Writers on the Wrong Side of History: Locating Truth Claims in Anti-Tom Literature

“. . . the negroes of the south are the happiest labouring class on the face of the globe.” – The Planter’s Northern Bride, Caroline Lee Hentz


“The ancient tales

which I first learned

Will I relate.” -Edna of Sarmund


Plantation literature, best known as “anti-Tom literature,” comprises a corpus of around 30 pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist rebuttals. Purely retaliatory in nature, the anti-Tom genre attracted a mixed lot of contributors, including credited novelists (William Gilmore Simms and Caroline Lee Hentz), anonymous authors (“Vidi”), and less prolific, but equally as vitriolic, self-made protest writers whose sole impetus for literary production was to contribute an entry to this body of work (Mary Henderson Eastman). Of these writers, I’ve initially chosen to examine J.W. Page and his novel “Uncle Robin, in his cabin in Virginia, and Tom without one in Boston” and William Gilmore Simms’s “The Wigwam and the Cabin,” two well-known participants the anti-Tom movement. The Boston Public Library’s Rare Books collection as well as archival center is fortuitously replete with anti-abolitionist literature of all kinds, and it was here that I conducted all of my research.

Generic Production of the Anti-Tom

My initial findings concerning materiality and production yielded little in the way of ephemera or interesting inclusions, markings, modifications, or features that necessitate embodiment. Indeed, volumes like these are charged with a sort of sociopolitical latency such that one can easily imagine the simple fact of owning anti-Tom literature and prominently displaying it, in its primacy, might transmit just as strong a social broadcast as the narrative/literary content. Interestingly, then, it is the relegation of these books to a position of archival interest that decouples these texts from their intrinsic object value. In other words, perhaps anti-Tom literature as a genre needed to be forgotten to arrive at a fully realized, historically situated (rather than politically/temporally imbricated) critical approach to understanding it. As Price says in her article “From The History of a Book to a “’History of the Book:’”

“My premise is that the most productive overlap between recent book-historical scholarship and the longer tradition of bibliographically themed life-writing lies not in their common interest in human subjects, but rather in their shared attention to the circulation of things. Analytical bibliographers have taught us that books accrue meaning not just at the moment of manufacture, but through their subsequent uses: bought, sold, exchanged, transported, defaced, mended, sorted, cataloged, stored, ignored, collected, neglected, discarded, recycled.” (Price, 124)

It is this process of (re)discovery and unearthing that makes examining these texts physically interesting. The “determinate sociohistorical conditions” that these texts enter the world under establish, as McGann says, a “horizon within which the life histories of different texts can play themselves out.” (McGann) While the reflection that the textual ecology wherein a work is produced directly informs certain biases and political bents is both rote and uninteresting to observations made here, McGann’s concept of the horizon figures in meaningfully to how we understand the formulation of genre within the anti-Tom corpus. Although it is nearly certain that anti-Tom writers were well aware of one another and thereby the generic expectations of their writing, they would be unable to anticipate (in perhaps the way a romantic poet or a Pre-Raphaelite artist might) that they would be examined comparatively as a cast of authors on the “wrong side of history.” If these authors were aware of one another’s generic modes of production, would they and/or could they presume critical juxtaposition with one another’s texts (as opposed to the simple gesture of pitting an anti-Tom against Uncle Tom’s Cabin)? It is interesting to think of textual production-as-ecology in this way and to wonder if generic production gives rise to itself as a matter of cultural accretion or whether it is merely an anachronistic, albeit convenient, function of critical theory.


Anti-Tomfoolery: Truth Claims in Prefatory Material

The trade cloth bindings, wove paper, octavo sizing, and paratext constitute their own form of generic presentation and, thereby, expectations. One such readerly/writerly expectation takes place within the prefatory material. Here, the author attests to the veracity of the text’s contents, whether the tales be woven from fictions or not, thereby disclosing certain “truths” or “realities” that foreclose upon extant and contrary accounts provided by the Northern States. I’ve provided here excerpts from, respectively, the prefaces of Swallow Barn, Uncle Robin, in his Cabin in Virginia, and Tom without One in Boston, and The Wigwam and the Cabin:

“The country and the people are at least truly described; although it will be seen that my book has but little philosophy to recommend it, and much less of depth of observation. In truth, I have only perfunctorily skimmed over the surface of a limited society, which was both rich in the qualities that afford delight, and abundant in the materials to compensate the study of its peculiarities. If my book be too much in the mirthful mood, it is because the ordinary actions of men, in their household intercourse, have naturally a humorous or comic character. The passions that are exhibited in such scenes are moderate and amiable; and a true narrative of what is amiable in personal history is apt to be tinctured with the hue of a lurking and subdued humour. The under-currents of country-life are grotesque, peculiar and amusing, and it only requires an attentive observer to make an agreeable book by describing them. I do not think any one will say that my pictures are exaggerated or false in their proportions; because I have not striven to produce effect: they will, doubtless, be found insufficient in many respects, and I may be open to the charge of having made them flat and insipid. I confess the incompetency of my hand to do what, perhaps, my reader has a right to require from one who professes a design to amuse him. Still I may have furnished some entertainment, and that is what I chiefly aimed at, although negligently and unskillfully.” (Kennedy)

