Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"The Savage Inscription": Abolitionist Writers and the Reinscription of Slavery

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"The Savage Inscription": Abolitionist Writers and the Reinscription of Slavery

Article excerpt

Using contemporary theories of the body, this essay reads the methods by which some white abolitionist-minded writers reinscribe the savage other in their representations of the tortured slave body. Such reproductions express anxiety over the boundaries between African slave and European or American citizen, just as those boundaries are being called into question.

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In Letters from an American Farmer, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur relates his American travels in the period before the Revolution. Letter 9 describes a trip to the Carolinas and sojourns with plantation owners at Charles-Town. While the letter begins with an appreciative description of the rich culture that he found, de Crevecoeur quickly turns to a long discussion of slavery, pausing over the suffering black body in the field as he questions the plans of both God and Nature in allowing these Africans to live and die under the evils of slavery. De Crevecoeur's generalized ruminations on slavery lead into the graphic description of one of its products. Travelling by foot to dine with a neighbouring planter, de Crevecoeur bears witness to this "melancholy scene": "horrid to think and painful to repeat, I perceived a Negro, suspended in a cage and left there to expire! I shudder when I recollect that the birds had already picked out his eyes; his cheek-bones were bare; his arms had been attacked in several places; and his body seemed covered with a multitude of wounds. From the edges of the hollow sockets and from the lacerations with which he was disfigured, the blood slowly dropped and tinged the ground beneath" (164). After expanding his description of the slave's "multiple wounds" and "mangled flesh" to some length, de Crevecoeur concludes the episode by lamenting that he found himself unable to kill the suffering African, although he notes that he instinctively fired his gun at birds that were finishing what the planter had begun and gave the man a drink of water. Leaving the slave to his fate, de Crevecoeur proceeds to the dinner party where he learns the reason for this slave's torture, and listens to rhetoric supporting slavery, which he makes a point of not including in the letter, not wanting to "trouble [his reader] at present" (165). While the narrator is passively on the side of the slaveholder, in relating this story and turning it into the symbolic, he ends up on the other side in revealing his silence as troubling. A white, self-conscious narrator, James, or de Crevecoeur, gains complexity while the slave he encounters is marginalized and made savage.

My interest in Letter 9 lies not in de Crevecoeur's anti-slavery rhetoric but in why he chooses, like so many other anti-slavery writers, to pause over a detailed description of the physical traces of slavery written upon the slave's body. This essay reads English and American commentary on slavery in the period preceding the American Civil War, and I take as points of reference Alphonso Lingis's discussion of the "savage" body and Elaine Scarry's theories about giving voice to pain. Lingis examines the body as a product of inscription, material to be further inscribed and reinscribed by social norms, practices, and values. He uses "the savage inscription" of scarification to differentiate the savage body from the blank civilized body, which he argues is culturally inscribed. While critics tend to set aside the merits and problems of Lingis's account of the savage as the other of the civilized subject, I draw from his argument to suggest that in the graphic sensuousness of their descriptions of the signs of torture on the slave body, many anti-slavery writers reinscribe the savage other even as they argue for abolition.

While I focus on the ample evidence of abolitionist inscription of the savage on the slave, I must pause here to point out that, in the hands of more sensitive writers, this rhetoric works to break down racial boundaries, and that I am not discussing how former slaves wrote their own bodies; those are topics for other essays. …

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