Book Review: Iola Leroy, by Frances E.W. Harper

Frances E.W. Harper’s Iola Leroy is a portrait of slavery and its aftermath in mid-19th century America. It focuses on two protagonists of mixed race, the mother and daughter Marie and Iola Leroy, to illustrate the absurdity of American slavery: One moment, the two light-skinned women are paragons of gentility – with Iola going so far as to defend slavery at her Northern girls’ school – the next moment, they are slaves.

Covering the Civil War and emancipation, Iola Leroy is an inspiring story of liberation. As Harper narrates, “The lost cause went down in blood and tears, and on the brows of a ransomed people God poured the chrism of a new era, and they stood a race newly anointed with freedom.” (p. 138)

As one of Harper’s characters recounts:

‘When de war war ober an’ de sogers war still stopping’ yere, I made pies an’ cakes, sole em to de sogers, an’ jist made money han’ ober fist. An’ I kep’ on a workin’ an’ a savin’ till my ole man got back from de war wid his wages and his bounty money. I felt right set up an’ mighty big wen we counted all dat money. We had neber seen so much money in our lives befo’, let alone hab it fer ourselbes. An’ I sez, “John, you take dis money an’ git a nice place wid it.”’

(In fact, Aunt Linda and husband John do manage to buy a plot of land from some friendly Jews.) (pp. 154-155)

A third observer is “delighted at the thrift and industry” well in evidence in the postbellum South, as its people taste their first draft of freedom. (p. 153)

However, even as the freedmen adapt to liberty with manifest “thrift and industry,” Harper’s more elite protagonists remain convinced of their need for shepherding. At a meeting of self-appointed black leaders, described in the chapter called “Friends in Council,” one speaker laments “‘the fearful grinding and friction which comes in the course of an adjustment of the new machinery of freedom in the old ruts of slavery.’” (p. 255) Another poetizes, “‘Oh, children of the tropics, / Amid our pain and wrong / Have you no other mission / Than music, dance, and song? / When through the weary ages / Our dripping tears still fall, / Is this a time to dally / With pleasure’s silken thrall?’” (pp. 251-252) Discussing the possibility of freedmen emigration, yet another speaker warns against “‘emptying on the shores of Africa a horde of ignorant, poverty-stricken people.’” (pp. 246-247) More than one participant at the meeting voices alarm at the freedmen’s susceptibility to drink, an ironic echo of the argument against black enfranchisement then being made by the unreconstructed.

Naturally, these intellectuals see themselves as the rectifiers of their people’s supposed defects. “‘I do not think,’” says one, “‘that we can begin too early to teach our boys to be manly and self-respecting, and our girls to be useful and self-reliant.’” Iola agrees: “‘We must instill into our young people that the true strength of a race means purity in women and uprightness in men.’” (pp. 253-254) Another concerned person characterizes this civilizing we as “‘a union of women with the warmest hearts and clearest brains to help in the moral education of the race.’” (p. 254) This note of paternalism (or maternalism) is sounded with breathtaking self-confidence and presumption, in ways that harken (again, ironically) to the old paternalism of the planters.

It is the opinion of the reviewer that the new birth of freedom in the mid-19th century, which affected not only America but also such places as Russia (where serfs were emancipated in 1861), inspired great panic on the part of the elite. On the one hand, deposed masters such as the gentry of the American South contrived to recover their position. On the other hand, intellectuals, often the same people who had welcomed servile emancipation, now regarded the newly liberated masses (or newly enfranchised masses like Irish immigrants) as unfit for self-rule. They either looked the other way when the aristos returned to power or, more adventurously, sought to take the aristos’ places under the guise of enlightened (or even revolutionary) leadership.

