The Oriental and the Gothic in the Antebellum South
Gossett, Thomas F. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture Southern Methodist University Press, 1985
Roberts, Diane. The Myth of Aunt Jemima: Representations of Race and Region Routledge, 1994
Schick, Irvin C. The Erotic Margin: Sexuality and Spatiality in Alteritist Discourse Verso, 1999
First, I want to reiterate my position that consensual Master-slave roleplaying relationships as practiced by Munby and Cullwick and afterwards have only a tenuous connection to the actual institution of Atlantic slavery. It’s more about the fictionalized version of slavery as seen by people who had no direct experience with it.
Second, getting off on a scenario does not necessarily mean the fantasizer agrees with the politics or ideas behind it. In fact, a masochist might get a stronger charge off a scenario if the suffering is not just.
I’m exploring the history of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for several reasons. First, it was an immensely popular, influential and widely read book in the 19th century. People who never read any other book read it. Second, it’s a representative example of the genre of abolitionist literature. Other abolitionist books had their own contributions to the history of BDSM, as discussed previously. Third, Uncle Tom inspired a vast array of plays, pro-slavery novels, unauthorized editions and other media and goods, most of which were not authorized by Stowe and many of which took considerable liberties with the text. Some “Tom plays” went so far as to make them broad comedies or pro-slavery tracts in which Tom willingly returns to his master.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the common text and a set of archetypes and scenes that came into the minds of millions of people around the world when they thought or talked about slavery, one of the most culturally charged issues of the day.
Stowe has a trio of literary antecedents: the sentimental novel, the Gothic novel and the Orientalist story.
Stowe’s use of the sentimental in discussing slavery is important. The discourses of law and commerce will both in favor of slavery, and so was religion. (There isn’t a lot in the Bible that explicitly condemns slavery.) Instead, Stowe took the position that the institution of slavery prevents blacks from forming stable families, which in turn makes them morally depraved and miserable. She writes in the language of feelings and emotions, and spends a lot of words on severed family bonds, husbands separated from wives, children from parents. That meant that the reader had to accept the idea that blacks did have feelings, that they did form ties and suffer when they were broken. Pro-slavery writers would argue that blacks were incapable of such feelings, being naturally promiscuous and disloyal.
Furthermore, the institution of slavery had a corrupting influence on whites as well. Stowe’s Aunt Mary married a merchant in Jamaica, then discovered he had fathered several mulatto children by slave women. “A year later, Mary left her husband permanently, returning to New England horrified by slavery and particularly by the sexual license which it permitted. She died several weeks before Harriet was two years old, and thus Harriet was unlikely to have remembered her. What she apparently later recalled was the retelling by members of the Beecher family of Mary’s accounts of her life in Jamaica.” (Gossett, Pg. 15-16)
In another anti-slavery novel, Richard Hildreth’s The Slave, or Memoirs of Archy Moore (1836), the sexual impropriety that Stowe only hinted at is at the forefront. Colonel Moore’s plantation is stocked with his illegitimate, unacknowledged offspring, born as slaves. He approaches his mulatta daughter Cassy to become his mistress, indifferent to her horror that this would be incest. Other anti-slavery writers emphasize the sexual anarchy that prevailed under slavery, violating the taboos of incest and non-monogamy.
On the other hand, pro-slavery writers would accuse Northerners of sexual impropriety by allowing the races to mingle without slavery as a regulating instutition.
In the anonymous Mr. Frank, the Underground Mail Agent, a novel written under the pseudonym Vidi, the narrator describes an abolition convention. Several “rakish-looking old Quakers” are careful to seat themselves beside “buxom-looking negro-wenches.” The engage in “sly ogling, and secret pressure of the waist,” and are rewarded with “a corresponding rolling of the eye, with an unlimited display of ivory.” Also at the convention are “huge, amorous-looking negro gallants” who have come to flirt with white “country girls.” They begin with “sly and sheepish glances.” As they grow bolder, they cause “some very deep blushes to mantle over fair faces, except in those cases in which all traces of female modesty … [have] disappeared.”
Gossett, Pg. 233, ellipsis in original.
Lydia McCord, a Southern essayist and dramatist, wrote an 1853 essay that blasted Stowe as being ignorant of Southern life and “a liar and a purveyor of smut, castigating her severely for depicting scenes ‘most revolting at once to decency, truth and probability’ as well as ‘nauseating,’ displaying the sexual use of slave women in the South.” (Roberts p.63) What seems to horrify McCord and others like her is the intermingling of the races, especially sexually. The irony of course is that slavery, which was supposed to keep the races in their proper places, gave white men unlimited access to black women. This resulted in generations of mixed-race children. The black and white divide was something that struggled to remain viable in the face of reality.
