In the Master's Eye: Representations of Women, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Antebellum Southern Literature

In the Master's Eye: Representations of Women, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Antebellum Southern Literature

In the Master's Eye: Representations of Women, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Antebellum Southern Literature

In the Master's Eye: Representations of Women, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Antebellum Southern Literature

Synopsis

This book explores the way in which literature can be used to reinforce social power. Through rigorous readings of a series of antebellum plantation novels, Susan J. Tracy shows how the narrative strategies employed by proslavery Southern writers served to justify and perpetuate the oppression of women, blacks, and poor whites. Tracy focuses on the historical romances of six authors: George Tucker, James Ewell Heath, William Alexander Caruthers, John Pendleton Kennedy, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, and William Gilmore Simms. Using variations on a recurring plot - in which a young planter/hero rescues a planter's daughter from an "enemy" of her class - each of these novelists reinforced an idealized vision of a Southern civilization based on male superiority, white supremacy, and class inequality. It is a world in which white men are represented as the natural leaders of loyal and dependent women, grateful and docile slaves, and inferior poor whites. According to Tracy, the interweaving of these themes reveals the extent to which the Southern defense of slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War was an argument not only about race relations but about gender and class relations as well.

Excerpt

In choosing to study the work of those Southern white males who have been credited with creating "Southern literature," I decided to concentrate on an elite group who expressed the worldview of the planter class at the moment when it took the offensive against antislavery Southerners and Northerners. My argument is simply that the proslavery argument concerns gender and class relations as well as race relations. Embedded in the proslavery argument are assumptions about the nature of women and non-planter- class males that shaped how social and political life evolved in the antebellum South. It isn't merely that these texts are sexist, racist, or class-biased, but the ways in which they codify these prejudices leads us to a clearer understanding of planter-class worldview.

I started where everyone starts who undertakes a study of Southern literature and culture, with Jay B. Hubbell critical The South in American Literature; I then returned to Wilbur J. Cash The Mind of the South and William Rogers Taylor's Cavalier and Yankee. Hubbell pointed the way to the authors I eventually chose: George Tucker, John Pendleton Kennedy, William Alexander Caruthers, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, and William Gilmore Simms. Much later, Richard Beale Davis led me to James Ewell Heath, the only true liberal of the group. Cash reminded me that regardless of what apologia I found in planter sources and those of their sympathizers, frontier violence and sadism lay just under the surface in the antebellum South. and Taylor confirmed my instinct that if I considered the images of women, blacks, and poor whites both in relation to the planter hero and in relation to each other, I would not only understand the proslavery argument in a new way; I would begin to understand why this literature is forgotten.

Although in the end, I would disagree with Vernon L Parrington's assessment of William Gilmore Simms as a democrat and a realist ruined by aristocratic romanticism, his initial suggestion that the North had changed after 1812 while the South remained true to its eighteenth-century roots and his method of analyzing the political and economic foundations of literary production served as critical principles for my own thinking and practice.

My primary theoretical assumption is that the lived material conditions under which people exist create social structure and social power, and that people in power institutionalize their ideas in a variety of ways. I found Karl Marx's following observation particularly applicable to the antebellum . . .

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