Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"This Dainty Woman's Hand ... Red with Blood": E. D. E. N. Southworth's the Hidden Hand as Abolitionist Narrative

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"This Dainty Woman's Hand ... Red with Blood": E. D. E. N. Southworth's the Hidden Hand as Abolitionist Narrative

Article excerpt

The political commitments of nineteenth-century novelist E. D. E. N. Southworth (1819-1899) have often been difficult for contemporary scholars to observe. A major reason for this difficulty is that The Hidden Hand, the novel for which Southworth has been best known in the twentieth century, certainly seems apolitical--a comic novel full of sensational twists, melodramatic reunions, and stereotypical supporting characters and lacking the ardent polemics and authorial addresses of the more typical political novels of the 1850s. In some sense, The Hidden Hand should be seen as an anomaly among Southworth's works, many of which assume explicit positions on issues of the author's day. Probably no issue was of more concern for Southworth than slavery; many of her early works are overtly abolitionist novels arguing for the dismantlement of the slave system in the South. Ironically, when Southworth's work is mentioned at all in the literary histories of the twentieth century, it is often as an example of plantation fiction, that genre of novels developed by the antebellum South as a defense of slavery--an institution that Southworth abhorred.

This essay will attempt to account for the discrepancy in Southworth's strong anti-slavery opinions and her reputation in the twentieth century as an apologist for the institution. Specifically, I will argue that this discrepancy is caused by Southworth's attempt to shape a fiction that, by incorporating aspects of plantation fiction and omitting overt attacks upon slavery, might appear palatable to southern readers while still maintaining an abolitionist argument. This essay will argue that in some cases--most notably her best-known work The Hidden Hand--Southworth may have been too successful in her efforts, creating work that can today be read as abolitionist only with difficulty. However, I believe that when this work is read in the context of Southworth's other abolitionist novels, it can be seen to be consistent with Southworth's larger project which hoped to illustrate the dangerous consequences for southern women involved in the slave system, if they did not acknowledge their responsibility for the institution and use their power to bring it to an end.

Southworth began her writing career amidst a climate of dueling novels, wherein works of fiction were being deployed as crucial weapons in the battle over the issue of slavery. With the publication of the revised edition of John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn (1851) and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851-52), the two sides were quickly drawn. Following the success of Stowe's novel, abolitionist writers flooded the market with graphic and moving depictions of the suffering of slaves. Southern writers then responded with images of plantation life that directly countered the charges of the decadence and cruelty of the white slave-owning class and of the brutal treatment and horrid living conditions of the slaves. With the publication of the revised edition of Kennedy's Swallow Barn was born the genre that would dominate southern literature for the remainder of the nineteenth and even into the twentieth century, the plantation novel with its romantic view of the region--"elegant mansions, handsome and delicate gentlemen and ladies, slaves who were childlike and loyal, cabins in the `quarters' that rang with songs and laughter" (MacKethan, "Plantation" 209).

For many southern writers during the early 1850s, the romantic plantation novel was believed to be the perfect response to these fiery abolitionist attacks, especially as these in themselves were packaged in the form of sentimental novels like Stowe's. Two central elements of Kennedy's work that were appropriated by dozens of southern plantation novelists were "its image of the planter's house as social and moral center of order for the culture as a whole [and] its portrayal of the planter himself as a generous, unmaterialistic gentleman whose paternalistic relation to his slaves constituted an honorable, inescapable obligation" (MacKethan, "Plantation" 210). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.