This leads to the Gothic in Uncle Tom: broken family ties, an unjust world, captivity, torture, constant threat of sexual violation, villains who are driven by their own irrational obsessions and fears. (E.g. Simon Legree is fooled by Cassy’s pretend ghost and doesn’t notice his missing slaves hiding in his own attic.) And you couldn’t ask for a more Gothic moment than the dramatic and much-depicted scene of Eliza’s flight over the ice floes; fragile womanhood struggling to survive in a hostile world.
What keeps coming up in this discourse is the figure of the mulatta or octoroon slave woman, who is described nearly or passably white, who may be depicted as indistinguishable from whites on stage or in illustrations, and who subjectively thinks of herself as white, but is legally black and therefore property and sexual fair game. In New Orleans, there was an entire system of placage, young mulatta women who were raised in convents and sold as basically concubines. The mulatta slave woman is ideal for a “virtue in distress” scenario, being at the bottom of the social hierarchy but possessed of the sensitivity to suffering of a white woman, a highly liminal figure. She is even more beleaguered than Richardson’s Clarissa.
Uncle Tom, a black man often seen as feminized, has a parallel with Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. It isn’t enough for Simon Legree or Lovelace to own and control Tom and Clarisss’s body. They struggle to control the mind/soul/morality/subjective experience of their “property”, and ultimately end up killing what they obsess over.
As discussed previously, a few generations later this strain of fantasy eventually leads to The memoirs of Dolly Morton, in which a white free woman treated as a black slave woman.
As Toni Morrison put it in Playing in the Dark (pg.66), “In minstrelry, a layer of blackness applied to a white face released it from law… so American writers were able to employ an imagined Africanist personal to articulate and imaginatively act out the forbidden in American culture.” (quoted in Roberts, 27 The fantasies came first, while Southern slavery came later and provided a language and iconography.
The Orientalist strain of Uncle Tom comes from mapping sexuality onto geography. The further south Stowe’s characters go, the worse their lives, culminating in Simon Legree’s hellish plantation. Legree is also the closest Stowe ever gets to explaining where all those mixed race slaves (e.g. George, Eva, Cassy, etc.) came from, and he is described as bestial. (Curiously, Legree is also a Northerner.)
The slave South is America’s domestic Orient, its secret self, its Other, as the African and the female — so involved in representations of the South — are Other. The feminized, receptive, seductive metaphorical landscape of the South owes much to the seductive, secretive metaphorical landscape of the Orient….
Representations of the South in a number of nineteenth-century texts intersect with representations of the Orient. In this symbolic geography, North=West and South=East. By inventing an “eastern,” erotically-charged, pagan, authoritarian, chaotic Other within the occidental, quotidian, Christian, chaste, orderly democracy of the United State, abolitionist writers could insist that slavery threatens the country’s domestic decorum. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe draws upon literary orientalism to imagine a New Orleans where the putative “jungles” of “darkest Africa” meet Islamic Spain. In English writing from the seventeenth century on, the various “Orients” of Arabia, Turkey, Greece, India, Africa, even Spain and China merged as landscapes for fiction. The actual histories, customs, religions and governments of these nations mattered less than a titillating exoticism: they were tyrannical, cruel, luxurious (in both senses), and they had harems. Sexual licence combined with male control of women’s bodies made the “Orient” fatally fascinating (if officially repellent) to European and American readers. Inventing an Oriental South became a powerful abolitionist tactic, demanding that the American public recognize a despotic kingdom where men have sexual access to women slaves within the borders of their democratic republic, decadent poison weakening the national body.
Roberts, Pg. 29-30
A critic of Stowe unwittingly made this connection when he wrote that she described houses in New Orleans like “stage sets for Lalla Rookh” (Roberts, Pg.31) Stowe, incidentally, had an unlikely crush on Lord Byron when she was a young woman, so she might have been influenced by Byron’s orientalist writings, e.g. The Death of Sardanapalus, which also influenced Hannah Cullwick.
You can make up anything you like, especially sexual, about the “Orient.” Sir Richard Francis Burton hypothesized what he called the “sotadic zone”, where homosexuality is normal. One dry compilation of ethnographic data and survey figures includes a bizarre anecdote about female bandits who apprehend unwary male travelers, strip them naked and tease them sexually. This is presented as a fact, not a fantasy. (See Schick, towards the end.) People have been projecting their sexual fantasies onto fantasized places (best removed from the here and now by distance and/or time) for centuries.
The sexual has many uses in many discourses. Stowe and other abolitionist writers created a realm of sexual chaos in order to incense people about the state of slavery, but some actually found in it a relief from the restrictions of normative sexuality, and a venue for expressions of erotic suffering.