- Purchase/rental options available:
This essay departs from the scholarly tradition that equates black violence with revolutionary selfhood in order to return to the rhetoric of terror that is so emblematic of Walker’s Appeal. By situating slave rebellion within an eschatological framework (and not a revolutionary one) and insisting that acts of insurrection were part of apocalyptic prophecy in which God commissions violent retribution against slaveholders, Walker attempts in the Appeal to inspire a profound sense of fear that would motivate Southern readers to take action against slavery. Indeed, fear operates as a powerful organizing sentiment in Walker’s text, and the strategic deployment of apocalyptic terror is central to the political and ethical interventions it undertakes. Surprisingly, this particular use of terror aligns Walker’s text with an unexpected tradition: sentimentality. In fact, as I will argue, the Appeal is a foundational text within a particular style of nineteenth-century sentimentality that is rooted in the evangelical fervor of the Second Great Awakening and that emphasizes fear as an essential affective dimension of moral reform. Scholars who take for granted that nineteenth-century sentimentalism is based exclusively on sympathetic love and compassion or who maintain that the nineteenth-century sentimental tradition grows solely out of the Scottish Enlightenment and as such is antagonistic to Calvinism, overlook sentimentalism’s indebtedness to early nineteenth-century Calvinist ideas. Within the nineteenth-century culture of sentiment, Calvinist warnings of apocalypse were used to accomplish many of the same reform goals that love and compassion were meant to achieve, including the inducement of sympathy, the breakdown of social hierarchies, the intensification of familial bonds, and, in the case of antislavery writing, the humanization of Negro slaves. I read Walker’s Appeal, then, as an influential prototype for later sentimental writers working within an abolitionist context whose accounts of sentimentality are as dedicated to apocalyptic fear as they are to sympathetic Christian love.