- Family Money: Property, Race, and Literature in the Nineteenth Century by Jeffory A. Clymer
This important work of literary criticism makes the novel argument that prominent nineteenth-century American authors produced fiction in a conscious attempt to rectify a pattern of “wealth racialization” that denied the rightful claims of African Americans to property owned exclusively by white families. According to Clymer, “these writers turned to fiction to imagine alternative scenarios for race, family, and property” and “offered a means to yield different verdicts and leave assets in black hands” (149).
Concentrating on Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends (1857) and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), the first chapter of Family Money shows how these novels exposed the incongruity of interracial emotional bonds and the denial of inheritance rights to enslaved or formerly enslaved women and their children. Says Clymer, these works “hinge on a politically compromised, but real, effort to envision the redistribution of white wealth to the formerly enslaved” (15). Especially with its treatment of Mary Andrews Denison’s Old Hepsy (1858), chapter 2 examines two interrelated means for wealth racialization in the antebellum South: the doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem, which held that the status of a child was determined by that of her or his mother; and the dubious role of “blood” in determining racial identity in courts of law. Amid southern reaction to abolitionism, and notwithstanding partus, racist white jurors and judges could consign to bondage dark-skinned mulattos born to free mothers, denying them legal family membership and heritable property. Chapter 3 assesses Emma D. E. N. Southworth’s Retribution (1849) and The Discarded Daughter (1852), revealing how [End Page 521] these novels compared the situation of plantation mistresses to that of slaves—owned as property and coerced by planter men within intimate relationships. Yet, for Southworth, the southern notion of affectionate intimacy between slave owners and the enslaved provided a rationale for challenging the emotional and economic norms of white marriage and for supporting married women’s property acts. The focus of chapter 4 is Lydia Maria Child’s A Romance of the Republic (1867), a novel that Clymer argues was prominent among a group of novels appearing after the Civil War that reimagined interracial intimacy and wealth redistribution from whites to blacks. Chapter 5 concentrates on the work of two of the most prominent African American writers of the late Gilded Age: Charles Chestnutt’s The House behind the Cedars (1900) and Pauline Hopkins’s Hagar’s Daughter (1901–2). Clymer maintains that these novels constituted powerful discursive interventions into the comparative legalities of interracial marriage and property ownership before and after Reconstruction while also depicting the institution of marriage, amid increasingly stringent antimiscegenation laws, as a “central pillar of the regressive effort to maintain white wealth during the nadir” (17).
The scholarly framing for Family Money ranges well beyond literary criticism; in its introduction, Clymer makes the intriguing assertion that the very concepts of blackness and whiteness in nineteenth-century America were, in fact, the products of economic struggle—that is, contested informal and legal claims by African Americans to white family wealth. At first blush, this reader wondered how struggles over family property rights fundamentally driven by the distinctions between white and black, free and unfree, helped to produce the understandings of racial difference and status that gave rise to such struggles in the first place. Clymer’s analysis of legal and literary texts, chapter by chapter, ably clarifies the dynamic. Even so, it might be more apt to say that nineteenth-century struggles over property rights between legal claimants alleged to be white and black, free and unfree, disrupted and sometimes exploded hegemonic definitions of racial and status difference when such differences were not easily discernible to triers of fact.
Several historians in the last decade and a half, such as Martha Hodes, Joshua Rothman, and Dianne Sommerville, have maintained that, contrary to traditional...