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  • Slavery in American Children’s Literature, 1790–2010 by Paula Connolly
  • Joel Myerson (bio)
Slavery in American Children’s Literature, 1790–2010. By Paula Connolly. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2013.

Literary scholars usually comment on slavery by looking at mainstream adult literature, such as newspaper articles, fiction, speeches, sermons, and nonfiction prose. Those studying children’s literature usually focus on specific genres, historical developments, and themes. Rarely do these two groups study how writings for children have affected contemporary events, especially slavery. Works like Dorothy Broderick’s Image of the Black in Children’s Fiction (1973), Deborah De Rosa’s Domestic Abolitionism and Juvenile Literature, 1830–1865 (2003), and, most recently, Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence (2011) have examined individual themes and time periods, but until now there has not been a study examining how slavery is portrayed in American children’s literature, both as a genre and as a work of agency.

Paula Connolly’s groundbreaking study is “built upon the premise that children’s early education is politically significant, and that children’s literature about slavery has been a means of both revealing and inscribing American racial politics” (8). Her book concentrates on three genres: “the autobiographical slave narrative; its ideological opposite, the proslavery plantation novel; and, often situated some place between the two, white-authored abolitionist fiction” (5). She has wisely chosen to deal in depth with representative works from a very large corpus spanning centuries rather than attempting brief summaries of many works. Her book is divided into five chronological chapters.

Connolly argues that during the period 1790–1865, “abolitionists saw children as both the present and eventual instigators of a reformed nation, believing ‘if you make children abolitionists slavery must come to an end’” (3). Radical abolitionist literature had “a nonnegotiable view of slavery as an unquestionably cruel system under which people suffered tremendous injustices” (15), and works sought to radicalize their young readers and encourage them to participate actively in the antislavery cause. As early as 1790, Noah Webster’s The Little Reader’s Assistant incorporated stories about the evils of slavery, often drawn from such adult accounts as the one by Olaudah Equiano. Abolitionism began to play a major role in American life with the publication of The Liberator in 1831 and the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. The latter published The Slave’s Friend (1836–39) to reach the young, claiming a readership of fifty thousand children. Like later popular slave narratives, the stories it featured demonstrated the violence of slavery and condemned racial prejudice. By presenting stories of enslaved children, the magazine encouraged its young readers to identify with these subjects; some stories even had [End Page 477] white characters being enslaved, asking the reader to “‘put yourself in their place’” (24). Still, according to Connolly, in many of these works whites were constructed as heroic by countering them with blacks who were needful, passive, and grateful.

While some stories showed the slave as a figure who forgave his masters, thus demonstrating his moral superiority, others showed slaves rising up against injustice in ways that Connolly believes endorsed “the practical necessity of violence, but also the cathartic exuberance of besting one’s adversary” (33). Meanwhile, moderate abolitionist literature, such as the Peter Parley geography books, exploited ideas of otherness by placing the events of their stories outside the United States. In these works, the personal sense of responsibility for slavery that the radical abolitionists fostered was not present. Also, many publications that one would have expected to support abolition, such as the many works by the American Sunday School Union, avoided it so not to offend their readership.

During the crucial 1830–1865 period, the principal contribution of the proslavery books was the plantation story. Unlike the abolitionist literature that advocated change, proslavery works endorsed the status quo. Such literature was also characterized by the proslavery adventure novel and Confederate schoolbooks. As Connolly describes them, all of these works offered “a repertoire of racial tropes and slave figures—as variously foolish, needy, loyal, fortunate, or objects of exchange—to argue proslavery perspectives” (54).

Proslavery novels by males showed the plantation as an idyllic...