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American Literature 75.2 (2003) 433-435
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In their studies of white Americans who adopted "black" voices, John Stauffer and Augusta Rohrbach typify the two leading interpretive approaches to this variety of racial mimicry. For Stauffer, the efforts of abolitionists Gerrit Smith and John Brown to remake themselves by acquiring "black hearts" were motivated by love; they endeavored to transgress racial boundaries in the conviction that African Americans were not others but fellow human beings. In contrast, Rohrbach sees not love but theft in the works of William Dean Howells and Edith Wharton. These two novelists—and the realists more generally, Rohrbach argues—drew upon and adapted the conventions of slave narratives not because they admired the literary aesthetics or the racial politics of the genre but because they recognized the existence of a book-buying public that had acquired a taste for "real" stories.
Stauffer's collective biography recounts the developing friendship and political alliance of white abolitionists Smith and Brown and black abolitionists Frederick Douglass and James McCune Smith. No short summary of Stauffer's very thoughtful study will do justice to his many insightful arguments about the development of these men's political sensibilities. Allies from the late 1840s until Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, Smith, Douglass, McCune Smith, and Brown worked together to realize a pluralistic, tolerant society and to destroy the institution of slavery. (Stauffer's analysis of Smith's efforts to build multiethnic, egalitarian communities in Petersboro and the failed utopian community of "Timbucto," both in upstate New York, is particularly interesting.) Increasingly frustrated by the intractability of both racial prejudice in the North and slavery in the South, in the 1850s the four began to develop black hearts of a different sort, becoming willing—even eager—to embrace violence as a means to effect political and social change. Violence ultimately destroyed their alliance; following Harpers Ferry and Brown's execution, Smith, the linchpin of the group, suffered a mental breakdown, was committed to an asylum, and distanced himself from his African American friends.
A number of historians have described the masculinization of the abolition [End Page 433] movement in the 1840s and 1850s. Retreating from a feminized strategy of moral suasion premised upon the power of affect, the antislavery movement increasingly turned to traditional party politics and the use of violence. Stauffer's rich and intimate history of these four abolitionists complicates this account of abolitionist tactics, as well as our understanding of antebellum masculinity. Smith, Douglass, McCune Smith, and Brown, Stauffer argues, did not abandon Christian love in favor of righteous violence. Instead, they simultaneously embraced both. A belief in "sacred self-sovereignty" (16)—each individual's immediate access to divine inspiration and guidance (which Stauffer links to the romantic literary culture of Emerson, Whitman, and Byron)—led these men to view the self as fluid rather than fixed, thus enabling them to transcend their society's deep-seated notions of racial difference and develop intimate interracial friendships with each other. Yet this same belief also led them in a very different direction, contributing to an antinomian strain in their politics that eventually resulted in their acceptance, even celebration, of violence as a legitimate means of accomplishing social change. Sentiment and militancy coexisted as central components of their sense of manhood. These abolitionists, Stauffer provocatively argues, did not draw rigid distinctions between love and violence, or for that matter, between civilization and savagery, white and black, masculinity and femininity. Rejecting the dichotomies of Victorian culture, these men were, in Stauffer's nuanced account, protomodernists who were among the initiators of a cultural shift that would culminate in the early twentieth century.
While Stauffer hints...