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  • Writing to "Virtuous" and "Gentle" Readers: The Problem of Pain in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents and Harriet Wilson's Sketches
  • Sally Gomaa (bio)

By the mid-nineteenth century, associating slavery with excessive pain provided enough grounds to call for the abolition of this peculiar institution. The American Anti-Slavery Society's Declaration of Sentiments in 1833 stated that slaves were "recognized by law, and treated by their fellow-beings, as brute beasts" against the "Divine prerogative" and "the highest obligations resting upon the people of the United States" (qtd. in MacDonald 354). While slavery was "brutification" (My Bondage 152), abolition was being "changed from a chattel to a human being" (Life and Adventures 439). The radical transformation from "thing" to "man" was enacted on the abolitionist platform by displaying slaves' bodies in pain. For example, Frederick Douglass writes that he was introduced to audiences at abolitionist events as a graduate from the peculiar institution "with my diploma written on my back" (My Bondage 219). When Douglass became no longer satisfied to merely "narrate" wrongs but tried to "denounce" them, he was told to "have a little of the plantation manner of speech" so that people would believe him (220). For Douglass, the transition into freedom required speaking "just the word that seemed to me the word to be spoken by me" (221); for the abolitionists, it required exposing his scarred body and "assuring the audience that it could speak" (220). Thus, the slave's body was used in abolitionist discourse as the site/sight of pain. But the more slaves' bodies in pain turned into spectacle, the more assigned to physicality they became. To put it succinctly, Friend Collins instructs Douglass to "[g]ive us the facts . . . we will take care of the philosophy" (220).

This observation is not new: abolitionists' use of the slave's scarred body was shaped by the cultural and historical factors that were beginning to sentimentalize pain. By sentimentalizing, I mean a whole range of ways in which pain was viewed as an affect. To begin with, according to Elizabeth Clark, evangelical revivalism provided abolitionists with "a religious model of sympathetic conversion" (479) that promoted the use of pulpit story-telling and vivid language. Because this language was often "unsuitable for polite society," abolitionists had to do the "cultural work" of providing "a set of interpretive conventions" (486) so that representations of slaves in pain would be sure to arouse sympathy. Should this caveat imply that such representations would arouse feelings other than sympathy? In "Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain," Karen Halttunen argues that toward the end of the eighteenth century and through the beginning of the nineteenth, reform literature "did eroticize pain, constructing it as sexual in nature" (324). By directing pain toward "privatization," humanitarian reformers created "an imaginative cultural underground of the illicit and forbidden" (334). The meticulous attention with which they tried to embed representations of cruelty "in a tangle of apologies, explanations, indirections, and bowdleristic omissions" (332) points to their awareness that they were "participating in the introduction of a new cultural linkage of violence and sex, a linkage whose primary purpose was to establish the obscenity of pain" (330). Yet, despite its dubious nature, pain provided an epistemology, "a kind of transcendence," according to Marianne Noble (144). Noble argues that sentimental literature's use of masochism [End Page 371] "makes available to a woman who endorses 'true womanhood' a way of imagining her own embodiment and her own desire for physical pleasure" (23) because "in the sentimental ideal, a sufferer and an observer exceed their own bodily limits through the common bond of pain" (144). This "common bond" rests on "a conviction that non-slaves could know what the pain of slavery felt like" (129); for example, "bereavement and separation" are "universal" emotions. Harriet Beecher Stowe's literary method in Uncle Tom's Cabin exemplifies this approach by "thrust[ing] into readers' preexisting wounds, forcing them to 'feel for' the slave by re-experiencing their own painful separations and other forms of suffering" (129). Sentimentalizing pain could thus implicitly enlist the sufferer into validating the observer's preexisting ideas or ideals regarding pain.

Harriet Wilson's Our Nig; or...


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pp. 371-381
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