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

By Susan J. Tracy | Go to book overview

Conclusion

AT NO OTHER TIME in the history of the United States has such a small ruling class held so commanding an influence over the economic, political, and intellectual life of a region as did the antebellum planter class. While slaveholding was comparatively widespread among Southerners, the great majority of slaves lived on the largest Eastern and Southwestern cotton plantations and those estates that dotted the Mississippi River. Gavin Wright notes that between 1850 and 1860, "slaveholders controlled between 90 and 95 percent of agricultural wealth." 1 In a region where industrial and commercial wealth was negligible, planters (those owning twenty or more slaves) dominated officeholding in the state and in the Congressional delegations. What is remarkable about the antebellum planter class is not that they defended their class position articulately and effectively--after all, that is what ruling classes do--it is the power they commanded to suppress legitimate debate of slavery as an institution.

It was in this climate of authoritarian suppression that Caruthers, Kennedy, N. B. Tucker, and Simms lived and produced their proslavery novels. Although Tucker and Simms were more vociferous in their proslavery politics than Caruthers and Kennedy, these latter writers agreed with the racial and class prejudices of the planter class and Kennedy produced one of the classic proslavery novels. They used familiar literary conventions formulated by European writers as well as that of the new historical romance developed by Sir Walter Scott to make a Southern contribution to American literature and to formulate the literary proslavery defense for the planter class. What these authors offer, then, is a unique perspective on the planter worldview as it emerged in their fiction. However, had they written from the contradictions and complexities of their own lives, the literature they produced might have been more compelling.

For instance, John Pendleton Kennedy, a lawyer, is the only one of the authors to work in the commercial sector and the only one who refused to own slaves. He held the post of secretary of the navy in the Polk administration and opposed secession. Except for humorous jibes at his countrymen and women, who imagine themselves a neo-aristocracy, his more liberal politics never appear in his work. Similarly, Caruthers, for all his liberalism, married into a wealthy Georgian slaveholding family and celebrated white Christian America's "manifest destiny" to conquer Native Americans and

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