Little dreamed the ingenious Eli Whitney, when riveting the teeth on his admirable invention, the cotton-gin, that he was at the same time riveting the fetters on the slave, and the foulest of institutions on the framework of American society. --"Revolution of the Spindles, For the Overthrow of American Slavery" (1)
According to Toni Morrison, neither slavery nor black people at large were phenomena that nineteenth-century American writers could readily escape. As she observes in Playing in the Dark (1992):
The alertness to a slave population did not confine itself to the personal encounters that writers may have had. Slave narratives were a nineteenth-century publication boom. The press, the political campaigns, and the policy of various parties and elected officials were rife with the discourse of slavery and freedom. It would have been an isolato indeed who was unaware of the most explosive issue in the nation. How could one speak of profit, economy, labor, progress, suffragism, christianity, the frontier, the formation of new states, the acquisition of new lands, education, transportation (freight and passengers), neighborhoods, the military--of almost anything a country concerns itself with--without having as a referent, at the heart of the discourse, at the heart of definition, the presence of Africans and their descendants? (50; italics in original)
Morrison answers her own catch-all question by suggesting that, while it "was not possible" to speak in such a way, writers were able to approach the topics she enumerates "with a vocabulary designed to disguise" (50) black presences, supporting her claims with readings of fiction by major figures of the day from Edgar Allan Poe to Mark Twain. For all its scope, however, Morrison's analysis is not comprehensive, privileging canonical rather than non-canonical authors and stopping short of an engagement (despite the interest in Poe) with nineteenth-century American poetry altogether.
Given Morrison's commitment to the novel, such a preference for fiction rather than poetry as the object of critical scrutiny is neither a surprise nor reason for reproach, but it does raise the intriguing question of how the problematic she outlines and explores in the one genre might operate in the other and it is this matter that I seek to address below, using as case-study Henry Timrod's "The Cotton Boll" (1861). What strategies does Timrod deploy in order to occlude the existence of the slaves who produce the commodity his poem celebrates? In what ways, conversely, are those slaves' traces nonetheless legible in the poem's interstices?
By considering these questions, the article contributes to a "body of scholarship" on poetic production in nineteenth-century America that has been steadily "growing" "over the past two decades" (Larson 1)--since, indeed, the time when Morrison's critical essay originally appeared. Equally, though, I am concerned to broaden this inquiry beyond the subject of slavery in "The Cotton Boll" and examine that of cotton in the slave narratives. Despite cotton's familiar centrality to slavery, the question of how slaves themselves represented the commodity is an aspect of their stories that remains strangely under-considered, both in classic studies and more recent ones. (1) It is nonetheless of some importance, not only in its own right, but also, in this context, for what it tells us about the ideologically contested nature of the literary and cultural milieu in which the so-called Laureate of the Confederacy is located.
Jim Crow Grammar: Bracketing Slavery in "The Cotton Boll"
In a speech given in 1858, James H. Hammond explains the reasons why a war between the slave-holding South and abolitionist North would not be feasible. Chief among his arguments is the South's preeminence as an economic power, a status acquired primarily from slave-worked cotton sold to flourishing textile industries both in the North itself and the wider world, particularly England. …