Iola Leroy is a case study of this latter approach. Civil War liberation epic that it is, Harper’s novel actually becomes rather preoccupied with the reimposition of hierarchy; it is more representative of the thermidorian reaction of the postbellum Reconstruction or Gilded Age years, when new elites sought to supplant old. The book was published in 1892. Significantly, one of its characters, during the above-mentioned friendly council, takes stock of the recent years’ broken chains in a somewhat dispirited way (““Millions of slaves and serfs have been liberated during this century, but not even in semi-barbaric Russia, heathen Japan, or Catholic Spain has slavery been abolished through such a fearful conflict as it was in the United States.’”) before turning his attention to alcohol (“‘The liquor traffic still sends its floods of ruin and shame to the habitations of men.’”), implying that the freedman remains in a degraded state, from which only a redoubled effort, no doubt by those with the warmest hearts and clearest brains, can redeem him (for as yet “‘no political party has been found with enough moral power and numerical strength to stay the tide of death.’”). (p. 250) The reader will have noted that ordinary freedmen are shown by Harper to speak in dialect, while their aspiring redeemers orate in formal English, as though the author were suggesting almost-organic differences between them, justifying the need for guidance.

Even before the friendly council, Harper’s heroine aspires to fill the need. She hopes, in plain language, to become a teacher, but she spreads her enthusiasm a bit thick:

‘To be,’ continued Iola, ‘the leader of a race to higher planes of thought and action, to teach men clearer views of life and duty, and to inspire their souls with loftier aims, is a far greater privilege than it is to open the gates of material prosperity and fill every home with sensuous enjoyment.’ (p. 219)

In fact, Iola feels well qualified for the role. “‘I should be very glad to have an opportunity to teach,’ said Iola. ‘I used to be a great favorite among the colored children on my father’s plantation.’” (p. 145)

Thus does yesterday’s mistress become today’s missionary, retaining her seat at the head of her constituency, with the relation of superior to subordinate preserved.

Book Review: Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, by William Grimes

This book makes it clear, for anyone who needed to be convinced in the early 1800s, that slavery was cruel and violent, for Mr Grimes is repeatedly beaten, mostly for offences he didn’t commit, as his word is routinely disbelieved by his oppressors. It also proves that slavery was a poor way to maintain the purity of the races, were that an object, because Grimes himself was born of a slave mother and a white father.

A few other things stand out. First, whenever wages are mentioned, they often seem to have been higher in the unfree South than in the free North — but then again, it is unclear how much Grimes’s masters deduct for letting him out to work for wages. After escaping to the North, it seems that Grimes is scrambling to work for less money — but then again, he is able to amass a four-figure savings. Second, although he changes masters at least ten times while a slave, the white people involved usually ask his approval for each transaction; I can’t recall if he ever withholds it. On one occasion, he asks to be sold, and his master is offended and angry but complies. Third, after reaching the North, Grimes seems constantly to be in court, to claim wages, to clear himself of libel, and otherwise to gain redress against people who misuse him. The litigiousness of life in Connecticut, and Grimes’s ability to avail himself of the courts, is striking.

The writing is pithy. In a preamble addressed “To the Public,” Grimes asserts that “The condition of the slave…is painful and unfortunate and will excite the sympathy of all who have any.” (29) Toward the end, Grimes attempts to deal with slavery in the abstract, starting with the question of comfort in bondage vs. desperation in freedom: “To say that a man is better off in one situation than another, if in the one he is better clothed and better fed, and has less care than in the other, is false. It is true, if you regard him as a brute, as destitute of the feeling of human nature.” (101) A few lines later, his position becomes ambiguous: He advises slaves against escaping, for the danger and for the apprehension of recapture (Grimes was finally relieved of the latter, when his last master manumitted him in exchange for most of his accumulated money and property); but he then states that, in spite of being “cheated, insulted, abused, and injured” in the North, he has been able to “get along here as well as anyone who is poor and in a situation to be imposed on.” (101-102)

The integrity of the family seems to fare as badly in freedom as under slavery, for Grimes mentions that his wife joined the gold rush in California, leaving him in Connecticut.

Book Review: The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

This book is very powerfully and economically written, with poignant understatement sufficing very well. As is known, its main conceit is to take the underground railroad literally, as a subterranean locomotive, as it conveys the runaway Cora through a variety of states of freedom, each with hopes, mysteries, and dangers and each stressing a usually sinister aspect of race relations, involving, to name two examples, medical experimentation and violent segregation.

One splendid sentence is a line of dialogue: “Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth” (p. 285). A few lines later, America is named as the grandest delusion of all, hopefully a useful one; and since the ending of the story doesn’t involve total genocide, perhaps it might count as a (very relatively) hopeful one.

