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Novel Bondage

Novel Bondage: Slavery, Marriage, and Freedom in Nineteenth-Century America

TESS CHAKKALAKAL
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 160
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt1xcr0x
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  • Book Info
    Novel Bondage
    Book Description:

    Filling a long-standing gap in our knowledge about slave-marriage, Novel Bondage unravels the interconnections between marriage, slavery, and freedom through renewed readings of canonical nineteenth-century novels and short stories by black and white authors. Tess Chakkalakal expertly mines antislavery and post-Civil War fiction to extract literary representations of slave-marriage, revealing how these texts and their public responses took aim not only at the horrors of slavery but also at the legal conventions of marriage._x000B__x000B_Situating close readings of fiction alongside archival material concerning the actual marriages of authors such as Lydia Maria Child, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Wells Brown, and Frank J. Webb, Chakkalakal examines how these early novels established literary conventions for describing the domestic lives of American slaves in describing their aspirations for personal and civic freedom. Exploring this theme in post-Civil War works by Frances E. W. Harper and Charles Chesnutt, she further reveals how the slave-marriage plot served as a fictional model for reforming marriage laws._x000B__x000B_As nonlegal unions, slave-marriages departed in crucial ways from the prevailing definition of marriage, and Chakkalakal reveals how these highly unconventional unions constituted an aesthetic and affective bond that challenged the legal definition of marriage in nineteenth-century America. Novel Bondage invites readers to rethink the "marital work" of nineteenth-century fiction and the historical role it played in shaping our understanding of the literary and political meaning of marriage, then and now.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09338-8
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction: The Slave-Marriage Plot
    (pp. 1-14)

    What is a “slave-marriage” and what relationship does it bear to a legal marriage? Hidden from law and subject to separation, a slave-marriage was considered in nineteenth-century America to be so far outside the purview of legal forms of marriage that it seemed hardly worth mentioning. Lacking the legal capacity for matrimony, marriage for slaves, as Henry Bibb asserts in his 1849 slave narrative, “is a thing unknown in the history of American slavery.”¹ But that is not to say, as Bibb’s own marriage to Malinda proves, that slaves did not marry. As a number of slave testimonies and cases...

  5. 1. Between Fiction and Experience: William Wells Brown’s Clotel
    (pp. 15-30)

    One of the earliest historical accounts of slave-marriage appears inThe Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself(1847).¹ Marking the beginning of Brown’s remarkable literary career that spanned several decades and genres, theNarrativeintroduces readers to a singular personality that was shaped by slavery and a long struggle to acquire freedom. In his introduction, Edmund Quincy highlights the distinction of Brown’sNarrativeby drawing a comparison with the famousNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass(1845). Brown presents “a different phase of the infernal slave-system from that portrayed in the admirable story by...

  6. 2. Dred and the Freedom of Marriage: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Fiction of Law
    (pp. 31-46)

    Echoing Brown’s critique of southern religious teachers who act against the principle of marriage in their support of slavery, Harriet Beecher Stowe draws a similar connection in her 1856 novel,Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. Quoting from the “Rev. Robert J. Breckenridge, D.D. a member of the Old School Assembly” in the novel’s appendix, ironically entitled “Church Action on Slavery,” Stowe reveals the complicity of the Presbyterian Church—“in whose communion the greater part of the slaveholding Presbyterians of the South are found”—of upholding a system that denies legal marriage to all slaves. Breckenridge calls the...

  7. 3. Free, Black, and Married: Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends
    (pp. 47-63)

    While considering Mr. Walters’s marriage proposal, Esther Ellis, the heroine of Frank J. Webb’s 1857 novel of black Philadelphia,The Garies and Their Friends, sees one “great stumbling block.”¹ It is not her lack of affection for her suitor. She loves him. The obstacle is his wealth. Like Nina, Esther turns to her brother for marital advice; but unlike Stowe’s white heroine, Esther makes her decisions herself.

    Esther decides not to marry the wealthy Mr. Walters because, she says, “everybody would say I married him for that.” But so what? “Theneverybodywould lie,aseverybody very often does!” declares...

  8. 4. “A Legally Unmarried Race”: Frances Harper’s Marital Mission
    (pp. 64-82)

    Writing to antebellum African Americans of the free middle class, Frances E. W. Harper’s 1859 short story, “The Two Offers,” dissolves the distinction between free and slave-marriage so powerfully presented inThe Garies and Their Friends. Like Frank Webb’s underappreciated antebellum novel of free black marriage, Harper’s short story introduces readers to a heroine who refuses a conventional marriage in order to fulfill what she perceives to be her social duty. But unlike Webb’s Esther Ellis who eventually becomes Mrs. Esther Walters, “No one appended Mrs. to” Harper’s Janette Alston.¹

    Published a year prior to the author’s own marriage to...

  9. 5. Wedded to Race: Charles Chesnutt’s Stories of the Color Line
    (pp. 83-106)

    Uncle Wellington, the title character of Charles W. Chesnutt’s 1899 short story, “Uncle Wellington’s Wives,” must grapple with an unusual marital problem.¹ It is a problem absent from most nineteenth-century fictions regarding marriage, and yet it was confronted by thousands of those whom Chesnutt called “the newly emancipated race.” Uncle Wellington learns from “the only colored lawyer in North Carolina” that Aunt Milly, the woman he had married when he was in slavery, or “befo’ de wah,” is not his “lawful wife.”² The lawyer informs him that although Aunt Milly “may be [his] wife in one sense of the word,”...

  10. Conclusion: Reading Hannah Crafts in the Twenty-First Century
    (pp. 107-112)

    The uneasy connection between race and marriage Chesnutt develops in his fiction is drawn, as I argue in chapter 5, upon his attempt to grapple with the intimate dimension of the history of slavery. Writing well after the end of legal slavery in the United States, Chesnutt remains fascinated and troubled by its lingering social effects during his lifetime. Whether to erase slavery’s effects or preserve them for the sake of posterity and community was a problem that Chesnutt, at least in his published works, could not resolve. Coming to terms with the logic of the slave-marriage and its peculiar...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 113-132)
  12. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 133-138)
  13. Index
    (pp. 139-146)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 147-150)