Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies

By Henry B. Wonham | Go to book overview

The African-American Presence in Stowe's Dred

In "Unspeakable Things Unspoken," Toni Morrison maintains that "the presence of Afro-American literature and the awareness of its culture" should inform our readings of white-authored texts, for "the presence of Afro-Americans has shaped the choices, the language, the structure--the meaning of so much American literature." As an example, Morrison remarks on how newly resonant "meanings" become available in the works of Melville when his writings are "scoured for this presence and the writerly strategies taken to address or deny it." Morrison's essay has given rise to a methodology of "scouring"--critical efforts to disclose in white-authored texts deeply embedded African-American influences that have about them (presumably for white authors) the scandalous taint of "miscegenation."1 In the case of Harriet Beecher Stowe, however, no such "scouring" is required, and no such scandal need be reported, for Stowe regularly acknowledged African-American influences on her writings, most notably in her 1853 A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. In addition to discussing the influences of Frederick Douglass, Josiah Henson, J.W.C. Pennington, Lewis Clarke, Solomon Northup, and Lewis Hayden, among others, on Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe reveals in Key that she sees herself as engaged in an ongoing dialogue with these important black writers of the period, writers whose influence, implicitly and explicitly, can also be discerned in her "other" antislavery novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp ( 1856).2

Published four years after Uncle Tom's Cabin, Dred has become a missing text in Stowe's canon. Judged by many critics to be racist and a botch, an embarrassment to Stowe and her admirers, the overwhelming response to Dred has been simply to ignore it. This decision to ignore is the true embarrassment, for it exposes contemporary critical practices as unwilling to deal with Stowe's complex and contradictory racial politics in evolution; as unable to attend to black influences on Stowe's texts, except when those influences "expose" her mendacity and blindness; and as reluctant to challenge essentialist notions of Stowe's inability to imagine slavery from a black perspective. This essay attempts to challenge current critical orthodoxies by resituating Dred in relation to contemporaneous African-American discourses on slavery and racism. Stowe's encounters with African Americans during the years 1852-1856 in particular had a major impact on her conception of black culture in Dred, a novel which, with its heroic portrayal of a militant black conspirator modelled on Nat Turner, can be regarded as an African--American inspired revision of Uncle Tom's Cabin. As we shall see, Stowe's exchanges with African-American writings and personalities

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