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American Literary History 17.3 (2005) 460-485

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The Strange Career of Love and Slavery:

Chesnutt, Engels, Masoch

At a moment when scholars avoid the paradigm of US exceptionalism that would seek a core national meaning possessed by the US alone, one observer—speaking seriously and waggishly in equal measure—suggests that the question of what distinguishes US culture may be answerable after all: Americanness, Werner Sollors argues, is the "prohibiting [of] black-white heterosexual couples from forming families and withholding legitimacy from their descendants" (5). The protracted ban on black-white unions, Sollors contends, may well be the US's most pronounced national difference from other Western societies.1 By itself the distinction tells us little, but the exceptional instance can be a critical spur: what collective need or demand sustained two centuries of legal restriction on such marriages, against the historical pressures effective in virtually every comparable nation?

Questions of freedom and slavery are obviously germane to the reason for the US ban. Yet the language of freedom as it operated in a good deal of nineteenth-century writing may not offer much illumination. Among early liberal thinkers, the antonyms of freedom and slavery were such strong, almost hermetic conceptual categories that they could remain impervious to the historical facts of chattel slavery.2 Alongside the freedom-slavery opposition, however, we can place a second but not quite parallel conceptual axis: not freedom and slavery, but love and slavery. This pairing, too, provides one of the structural oppositions for liberal thought; to feel the highest love is to abhor the smallest inclination toward the forced subjugation of another. Any person who heeds Harriet Beecher Stowe's imperative to "feel right," it is assumed, will necessarily feel slavery is wrong. In much of the written record in this era, however, ideas of love and slavery fail to remain securely in place as opposing poles. To explore the mutual articulation of love and slavery is to open a history of intimacy, antipathy, and belonging that exists in syncopated [End Page 460] counterpoint to the abstracted political thought of citizenship and liberal contract theory.

It is in this murkier history that we can best explore the motives and compulsions behind the ban on black-white marriage. The ban taps what might be called the imagination of contract, the figural field in which the idea of the modern contract takes shape as a profound trope in nineteenth-century transatlantic thought and letters. The prohibition placed black-white marriage outside the domain of contract, but, in doing so, it repositioned the wish to marry across the color line as an anterior species of feeling, a desire associated with what John Locke calls "the slavish condition" (78). A scandal to the doctrine of contract, this desire is nevertheless a persistent literary figure in the post-slavery era in Europe as well as in the Americas. I explore that figure in three disparate texts by Charles Chesnutt, Frederick Engels, and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Writing in the wake of the ascendance of contract, Chesnutt, Engels, and Masoch all insist that the key to explicating the marriage contract lies in slavery. Slavery for these authors is also, and not coincidently, a progenitor of the novel. Marriage and the novel, two incarnations of contract, are the unacknowledged descendants of slavery and, thereby, forms that carry within them a memory of the banished ontology of the slavish condition. In betraying the affiliation of love and slavery, novels can allow a view of what contract doctrine cannot conceive or explore: the affective unconscious that structures every act of contractual consent.

1. Stigmatic Injury

At the height of the slavery crisis, Abraham Lincoln in his speeches would ridicule Democrats' charge that critics of slavery were really proponents of miscegenation. I protest the specious idea, Lincoln would announce, "that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife" (636). Taking their cue, audiences would break into laughter. But upon what exactly did this joke turn? By laughing, Lincoln'...


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