American Slavery: Literature


Figure 1.--Here is a play bill for a performance of "Uncle Tom's Cabin", probably after the Civil war. Hariet Beecher Stow's work is probably one of the most influential books in American history. it and other abolitionist literature was banned in the South.

Southern states prohibited the teaching of reading and writing to Black slaves. As slaves were illiterate, there are few accounts os slavery written by slaves. A few managed to learn. The first slave to public an account of slavery was Olaudah Equiano. Perhaps the most eloquent accont was written by Harriet Jacobs. Sojurner Truth and Stephen Douglas laster wrote powerful accounts. Several great pieces of American literature addressed the slave issue. It was not a topic addressed by the literary giants of the pre-Civil War era. Given the importance of the slavery to early 19th century political discourse, this seems a suprising observation. The most important ante-bellum (pre-War work)was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Stowe was virtually unknown when she wrote the book. She was influenced by the experience s of two teenage Maryland slave girls, Emily and Mary Edmonson, who were rescued from being sold as "fancy girls" to New Orleans bordellos. The story of Eliza , Topsy, Uncle Tom, and Simon Legree electrified northern readers and theter goers, affecting northern attitudes toward slavery. Enraged Southeners argued that the book was an exagrtin ad that slaves were in fact trated well. Stow published a second book, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin which describe the research she conducted before writing her novel and includes a discription of the ordeal of the Edmonson girls. Her brother, Henry Ward Beecher helped rise money to buy the Edmonson girls out of slavery. We know of no important work of American literature that attempted to justify slavery. We might mention Jefferson's Notes in Virginia, but it was not a novel, but rather Jefferson;s efforts at a scientific piece. The Southern states banned abolitionist literature, surely the greates violtion of the First amendment in Ameican history. This action by the Southern states is silent testimony to the fact that it was an uneven debate. The most important work on Amrerican slavery after the War was Mark Twain's Huckeberry Finn (1884), viewed by many as the greatest American novel. A much shorter opiece by Twain often forgotten is "Pudin Head Wilson" a brilliant short story on slavery and still relavent today as an indictement of racial prejudice. Another important work is Alec Haley's Roots.

Slave Accounts

Southern states prohibited the teaching of reading and writing to Black slaves. As slaves were illiterate, there are few accounts os slavery written by slaves. A few managed to learn. The first slave to public an account of slavery was Olaudah Equiano. Perhaps the most eloquent accont was written by Harriet Jacobs. Sojurner Truth and Stephen Douglas laster wrote powerful accounts.

Important American Authors

Several great pieces of American literature addressed the slave issue. It was not a topic addressed by the literary giants of the pre-Civil War era. Given the importance of the slavery to early 19th century political discourse, this seems a suprising observation.

Thomas Jefferson

We know of no important work of American literature that attempted to justify slavery. We might mention Jefferson's Notes in Virginia, but it was not a novel, but rather Jefferson;s efforts at a scientific piece.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

The most important ante-bellum (pre-War work)was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Stowe was virtually unknown when she wrote the book. She was influenced by the experience s of two teenage Maryland slave girls, Emily and Mary Edmonson, who were rescued from being sold as "fancy girls" to New Orleans bordellos. The story of Eliza , Topsy, Uncle Tom, and Simon Legree electrified northern readers and theater goers, affecting northern attitudes toward slavery. While a melodramatic account, it is arguably the single most important book in American history. The abolitionist movement existed before her book, but it was an often criticised movemnent, seen as imporal or treasonous by many in the North. The book had the impact of legitmizing the movement. And it appeared just as the anti-slavery Whigs and Democrats were beginnning to form the new Republican Party.

Southern Ban

Enraged Southeners argued that Stowe's book Uncle Tom's Cabin was an exageration and that slaves were in fact trated well. Stow published a second book, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin which describe the research she conducted before writing her novel and includes a discription of the ordeal of the Edmonson girls. Her brother, Henry Ward Beecher helped rise money to buy the Edmonson girls out of slavery. The Southern states banned abolitionist literature, surely the greates violtion of the First amendment in Ameican history. This action by the Southern states is silent testimony to the fact that it was an uneven debate. The ban did not end with the Civil War. The Kenticjky state legislture banned plays portraying slavery in a negative light (1906). The legislature apprive an Act on March 21, 1906 that banned anyone "to present, or to participate in the presentation of, or to permit to be presented" in any "opera house, theater, hall, or other building under his control" any play "that is based upon antagonism alleged formerly to exist between master and slave, or that excites race prejudice." Violations of this act were to be punished by fines of not less than one hundred dollars or more than five hundred dollars or imprisonment for not less than one month or more than three months or both fine and imprisonment.

Mark Twain

The most important work on Amrerican slavery after the War was Mark Twain's Huckeberry Finn (1884), viewed by many as the greatest American novel. Huck's developing relationship with Jim and wrestling with his conscious is one of the great struggles in American literature. A much shorter opiece by Twain often forgotten is "Pudin Head Wilson" a brilliant short story on slavery and still relavent today as an indictement of racial prejudice.

Alex Halley

Another important work is Alec Haley's Roots.





HBC









Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to Main American debate on slavery page]
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]




Created: 5:24 AM 11/13/2007
Last updated: 5:25 AM 11/13/2007