Race, Slavery, and Liberalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

By Cowan, Tynes | Southern Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Race, Slavery, and Liberalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature


Cowan, Tynes, Southern Quarterly


Race, Slavery, and Liberalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. By Arthur Riss. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 238pp. Cloth: $85.00, ISBN 0-521-85674-4.)

In his 1854 address, "The Claims of the Negro, Ethnologically Considered," Frederick Douglass confronted the scientific arguments promulgated by the American School of Ethnography and others for essential Negro inferiority and therefore the continuation of slavery. Douglass argued, "Men instinctively distinguish between men and brutes. Common sense itself is scarcely needed to detect the absence of manhood in a monkey, or to recognize its presence in a negro."1 Although Douglass may have seen the abolitionist cause as fulfilling the promise of the Declaration of Independence, his pro-slavery opponents also proclaimed that all men were created equal, but with this caveat: the Negro was not a man. That Douglass' identity as a man was not evident to countless scientists, ministers, legal scholars, and other defenders of slavery is the subject of Arthur Riss' book Race, Slavery, and Liberalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature.

According to Riss, the triumph of liberalism has led to a failure in criticism, a failure to historicize antebellum texts properly by foregrounding the debate over "personhood." Because contemporary critics believe in a Self that transcends social context, he argues, they characterize pro-slavery advocates as merely "mistaken," as having misidentified persons as things. Such critics are concerned with how the Self, the preexisting person that has been suppressed, eventually gets expressed. By emphasizing that "the 'person' is continually under construction" (11), Riss is asking "questions about who controls the terms that establish this conceptual category and what are the effects of such an account" (23).

As he catalogues the errors of contemporary criticism, Riss seems particularly vexed by critics like Priscilla Wald who posit that white slaveholders and their defenders suffered from the guilt of knowing (if only subconsciously) that they were suppressing the liberty of "persons." And the method by which critics like Teresa Goddu probe texts for evidence of white guilt and anxiety earns further derision, "It often appears nowadays that a gothic rhetoric ... has become the prevailing and privileged (if not the sole) language for formulating politically progressive arguments" (42). Such critics, according to Riss, fail to pay attention to the authors they study, choosing instead merely to celebrate evidence of slave resistance and deride any author who falls short of the current orthodoxy on personhood.

At its core, this book is an examination of two authors, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Both of them have been criticized for their resistance to the liberal assumption of black personhood - Stowe for racial essentialism in her black characters; Hawthorne for avoidance of the issue entirely. Arguing that it is precisely Stowe's insistence on racial essences that makes her argument in Uncle Tom's Cabin effective, Riss provides a compelling reading of the scene in which Little Eva, on her deathbed, distributes locks of her hair to the St. Clare family slaves. Riss' primer in trichology, the study of hair, places the scene in the context of scientific theories of race that were circulating at the time, theories that established hair as an unalterable marker of racial identity. Riss' reading makes Eva's gifts into sharp reminders of racial difference as it challenges domestic interpretations of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851).

To argue that Hawthorne was indeed engaged in the debate over personhood, Riss turns to his last romance, The Marble Faun (1859). …

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