Freedom in a Slave Society: Stories from the Antebellum South by Johanna Nichol Shields (review)
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American literature, Slavery, Antebellum South, Southern writers

Freedom in a Slave Society: Stories from the Antebellum South. By Johanna Nichol Shields. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. 299. Cloth, $99.00.)

The intellectual culture of the antebellum South has long suffered from the condescension of posterity, and few groups within that society have suffered more than creative writers. Marginalized in their own day by a trans-Atlantic print culture that favored British writers over American ones, southern writers also worked within an American literary culture that privileged the work of British and northern novelists and essayists over those of the South.

Conventional wisdom has long said that with the exception of Edgar Allan Poe, a border state aberration, the antebellum South produced few good creative writers. Work by South Carolina's William Gilmore Simms [End Page 379] and Virginia's John Esten Cooke had few of the virtues of Sir Walter Scott, and all of his flaws. It is little wonder that so many white southerners preferred to read Charles Dickens. After all, the best southern writers of this period—both from the standpoint of literary quality and historical interest—are ex-slaves such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and William Wells Brown.

If southeastern writers like Simms are seen by literary critics as marginal, those from Alabama are virtually unknown. Yet in her new book, a collective biography of five Alabama writers, Johanna Nichol Shields makes a surprisingly convincing case that we should take these authors seriously. She focuses on Joseph Baldwin, Caroline Hentz, Johnson Hooper, Augusta Evans, Albert Pickett, Alexander Meek, William Russell Smith, and Jeremiah Clemens. These "southwestern" writers have been examined mostly as regional humorists who served as precursors to Mark Twain.

Shields's signal contribution is to portray these writers as middle-class strivers. In her view these town-based writers used their writing as a form of self-making, or "self-determination." These authors sought the "ability to make choices about their lives" (xvi). Needless to say, such a message could appeal to a national audience. Shields illustrates the national appeal of Alabama writers with a savvy introduction discussing Abraham Lincoln's enjoyment of a humorous book by a fellow lawyer, Joseph Baldwin's Flush Times in Alabama and Mississippi. Shields describes her own visit to Illinois, where, in Springfield, she holds Lincoln's copy of Baldwin's novel in her own hands. In an uncharacteristic stretch beyond what her evidence will support, the author envisions she has found Lincoln's favorite sections of the book by locating the sections with the most fingerprints, which she presumes are Lincoln's.

Given the allusion to Lincoln, it is ironic if unsurprising that many of the writers examined by Shields owned slaves. Twenty years ago, Shields's depiction of slaveholders as part of an emerging southern middle class would have immediately sparked controversy. Most southern historians then viewed the region as so distinctive from capitalism that use of a term such as "middle class" seemed hopelessly anachronistic. Shields wisely avoids shopworn squabbles over the nature of the southern economy and class system and leans heavily on the nuanced discussion of the emerging southern middle class developed by Jonathan Daniel Wells and Michael O'Brien.

Alabama's middle-class writers who owned slaves or were born into [End Page 380] slaveholding families resembled their northern counterparts who did not own slaveholders in many regards. Central to their careers was a process of "self-determination," which meant gaining success and maintaining freedom. Shields describes a rising market economy driven by cotton prices; several of the writers she profiles migrated to the state in search of economic opportunity. Amid a rapidly growing economy, Alabamians readily adopted the prevailing nineteenth-century faith in progress. These writers occasionally took on sectional themes, but in Shields's depiction, these writers are not proslavery hacks. They remained optimistic about the future because, without the benefit of hindsight, they could not foresee the Civil War.

Shields readily acknowledges that she is influenced by the classic work on Alabama politics done by J. Mills Thornton III in the 1970s. Thornton argued that just as Alabamians embraced ideals of...