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ALLISON L. HURST Furman University Beyond the Pale: Poor Whites as Uncontrolled Social Contagion in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred Introduction DRED:ATALEOFTHEDISMALSWAMP.WAS PUBLISHED IN 1856,FOUR YEARS after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s wildly popular abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Although nowhere as popular as her first novel, Dred was nevertheless read by thousands, and even surpassed Uncle Tom’s Cabin in preliminary sales. The racial politics of Stowe’s second abolitionist novel are more overt and revolutionary. Perhaps this explains why white readers found the novel less appealing than Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Contemporary reviews found the book less persuasive, more didactic, and the title character a bit of a bore.1 Since then Stowe scholars have made similar critiques (Korobkin 3982 ; Whitney 553). What has been largely overlooked and unremarked, however, is Stowe’s scathing depiction of “poor whites.” This article seeks to rectify this oversight by examining the depiction of the white working class found in Dred. I argue that the lack of a serious discussion on this oppressed Southern population is troubling on several counts. First, Stowe expends considerable energy and time to include poor white characters in her novel. Why has this failed to spark discussion? Stowe’s mischaracterizations and stereotypes of poor whites have so far failed to spark serious discussion because those mischaracterizations and stereotypes continue to operate today, both in fiction and popular and 1 See, for example, the contemporary review by the New York State Unitarian Association. 2 Although Korobkin argues that this didacticism is truly the strength of the novel: “Stowe’s novel mimics the functional power of an appellate court decision, and far extends its reach, by using her fiction to establish a system of higher law that readers must recognize and, she hopes, obey” (405). 636 Allison L. Hurst academic discourse.3 Stowe’s descriptions of poor whites as brutal, tasteless, dirty, and immoral cannot offend readers who find her descriptions accurate. Second, we can’t fully understand Stowe’s position on slavery and Southern social relations if we ignore her depiction of poor whites. Entire chapters of Dred are devoted to the Cripps family, landless squatters who somehow manage to retain one slave, “Tiff,” the Uncle Tom character of the novel. Other important scenes describe the relationship between the ruthless planter Tom Gordon and rootless whites who are encouraged, through alcohol and racism, to enforce the social hierarchy against abolitionists, Northerners, and runaway slaves. Long dialogues occur between Nina Gordon and her relations regarding the proper role of poor whites in the South, unfavorably comparing their idleness and freedom to the much more controlled industrial workforce in the North. These passages are important and integral to Stowe’s abolitionist arguments. She uses poor whites as a doubling contrast to black slaves. Even though Stowe argues passionately against the institution of slavery, she has no problem at all with a rigid class hierarchy between elites and the working class. Freedom from slavery does not connote freedom from mastery. What disturbs Stowe most about the Southern poor is that they are masterless and rootless, unlike the Northern working class that are well controlled by their employers. Southern planters feel no responsibility towards those who are forced to squat for survival.4 They 3 See, for example, the varied discussions of “poor whites,” “Southern rednecks,” and “white trash” in Bynum, Carr, Hartigan, Roebuck, Wray, and Wray and Newitz. 4 Images of poor white squatters were common during the nineteenth century, in art and literature. Charles Henry Beard, artist and ardent abolitionist, painted a series depicting poor white squatters, forced to move in search of employment and land (Husch). A contemporary account of “Poor White Trash” by Southern planter Daniel R. Hundley describes the rampant practice of squatting: The Poor White Trash rarely possess energy and self-reliance enough to emigrate singly from the older Southern States to the South-west, but usually migrate by whole neighborhoods; and are thus to be seen nearly every summer or fall plodding along together, each family having its whole stock of worldly goods packed into a little one-horse cart of rudest workmanship, into which likewise are often crowded...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 635-653
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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