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GraceFame11 Romantic Irony in “TheRescued Fugitives” In 1839,forty-nineAfrican men from the Spanish schooner Amistad were held in the Church Street jail in New Haven, Connecticut, on charges of murder and mutiny. They had been seized from western Africa and sold into slavery. After surviving the passage across the Atlantic, crammed into four-foot-high holds that lacked any sanitary facilities, they arrived in Cuba, where they were kept in open-air pens until sold again and loaded onto the Amistad. Led by a rice farmer who was known asJoseph Cinque, the Africans revolted, killing their captors. Captured, they awaited trial for seventeen months, drawing large crowds of curious onlookers. Some paid a NewYork shilling toview them in thejailhouse, whileothers mobbed theNew Haven Green, acrossthe street, where the Africansexercised,delighting the crowdswith flips and somersaults.’ In 1841, the Artist Fund Society of Philadelphia refused to exhibita portrait ofJoseph Cinque. It was thought that the painting, by New Haven engraver Nathaniel Jocelyn, because it depicted Cinque in heroic, classicalgarments, might offend some of the society’spatrons. The controversysurrounding the portrait echoed the substanceof the trials of the Africans:their defenseargued that they were not slaves who had revolted and murdered but free persons who had been seizedillegallyand who killed in self-defense.2 More than twentyyears later, Lillie Devereux Blake, who had lived a block and a half from the Church Street jail when the Africans were held there, published a short story (reprinted after this article) in which a noble slave, named Neptune, rises up out of the Ohio River,much asCinque had risen up out of the sea, to save his people. Blake published “The Rescued Fugtives” on 22 March 1862 in the Philadelphia War Press, a pro-Union weekly tabloid, which remained silent on reform issues and reflected prevailingviews of blacks and women. Much of the war’s land action, at this time, was taking place in the Western Theater, at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Tennessee, about sixty miles east and slightlysouth of Cairo, where the Mississippi Riverjoins the Ohio. This nub of freedom,socrucialto Mark Twain’srunawayJim in HucklebenyFinn, is the setting for Blake’sstory.She buildsher narrativeupon a seriesof contradictions in itsviewof the runawayNeptune-contradictions that are not textual inconsistencies,but rather are indicators of the fluid boundaries of racial steree types during a transitional period and also of the author’suse of ironyand indirection in her subversion of the prevailingviews of her audience. That audience, and even most abolitionists , held what early-twenty-firstcentury readers would clearly see as racist attitudes. While Blake was writing her fiction for the middlebrow War Press, Rebecca Harding Davis was writing for the elite, reformist Atlantic Monthly, and, as Sharon M. Harris points out, Davis like other antislavery advocates “did not always rise above the nation’s racism, even when she was . . . at her abolitionist best.”5Davis’s “Blind Tom,” published in the November 1862issue of the Atlantic, recounts the true story of a young, black idiot savant, whom Davis heard during his concertizing before the Civil War. While bringing her moving theme of “soulstarvation”to bear on the caged spirits of an enslaved p e ~ p l e , ~ Davis describes Tom as “of the lowest negro type,from which onlyfield-handscan be made,-coal-black, with protruding heels, the ape-jaw, blubber-lips constantly open.”5In ”John Lamar,” published in the April 1862issue, Davis creates an aestheticallypowerful portrayal of the human desire for freedom, yet she is not free of RomanticImnv an “TheRescued FuQitaves 69 brutalraciststereotyping.The “skulking,” “blubber lip[ped]” Ben is a “human brute,” a “gorilla,”in contrast to the “whitedove,”his mistress.6To be free,Ben kills his master. Giddywith the deed, he sets not a northerly course toward freedom but, fulfillingwhite racialfears,a southerlyone toward that white dove of a mistress whose lips his own “blubber”onesyearn to press.’ Cruelracialstereotypeswere acceptable,common , and scarcelynoted by the readershipof the AtZuntzcMonthly,which,while callinginApril 1862 for emancipation as “thedemand of civilization,” had asked in the previousissue,Whatshallwe say, then, of an inferiorrace,slave-born,ignorant,and undisciplined by moral influences?”8 In the same Marchissue,abrigadeo fcontrabandsisdescribed riding through the streets of Springfield...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1754-6095
Print ISSN
1947-4644
Pages
pp. 68-72
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-07
Open Access
No
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