Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture by Sarah N. Roth
Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture. By Sarah N. Roth.
Gender, Race, Slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Abolition, Violence
The antebellum United States was saturated with popular images and texts about the nation’s “peculiar institution” of slavery. Among the most widely reproduced of these came from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s runaway antislavery bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which featured the angelic white child Eva St. Clare reading the Bible to the reverent, enslaved Uncle Tom. In an era charged with anxieties about interactions between white women and African American men, it is certainly striking that an image and narrative featuring a white girl in close (and loving) physical proximity to an enslaved man should have become so popular with the white northern public. In the abundant literature about slavery and abolition published during the antebellum era, how did African American and white authors represent white women, African American men, and their roles in the battle for abolition? How did these authors grapple with anxieties about the possibility for violent activism on the part of the enslaved, and fears about racial equality after emancipation? Who are the hero(ine)s of the texts that antislavery authors wrote, and how do writers imagine slavery finally being brought to an end? In her insightful and provocative new book, Sarah N. Roth offers valuable new insights on these questions, and into the vast, complex literature about slavery and abolition written in the decades before the Civil War. [End Page 668]
In her monograph, Roth discusses an impressively extensive variety of texts from the early years of the colonizationist movement in the 1820s up through the end of the Civil War. Among the many strengths of Roth’s study are the fresh interpretations of much-studied texts such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Frederick Douglass’ slave narratives, as well as its analysis of juvenile literature, radical abolitionist narratives, and pro-slavery texts that have for all too long gone un- or understudied. Through her examination of these varied examples of literature on slavery and abolition, Roth is able to trace the evolution of the complicated visions of resistance, empowerment, and liberation these authors articulated in their work in the decades before, and the years of, the Civil War.
Throughout the texts she considers, Roth identifies an intriguing pattern in representations of these novels’ and stories’ white (and mixed-race, light-skinned African American) female and African American male characters. As the American reading public came to be dominated by white, middle-class women in the late antebellum era, Roth argues, many literary texts about slavery and abolition came to echo these readers’ preferences and concerns, emphasizing the strength and capability of white heroines (and “octoroon” heroines, who were coded as white) with whom these readers could identify. In stories that empower white women, representing them as bold, resourceful heroines who take meaningful, concrete steps against slavery, African American men are depicted by their authors as weak, passive figures who, at their most active, die because of slavery’s injustices. By contrast, in texts where African American men are the primary actors against slavery, taking part in individual and organized resistance to the institution, white and African American women are represented as pure victims, powerless to resist slavery and often dying because of the institution’s evils.
Roth skillfully traces the ways in which broader cultural anxieties about race and gender permeate these texts, specifically the ways in which these narratives enter into debates about whiteness and femininity, and about black masculinity and violence. The impact that slavery had on white women was a topic of perennial fascination for the authors whom Roth considers. In the slave narratives written by African American men, white women of the slave-owning class invariably became monstrous, corrupted by the unlimited, unjust power granted to them by the slave system. In the “anti-Tom” proslavery novels published in the wake of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, however, the innate fragility of upper-class white [End Page 669] women and their biological unfitness for any kind of labor was relentlessly highlighted. As Roth insightfully argues, these depictions of white heroines as too delicate to do any form of work may well have rankled white, middle-class readers of the North, whose ideals of femininity included the capacity for considerable domestic labor, and may have helped to account for anti-Tom novels’ failure to achieve popular success.
These texts also all grappled with the specter of the “black savage,” and white fears about African American male violence. In the wake of David Walker’s Appeal and Nat Turner’s rebellion, how did popular literature depict enslaved men violently resisting their bondage? African American male authors such as William Wells Brown, Martin Delany, and Frederick Douglass lauded the violent activism of enslaved men, arguing that using such violence to defend and emancipate themselves and their families was a vital way of claiming and demonstrating black masculinity. White contemporaries like Stowe, by contrast, were distinctly uneasy about the prospect of such violence, suggesting that their violent black male characters were tainted by insanity (and often killed them off by the end of their stories). Roth suggests that this dichotomy was particularly acute during the Civil War. In narratives about African American Union soldiers, white authors stressed black men’s willingness to die to save white women in peril, while African American authors highlighted black men’s abilities to fight and kill for the sake of the cause of freedom.
In Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture, Roth has written an astute, insightful text about the vitally important literature about slavery and abolition published during the antebellum and Civil War eras. Concluding her volume with a consideration of how these debates about gender, race, and empowerment continued to reverberate throughout the political and popular cultures of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Roth vividly demonstrates the ongoing relevance and impact of the texts she considers. Roth’s sophisticated, compellingly written scholarship about the complexities of popular culture’s engagement with issues of race, gender, and inequality raises important questions about the power that literary texts have to shape discussions about social injustice, activism, and change. [End Page 670]
Holly M. Kent is an assistant professor of history at the University of Illinois, Springfield.