“The highly exaggerated accounts of the cruelty of Southern Masters towards their slaves, to be found in Northern publications, having done great injustice to the South, call imperiously for truthful statements of the consequences and incidents of the relation of master and slave as it now exists in Southern States…The design of the author of the following work, entitled “Uncle Robin in his Cabin in Virginia, and Tom without one in Boston,” is not only to disprove those accounts, but to show that the evils of slavery, so glowingly depicted in the Northern romances, as far as they do exist, are (for the most part) brought upon the slave by the imprudent sympathy of the self-styled philanthropists at the North.” (Page)

“THE Tales which follow have been the accumulation of several years. They were mostly written for the annuals,–an expensive form of publication which kept them from the great body of readers. In this form, however, they met with favour, and it is thought that their merits are such as will justify their collection in a compact volume. The material employed will be found to illustrate, in large degree, the border history of the South. I can speak with confidence of the general truthfulness of its treatment. The life of the planter, the squatter, the Indian, and the negro–the bold and hardy pioneer, and the vigorous yeomen–these are the subjects. In their delineation, I have mostly drawn from living portraits, and, in frequent instances, from actual scenes and circumstances within the memories of men. More need not be said. I need not apologize for the endeavour to cast over the actual, that atmosphere from the realms of the ideal, which, while it constitutes the very element of fiction, is neither inconsistent with intellectual truthfulness, nor unfriendly to the great policies of human society.” (Simms)

Frances Dolan, author of True Relations, offers an explanation of this rhetorical move, asserting that “the designation of a text as a relation, especially a true one, announced its particular claim on the reader’s trust or belief.” (Dolan, 1) These texts, then, are laying claim to our ability not to believe the fictions presented, but to tacitly enjoin in a shared folkloric/mythological understanding that slavery functions as a safeguard against the inherent vice of blackness. Each author offers a different aperture through which we view truthiness: For Kennedy, it is his own fallibility and the cobbled-together nature of his southern eulogy that endears the reader to his self-attested realism (“I confess the incompetency of my hand to do what, perhaps, my reader has a right to require from one who professes a design to amuse him.”); Page, in a somewhat less-than-periphrastic manner, goes for the throat of the matter, deriding Northerner sentimentality as romantic and unjust (“The highly exaggerated accounts of the cruelty of Southern Masters towards their slaves… call imperiously for truthful statements of the consequences and incidents of the relation of master and slave…”); and Simms, choosing a bit from column A and a bit from column B, offers a tempered approach to the truthiness of the plantation panegyric through the strategic deployment of truth claims and apophasis (I have mostly drawn from living portraits, and, in frequent instances, from actual scenes and circumstances within the memories of men. More need not be said.”) This truth-claim rhetoric nicely dovetails with the material meaning of the text itself as a semiotically saturated object; to own this text between 1851 and 1852, then, is to preemptively and solipsistically refuse an entire genre of literature and theory that contradicts the truth-lore of the southern plantation novel.


Other Reflections

Anti-Tom writers advocated fairly unilaterally for “true American literature” that took as its subject matter things quintessential to American tradition and culture. One such installation was the temperance movement; American puritanism reached a state of moral sublimation through various and ineffable acts of prohibition, whether through condemnation of sexual promiscuity, cultural decadence as a result of vice, or social control as an extrapolation of doctrine-informed eugenics. Interestingly, anti-Tom literature, which very often spins parable-like yarns (perhaps apologues?), rhetorically couples objectionable behaviors in a sort of didactic doubling. One such example can be located in Uncle Robin, wherein both Tom and Mammy Betty succumb to their own excesses. For Tom, this is a surfeit of tipples; for Mammy Betty, it is the belief that she is able to care for herself. Tom, swaddled in the very blanket of his undoing (a flag representing Northern philanthropy) and clutching his “tea,” which looks disarmingly identical to a bottle of grain alcohol, expires due to his twin violation of being black and a drunkard. Prof. Cordell says of this literary phenomenon,

“Drinking in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is always subsumed under slavery, the great evil of the novel. Characters drink more or less based upon their own relationship to the peculiar institution, and their own participation, voluntary or otherwise, in its worst emanations.” (Cordell, 8)

Mammy Betty is, similarly, guilty of committing the sin of being both black and female. Her sin of autonomy is thus bifurcated: neither women nor black people shall be emancipated of their natural bondage to the law of man. If they are, Page maintains, they will die of “natural causes.” The natural fallacy, then, shares much in common with the mutability of “truth claims,” amounting to a highly complex and deeply problematized rhetorical structure and autodidactic within the anti-Tom genre.

 

References

Cordell, R. C. “”Enslaving you, Body and Soul”: The Uses of Temperance in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and “Anti-Tom” Fiction.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 36 no. 1, 2008, pp. 3-26. Project MUSE.

Dolan, Frances E.“True Relations: Reading, Literature, and Evidence in Seventeenth-Century England.” Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. Pp. 331.

Hentzh, Caroline Lee. “The Planter’s Northern Bride.” Philadelphia: T. D. Peterson, 1854.

Kennedy, John P, and Jay B. Hubbell. “Swallow Barn: Or, a Sojourn in the Old Dominion.” New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1929.

McGann, Jerome J. “The Textual Condition.” Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Price, Leah. “From The History of a Book to a “History of the Book”” Representations 108, no. 1 (2009): 120-38.

Simms, William Gilmore. “The Wigwam and the Cabin.” New York City, NY. Wiley and Putnam. 1845

 

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