Arguing slavery's narrative: Southern regionalists, ex-slave autobiographers, and the contested literary representations of the peculiar institution, 1824-1849

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Abstract

In the twenty-five years before 1850, southern writers of regional literature and ex-slave autobiographers constructed a narrative of United States slavery that was mutually contradictory and yet mutually influential. That process involved a dynamic hybridization of genres in which authors contested meanings of slavery, arriving at opposing conclusions. They nevertheless focussed on family and the South's distinctive culture. This article explores the dialectic of that argument and contends that white regionalists created a plantation-paternalist romance to which African American ex-slaves responded with depictions of slavery's cruelty and immorality. However, by the 1840s, ex-slaves had domesticated their narratives in part to sell their works in a literary marketplace in which their adversaries' sentimental fiction sold well. Scholars have not examined white southern literature and ex-slave autobiography in comparative context, and this article shows how both labored to construct a peculiar institution in readers' imagination. Southern regionalists supplied the elements of a pro-slavery argument and ex-slave autobiographers infused their narratives with abolitionist rhetoric at a time in which stories Americans told about themselves became increasingly important in the national political crisis over slavery extension and fugitive slaves. It was on that discursive ground that the debates of the 1850s were carried forth.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1009-1033
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of American Studies
Volume46
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - Nov 2012

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slavery
slave
narrative
political crisis
dialectics
Slaves
Slavery
genre
rhetoric
writer

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Social Sciences(all)

Cite this

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abstract = "In the twenty-five years before 1850, southern writers of regional literature and ex-slave autobiographers constructed a narrative of United States slavery that was mutually contradictory and yet mutually influential. That process involved a dynamic hybridization of genres in which authors contested meanings of slavery, arriving at opposing conclusions. They nevertheless focussed on family and the South's distinctive culture. This article explores the dialectic of that argument and contends that white regionalists created a plantation-paternalist romance to which African American ex-slaves responded with depictions of slavery's cruelty and immorality. However, by the 1840s, ex-slaves had domesticated their narratives in part to sell their works in a literary marketplace in which their adversaries' sentimental fiction sold well. Scholars have not examined white southern literature and ex-slave autobiography in comparative context, and this article shows how both labored to construct a peculiar institution in readers' imagination. Southern regionalists supplied the elements of a pro-slavery argument and ex-slave autobiographers infused their narratives with abolitionist rhetoric at a time in which stories Americans told about themselves became increasingly important in the national political crisis over slavery extension and fugitive slaves. It was on that discursive ground that the debates of the 1850s were carried forth.",
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