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  • Albion Tourgée and the Politics of Disability and Race in Reconstruction-era Literature
  • George Gordon-Smith (bio)

In “The Literary Quality of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’” (1896), Albion Tourgée asserts that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “literary marvel” wrought its magic by painting “a slavery which the free man could understand and appreciate.”1 Curious to learn what the emancipated slaves themselves thought of Stowe’s book that had so “vividly . . . impressed [his] young mind,” Tourgée questioned many about it. Nearly all found her sketches of blacks and master-slave relationships untrue to life.2 Yet far from branding the “nonrealistic” mode of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a defect, Tourgée identified it as the secret of the influence the novel had exerted. An “absolutely ‘realistic’ . . . delineation of the master and the slave” would not only have failed to move readers, he argued, but would have gone over the heads of the majority, “who did not, and do not yet comprehend” the nature of slavery nor the people subject to it.3 Tourgée recognized that a realistic representation of African slaves would not have the same rhetorical effect on antebellum readers as black caricatures and would have prevented John P. Jewett from ever publishing Uncle Tom’s Cabin in National Era in 1852. Oddly, Tourgée felt that the stigmas associated with slavery, the lack of “responsibility, autonomy, will, and self possession” that constructed blacks as “dependent” are precisely what made Stowe’s famous novel so effective.4 How do we explain the disconnect between white perceptions of blacks as a dependent population and African American awareness of their own latent capacities in mid-nineteenth-century American fiction? And how should we understand the role played by Northern readers who reinforce and counter act these assumptions?

Disability studies offers us some surprising answers to these questions. Historically, associations of disability with race have been remarkably detrimental to African [End Page 103] Americans. Prominent southern physician Samuel Cartwright, for example, justified slavery by maintaining that people of African descent were intellectually inferior to whites and invented diseases of the mind—Drapeotemania and Dysaethesia Aethiopica—to lend scientific credibility to his claims.5 Colonial and slave ideologies conceived of people of African descent as fundamentally degenerate and sought to bring “aberrant” bodies and minds under control via slavery and Jim Crow. Yet, as scholars such as Nirmala Erevelles and Andrea Minear note, critical race and disability studies offer insightful methods for assessing constructions of race because both race and disability depend upon social constructs that derive meaning from the social, historical, cultural, and political structures that frame social life.6 Disability studies also helps us understand why blacks were denied citizenship. Allison Carey argues, for example, that “race” has “intertwined in complex ways with intellectual disability” in the United States, to the extent that people of African descent have been barred from citizenship because they were “assumed to have lower levels of intelligence than whites.”7 Critical disability studies also aids us in comprehending the relationship between corporeal difference and representation. Ellen Samuels posits, for example, that the “deep, durable, and indelible” differences between the races depend upon what she calls “fantasies of identification,” which naturalize racial difference through associations with disability.8

Building on these developments, I interrogate the relationship between race and disability during the Reconstruction era in Albion Tourgée’s Bricks Without Straw (1880). As a number of scholars have shown, caricatured black characters abound in white nineteenth-century American fiction, positioning exaggerated racial physiognomies as evidence of their inability to participate in American civil discourse.9 This essay argues that Tourgée’s characterization of Reconstruction-era black characters systematically challenges the deeply associated and mutually reinforced constructions of race and disability in literary plots of the antebellum era, which questioned the capacity of black Americans to participate in American government fully. Moreover, Tourgée’s characters represent a previously unstudied exploration of representations of both race and disability in the Reconstruction novel.

To Speak as a “White Man”

Albion Tourgée believed that if the crusade against slavery required an Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, the challenges the country faced in...


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pp. 103-122
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