Abolitionist Geographies by Martha Schoolman (review)
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Reviewed by
Martha Schoolman. Abolitionist Geographies. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2014. 240 pp. $75.00 cloth/ $25.00 paper.

In Abolitionist Geographies, Martha Schoolman approaches abolitionist literature through the lens of geography; she draws attention to the multifaceted and often highly ambivalent ways in which spatial confines and geographic knowledge had significant impact upon abolitionist discourses. Her geopolitical approach thus brings to the fore what were central conundrums for abolitionists, such as the questions of white paternalism vis-à-vis black resistance, immediate versus gradual emancipation, accommodationism versus radical abolition, and nonviolent means of moral suasion versus armed rebellion.

In her Introduction, which begins with a discussion of “the quintessential North American geographic novel” (1), Martin Delany’s Blake; or, the Huts of America (1859-62), Schoolman maps the “literary geography” (5) of U. S. abolitionism in a period from the Emancipation of the West Indies (1834) to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry (1859). What follows are five densely argued chapters, which focus on different (albeit primarily white) authors and key themes of “literary abolitionism” (1), a term that unfortunately remains rather vague as it is not clear what informed Schoolman’s selection of primary texts, which range from classic abolitionist fiction like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) to Emerson’s essay Nature (1836), a text that is seldom discussed in the context of abolition.

Chapters one and two focus on white New England intellectuals and the geopolitical context of the British West Indies. Schoolman first examines the emerging abolitionist thought of New England intellectuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing via their “convalescent southern travel” (36) and draws attention to the repeated and highly ambivalent intersection of discourses of illness and abolition. “What if,” Schoolman asks, the “parlors [of northerners] and their stomachs could do without plantation produce, but their lungs could not recover without the plantation climate?” (35). In typical fashion for Abolitionist Geographies, several other aspects are interwoven in this already complex topic of abolitionists’ transatlantic and hemispheric “itineraries of illness in the 1830s” (35): Schoolman reflects, for example, upon New Englanders’ conflicting observations concerning post-emancipation wage labor conditions (in comparison to slavery) and gradual emancipation (in contrast to immediate emancipation). Taken together, these multiple discourses show how the transnational flows of material goods, the corporeal experience of illness (and the travel it necessitates), and competing [End Page 387] economic visions of global labor are inextricably entwined in New England’s abolitionist thought.

In the second chapter, “August First and the Practice of Disunion,” Schoolman examines the “strategic superficiality of the August First Celebration” (82) to commemorate Emancipation Day as an event of universal rather than national relevance. She shows how white American abolitionists turned Emancipation Day into a model for a peaceful end to slavery in the U. S., which was politically in sync with Garrison’s doctrine of nonviolence. Furthermore, Schoolman demonstrates how white abolitionists failed to acknowledge important precursors to emancipation in the West Indies, such as the slave revolt in Jamaica in 1832, in order to emphasize white control and deliberately construct a lack of black agency in the process of emancipation. While Schoolman’s line of argument is reasonable, her narrative would have benefited from a more detailed discussion of African American commemorations––and their equally strategic use of this transnational event––as they have been examined by Mitch Kachun (Festivals for Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915, 2003) and Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie (Rites of August First: Emancipation Day in the Black Atlantic World, 2007).

Chapter three analyzes black cosmopolitanism in William Wells Brown’s first travel narrative Three Years in Europe (1852). Schoolman argues how Brown, during his stay in Europe, gained a black cosmopolitan consciousness that was decidedly different from the typical notion of cosmopolitanism as a movement from the rural new world of slavery to the freedom of the metropolitan cities of the old world. During his attendance at the international peace conference in Paris in 1849, for example, Brown became aware of “the fragile tranquility of the present and the upheavals of the past” (116)––a realization which made him reconsider the precarious foundations on...