- The Radicals' Reconstruction:Jewett at Port Royal
I am grateful for Vesna Kuiken's recent essay ("'Fit to Be Free': From Race to Capacity . . .") on Sarah Orne Jewett's "The Mistress of Sydenham Plantation" (Fall 2017). The historical and conceptual framework Kuiken provides for reading this understudied text expands our approach to the literature of Reconstruction, a valuable contribution that I believe might be extended by exploring further the story's interest in the role of Northern reformers in the implementation of Southern Reconstruction. To wit, following Kuiken's generative focus on the key concept of capacity, we might look to Jewett's treatment of the Port Royal Experiment for what it reveals about the co-optation of social radicalism in this period.
Reconstruction effectively began early in the war, when Union forces captured the South Carolina Sea Islands in 1861. White residents fled, abandoning vast plantation estates, a multimillion-dollar cotton crop, and ten thousand enslaved people. The federal government sought Northern teachers to instruct this black population not only in the usual schoolhouse subjects but also in "voluntary industry, self-reliance, frugality."1 The reformers from Boston and New York who answered the call became known as Gideonites or Gideon's Band, although Jewett's story alludes to them only as "de good ladies f'om de Norf."2 They were "a queer farrago" of "bearded and mustached and odd-looking men, with odder-looking women," who looked to one observer at the time like "the adjournment of a John Brown meeting or the fag end of a broken-down phalanstery!"3 In other words, the Port Royal Experiment was implemented by the kind of people previously associated with experiments [End Page 229] of a different kind—the socialist communes, gender bending, and antiracist direct actions that antebellum social protest movements had generated. But these ultras were now charged with the decidedly conservative project of installing a capitalist wage-labor economy and enforcing norms like marriage and military service. Jewett's story places these reformers in ambiguous and intriguing relation to a set of codependent Southern amnesiacs in a mutually constructed time warp that involves the persistence of slavery decades after Emancipation.
Kuiken argues that Port Royal catalyzed a postbellum shift from a political and ethical discourse of rights to one hinging on economic and biological competence, as newly freed African Americans were tasked with proving that they could be functional capitalist subjects. In addition to the discourse of black capacity that Kuiken brings to light, Jewett's "Mistress" also raises questions for me about the frustrating incapacity of white Americans who took part in projects for black empowerment after Emancipation. Their new experiment turned out to replicate the old regime in many ways. The free people were paid for their work for the first time in their lives, but they were nevertheless forced to work, not by slave drivers but by Union soldiers and Northern cotton agents, their "new masters." The activist teacher Laura Towne, whom (as Kuiken notes) Jewett and Annie Fields visited in 1888, viewed this compulsory labor with apprehension, signaling the burden of complicity she felt as a member of the Port Royal Experiment even though her own motives were humanitarian and not commercial. She observed, "The danger now seems to be—not that we shall be called enthusiasts, abolitionists, philanthropists, but cotton agents, negro-drivers, oppressors." She noted with distress that the Gideonites were pressured to downplay their antislavery convictions and that some of her colleagues "do not even tell the slaves that they are free, and they lead them to suppose that if they do not do so and so, they may be returned to their masters," a form of psychological control that resonates profoundly with Jewett's story.4 Moreover, this troubling reversal hints at a broader shift in reform culture as many prominent activists turned from radical perfectionism to accommodationist expediency, overconfident in the state as a force of emancipation once the federal government nominally embraced this cause at long last. To name only one relevant example, the black radical Martin Delany, an agent of the Freedmen's Bureau on the Sea Islands, came to support the...