Mastering Childhood: Paternalism, Slavery, and the Southern Domestic in Caroline Howard Gilman's Antebellum Children's Literature

Article excerpt

In 1832 Caroline Howard Gilman created her children's magazine, the Rose-Bud, to add a southern voice to the growing body of domestic fiction and children's literature emerging out of the antebellum northeast. Unsatisfied with travelers' glances of her adopted home that "necessarily" took in "hasty and exaggerated views of the worst and the best parts of a subject," Gilman wrote as an informed resident of the South.1 Indeed, Gilman's representations of southern domesticity in her children's stories can be interpreted as a direct response to the northern domestic fiction that increasingly contrasted the pure northern home with the corrupted plantation household.2 Scholars have traced this connection between domestic fiction and antislavery politics back to the radical abolitionist position taken by Lydia Maria Child, a woman described as the mother of domesticity.3 Yet at the same time as Child's early 1830s fiction was laying the groundwork for later novels like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851), Caroline oilman was Grafting a distinctively southern domestic that idealized the paternalist "organic" social hierarchy of the South and obliquely defended slavery.4 A consideration of Goilman's children stories written in the early 1830s broadens the geographical field of antebellum literary studies, and it also reveals how a white southern woman struggled both to reform her own society and represent a positive rendering of the South to northerners.

From the first issues of the Rose-Bud, Gilman approached her writing with both a northern audience and a southern audience in mind. oilman wanted to represent the South and southern life in a positive light to northern readers who might be skeptical of slavery. Having been born and raised in Boston, oilman cherished the ideals of northern domesticity at the same time as she embraced the social (and racial) order that she found in her adopted southern home of Charleston.5 Her perspective as a self-identified southerner who had familial ties to the North gave her a special voice. Gilman's work was accepted by northern critics along these lines, and the North American Review praised several of her books as "finely adapted to the promotion of social intercourse and kindly feelings between the different parts of the United States."6 Yet oilman also sought to exert an influence upon young white southerners, a focus that emerged most particularly in the morally weighted stories appearing in the Rose-Bud. Gilman's juvenile fiction, like all children's literature, highlighted the values and lessons she deemed most important to pass along to the rising generation.7 In the same way that northern middle-class children's literature instructed young people in the mores and manners of a capitalist society, Gilman's stories set on plantations taught her young southern readers lessons in paternalism and mastery.

In the stories of the Rose-Bud, Caroline Gilman presented an imaginary South that she hoped would be embraced and enacted by her young readers as they grew older. As Elizabeth Moss has noted, southern women writers, including Gilman, perceived a need to defend the southern way of life at the same time as they gently critiqued its excesses.8 The South, as it appeared in Gilman's children's stories, exemplified a particular domestic paternalism that sought to normalize the gender and racial hierarchies of a slave society by tying characters together with bonds of affection instead of bonds of ownership. The children and adults in Gilman's writing model mastery and paternalism for white boys and girls so that they could rule with kindness instead of violence. Gilman tried to soften slavery by showing it as an organic institution deriving from the gentleness of family bonds, but a close reading of her stories reveals that she could not write out the violence underlying southern society.

After a brief examination of Gilman's life and her position in the literary world of the 1830s, the essay will turn to some of her stories that glamorize plantation life. …