means evil is redistributed from this system itself to those few aberrant slaveholders.
Kennedy is not alone here; Caruthers also draws a moral distinction between slaveholders and overseers. His Virginian character, Beverley Randolph, compares slavery in his home state with the institution in South Carolina and concludes that in the latter it is intolerable, precisely because of the greater distance between the slave and the slaveholder. The familial and paternal relationship, that he claims exist in Virginia’s tobacco regions, is non-existent here, where ‘a single individual [owns] a hundred or more, and often not knowing them when he sees them. If they sicken and die, he knows it not except through the report of those wretched mercenaries, the overseers. The slaves here are plantation livestock; not domestic and attached family servants, who have served around the person of the master from the childhood of both.’ (115) One reason why this scene is telling, is that it comes after Randolph declares that he is ‘an abolitionist […] not for conscience-sake, but from policy and patriotism’ (77).
This is a stunning divergence from what we usually encounter in Southern literature, but we should not think it more radical than it is. In both the initial declaration and the lengthier quotation above there is a great deal of qualification. That he is not an abolitionist for the sake of conscience, and states firmly that in Virginia slavery is ‘tolerable’, suggests that the question of abolition is not one of morality. Randolph would have us believe that there is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of slavery, but that problems arise from different practices – between the upper and lower South. The presentation of the Virginian system has the same kind of feudal overtones that have been observed elsewhere in these novels. The slaves themselves are cast in the role of medieval peasants, with the slaveholder playing the role of a benevolent baronial landlord.
It is these social structures that sever the attachment between master and slave, and that are responsible for bringing the profession of overseer, those ‘wretched mercenaries’, into existence. These professionals are often handy scapegoats for slaveholding classes, and this is made manifest in The Kentuckian in the scene which would have caused the most trepidation in an antebellum reader: the slave revolt that occurs on the South Carolina plantation. In response to the situation Randolph, despite the protestations that ‘they would murder [him]’ (168), heads to the slave quarter and, rather improbably, manages to quell the mutiny by promising that the driver would be punished if it could be proven that he ‘whipped the favourite either without cause, or unmercifully, with cause’ (169). However, the incident does lead Randolph, who previously had identified himself as an abolitionist, to observe that ending slavery was not practical, and that such a step would ‘dissolve the social compact’.
These professionals are not the only scapegoats in evidence. While Caruthers novel was written with the aim of healing sectional divides in the US, it is unfortunately flawed in this regard and the attitude towards Damon, the Southwesterner, by the real main characters, who are all Southeasterners, is problematic. Although much of the language they use to describe Damon is complimentary, there is a sense that what are initially seen as virtues can degenerate ‘into prejudices and ludicrous fancies.’ (39-40)
Ultimately, any compliments bestowed upon the Kentuckian are backhanded, and the further we read into the novel the clearer his buffoonish nature becomes. Chevillere eventually describes Lamar’s association with Damon as ‘foolery’ (123), and comments on his ridiculousness, claiming that ‘he was ready with lance in rest, to take a tilt at anybody’s windmill’ (150). This explicit comparison with Don Quixote clearly implies that there is something misdirected or misunderstood about Damon’s brand of Western idealism. That he is a figure of fun becomes clear when Lamar attempts to engage the Kentuckian in conversation and Chevillere notes that ‘I saw his drift in amusing me with Damon’ (162).
Although these three are ostensibly travelling as equals, the yeoman of the west is little more than a clown or jester to the two aristocratic Southerners. The Virginians and Carolinians are immune to this comedy, and ultimately, as William Taylor has suggested, we must conclude that ‘Chevillere, not Damon, is Caruthers’ recipe for a stable American character.’ By giving the most violent acts and words to Damon, the novel shifts the bulk of the blame away from the traditional Southern aristocracy of the planter South and towards the frontier of the Southwest.
Similarly, William Gilmore Simms is probably the best known of antebellum Southern authors (Poe excepted), and as something of a fire-eater it is probably little surprise that Bunce, from the example quoted earlier, is a Yankee, and not a Southerner. Ralph Colleton, the hero from the Carolinas and the aristocrat transplanted to the backwoods of Georgia, behaves with the kind of consideration towards the slave typical of the legend of the benign Southern aristocrat.
This displacement of the worst offences onto people from other regions is complemented by other rhetorical strategies, one of which is the conversion narrative. We’ve seen this to some degree with Randolph’s conclusion that abolishing slavery would dissolve the social compact, and the same trope occurs in Swallow Barn. The novel makes clear that Mark Littleton, the narrator, comes to the region with little understanding and a lot of prejudices about slavery, but after seeing the benign state of affairs on his aristocratic tobacco plantation ends up concluding that he is ‘quite sure they could never become a happier people than I find them here.’ (453) His later claim, that ‘from what I can gather, it is pretty much the same on the other estates in this region’ works toward establishing the presentation of slavery in Swallow Barn as the norm, and asserting that abuses of the system are far from commonplace – arguing, in fact, that ‘the unfavourable case is not more common than that which may be found in a survey of any other department of society’ (453).
However, the strength of the idyll’s attraction fluctuates throughout Swallow Barn. By the end, Littleton starts to share some of the characteristics of a key figure in pastoral: the visitor from a more sophisticated, yet degraded world ‘outside’ the idealized rural world who encounters, with surprise and wonder, a happy, simple and functioning society. While the idyllic qualities of Swallow Barn are often contestable, they are at their most intense when most closely connected with slavery. Perhaps this is unsurprising, since it has been claimed that one of the reasons for releasing a revised edition was for Kennedy’s novel ‘to reflect his own anti-abolitionist views’. After his travels, Mark Littleton is ultimately just as much a convert as Beverley Randolph. These converts are also politically useful; reasonable abolitionists are neither entirely absent from these novels, or simply demonised; rather, they are appealing – if misguided – figures who come to see the errors of their ways.
Black characters and the violence towards them inherent in the institution of slavery is often pushed to the margins in antebellum Southern literature, effaced through both a preference for either justifying the institution instead, or laughing it off as the sufferings of a people whose ‘griefs are transient’, to use a phrase of Jefferson’s. Ultimately, though, this illusion is never total, and a careful study of Southern romances reveals narrative possibilities way beyond the narrow confines of simple plantation propaganda.
Peter Templeton is Honorary Fellow in the School of the Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University.