- Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture by Sarah N. Roth
The most important word in the title of Sarah N. Roth's recent book, Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture, is "and." Attempts to understand either gender or race separately misrepresent the antebellum period, Roth argues, particularly the ways that black men were represented in popular culture. If we are "[t]o judge by current historiography," she writes, "it seems that race never entered into the consciousness of white women living beyond the South and played no role in shaping who these women were or how they saw themselves" (6). This, Roth proposes, is surely wrong, and the aim of her study is to demonstrate the fundamental correlation of ideas about race and gender in novels about slavery from the 1820s through the Civil War, stressing the recurrent patterns that emerged and the racist assumptions they sustained. At the core of her argument is the claim that white female authors manipulated representations of enslaved black men to bolster their own position in antebellum culture. Juxtaposing depictions of black men to those of white and light-skinned women, Roth identifies representational norms that she links to the race and gender of authors, as well as to their positions on slavery. As Roth usefully notes, antebellum attitudes about slavery should be understood not as a binary—pro or con—but along a continuum with abolition and slavery advocacy at opposite ends.
The eight chapters of Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture are arranged chronologically, beginning with literature for children about slavery in the early nineteenth century and ending with depictions of black soldiers during the Civil War; in between, Roth considers the shift from "black male savages" (39) in the 1830s to the gentle martyr of the 1850s, counterarguments proposed by slave narratives and radical abolitionist fiction, as well as the displacement of black men in novels about light-skinned black women across the [End Page 221] 1850s. Each chapter traces a specific figuration that emerged from the changing relationships between race and gender and, through thematic readings of the texts, articulates its particular features. This approach allows Roth to observe, for example, a concentration of octoroon novels in Ohio in the 1850s, which she suggests is explained by the state's geography and "fervor" "over both antislavery and women's rights" (174). The chapters are clearly written and should thus be accessible to undergraduate students, making parts of Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture a fine choice for the classroom. The study's limited scholarly apparatus—Roth's sources are often dated and surprisingly partial—may make the book a less attractive option for more advanced classes, however, despite its compelling and timely claims.
This is an ambitious and laudable project, one that importantly stresses how white women developed representations of black people to serve their own interests and needs. But the book's ambition outpaces its execution in ways that literary scholars may find problematic. Roth has set herself a capacious task, and the argument's nuance sometimes suffers as a result, particularly when she considers the motivations of readers and writers. While the book as a whole surveys numerous works, its expansive scope means that individual chapters sometimes rely on a limited number of texts; in the chapter on radical abolitionist narratives, for example, Roth builds her argument from six texts, a sample too small to support broad conclusions about the attitudes of readers.
Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture develops its archive from published materials, primarily books of prose narrative. Roth mainly focuses on fiction, but as is indicated by her third chapter, on "manly self-defense" in slave narratives from the 1840s, nonfiction is also considered (74). Many of the works she discusses are canonical, and most are familiar to scholars of the period. Yet published books are only a subset of popular culture. With the occasional exception, the multiple other ways that racial representations circulated or were developed...