Freedom in a Slave Society: Stories from the Antebellum South by Johanna Nicol Shields (review)
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Freedom in a Slave Society: Stories from the Antebellum South. By Johanna Nicol Shields. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. 337. $99.00 cloth; $79.00 ebook)

Johanna Nicol Shields blends history, biography, and literary [End Page 117] analysis in this exploration of how the best-known antebellum writers from Alabama formulated their middle-class aspirations in a society dominated by patriarchy and slavery. With Freedom in a Slave Society, Shields offers a significant entry into the burgeoning literature of the once-neglected Southern middle class.

Shields features the lives and work of Johnson Hooper, Joseph Baldwin, Alexander Meek, Jeremiah Clemens, Albert Pickett, Augusta Evans, William Smith, and Caroline Hentz. Some of them, like Baldwin and Evans, enjoyed literary success and national fame in their own time. Others languished in regional obscurity, even while harboring dreams of wider acknowledgment. Aside from planter Albert Pickett, the writers worked as newspaper editors, politicians, and teachers. They published regional humor, romantic fiction, history, political satire, and poetry.

All thought broadly about how to interpret Alabama for a national audience. Indeed, they did not consider their state unique, except as it embodied the characteristics of a young, energetic nation. Key to these writers’ varied discussions was the ideal of self-determination— “the ability of individuals to make decisions about their lives without coercion” (p. 19). But self-determination was not selfish individualism or old-fashioned republicanism—Shields’s writers recognized that a cosmopolitan culture required personal freedom exercised in the context of social relationships predicated on volunteerism, persuasion, and supportive families. Thus, they practiced a “middle class ethical standard” (p. xix) in their own lives and placed it at the center of their literary explorations.

In delineating this ethic, Shields makes a subtle and important interpretive observation, relevant and necessary to any discussion of non-planters in the South. Her writers simply accepted the fact of slavery but chose in their writings to ignore it, and ignore African Americans in their personal and professional relationships. They largely lived in the milieu of urban slavery, as Shields notes, not rural, productive slavery, and that may explain their surface ambivalence. But they prioritized other things—family, regional progress, and their careers. The religious contribution to this ethic remains unexplored [End Page 118] despite the great relevance of spirituality among the writers under consideration. Nonetheless, Shields’ interpretive contribution remains important, for nearly every theme in the historiography of the antebellum South hinges on the master-slave relationship, but these middle-class people constructed a significant cultural community without it at the center. Here is a community that was centered on the relationships between white people.

As much as the writers tried to ignore slavery, however, it continued to gnaw at their consciences. Shields does fine work drawing deep meaning out of the remarkably few enslaved characters that do appear in the writers’ works. These blacks, such as Jo in Joseph Baldwin’s “The Earthquake Story,” or Harriet in Augusta Evans’s Beulah, both had an unnerving—to white Southerners—level of self-possession. But a more disturbing aspect of blacks’ presence was their effect on the white characters. As they formulated scenes of masters and other whites violently abusing blacks, these writers concluded (with the exception of Pickett) that white people ultimately lacked the self-control, reason, political trust, and sympathy necessary to maintain republican self-government, let alone a community of middle-class strivers. Even though the writers maintained different social and political positions in Alabama, Shields effectively chronicles a collective career arc from optimistic nationalism to pessimism and ambivalence. Hooper and Evans became strident Confederates, while Smith and Clemens demurred from the Southern cause, but all approached the war years with a jaundiced view of the middle-class South.

As the study of the Southern middle class evolves, how these people positioned themselves in relation to the dominant cultural, social, and political elements of Southern society will be a central inquiry. Shields offers an excellent example of how that inquiry may be conducted. [End Page 119]

Christopher A. Graham

Christopher A. Graham is a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His dissertation explores how...


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