Book Review: The Mighty Revolution, by Charles Lewis Wagandt

My purpose in reading this book was to learn more about the revolution of popular opinion against slavery that took place before and during the Civil War. The abolition of slavery by the adoption of a new state constitution in Maryland would count as a critical example of this shifting in opinion, presumably an inspiring one.

The Mighty Revolution certainly provides many of the facts attendant to this shift, but the presentation of them falls somewhat short of inspiring. Wagandt’s focus is the political realm of electoral hustings, factions, and patronage. The idealism is largely left out. There is more information here about schemes to capture the comptroller’s office than there are meditations on the meaning of freedom. Of course, idealism often depends upon pragmatism for its advancement, and The Mighty Revolution offers a detailed illustration of how ideas become reality in this country. We Americans should probably be grateful that we are able to alter our destiny by means of backroom deals and ambiguously-worded ballot initiatives, without recourse to the guillotine.

The narrative of The Mighty Revolution hinges upon three turning points. The latter two are elections: the November 4, 1863 election for state legislature and other offices that was marred by army interference; and the October 12-13, 1864 vote on the new constitution, abolishing slavery, that carried only after soldiers’ absentee votes were counted. Again, it’s not a very rousing story. The fact that the emancipationist effort succeeded in the 1863 election in part because of the lack of a secret ballot (the emancipationist party ballots were yellow, permitting the army to discard others) does not exactly inspire one to plan an additional Thanksgiving dinner — although it does say a lot about the commitment of the boys in blue.

The earlier and perhaps most important turning point is the April 20, 1863 mass meeting of the Union League at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore, which does indeed herald the popular shift against slavery. “Never before in the war,” Wagandt writes, “had emancipation sentiments been advanced at a public meeting.” (p. 99) The Union League was “a civilian organization of obscure origins” that swelled as the war progressed. By 1863,

the Union Leagues extended their spheres of operations into the political arena….Preservation of the nation involved the fierce debate over slavery, a debate which found no sympathy in the conservative leadership of the Union Party [Maryland’s version of the Republican Party]. This created a need for some organized expression of aims among those who wished to move with, rather than against, the revolutionary times….Then there were politicians within the organization who tried to capitalize upon the League to further their ambitions.” (pp. 97-98)

The balance of Wagandt’s narrative describes the machinations of these ambitious politicians. As they “capitalized” upon the emancipationist sentiment of the League, they crystalized it and made it a reality. Such is the ugly beauty of our system.

Both in Maryland’s Civil War history and in Wagandt’s recounting of it, the focus on pragmatism over idealism affords only scattered suggestions that the white Marylander’s hatred of slavery translated into affection or even sympathy for the slave. In the early 1864 debate in the Maryland General Assembly that led to the constitutional convention, Henry S. Stockbridge, citing a letter from a former slave-owner’s son, asserted that abolition should be pursued because “it is right. Right between man and man – right before God.” (p. 194) A subsequent newspaper editorial called slavery “a great moral wrong, injurious to both master and slave.” (p. 203) A delegate to the constitutional convention named Frederick Schley voted in favor of the abolition article for reasons of “patriotism, justice, and humanity,” as well as for Maryland “honor” and popular “welfare.” (p. 225) Often it seems that Wagandt may be glossing over Marylanders’ anti-slavery arguments, perhaps in the belief that they are obvious and well-known, and perhaps because he’s more interested in the political maneuverings anyway.

For the most part, as emerges in these pages, the rationale behind Marylanders’ overthrow of slavery is couched in terms of class warfare and political jealousy. At their April 20, 1863 meeting, Union League members denounced slavery as “an instrument in the hands of traitors to build an oligarchy…on the ruins of republican liberty;” and they resolved “That the safety and interest of…Maryland, and especially of her white laboring people, require that Slavery should cease to be recognized by the law of Maryland.” (p. 99)

This refrain, that abolition was advanced as something that was good for certain white people, rings constantly throughout the book. No egalitarian sentiments are shown here to have been expressed, except in one ironic case:  Radical candidates from Allegany County in the vote on the constitutional convention on April 6, 1864 were said to have been “the real friends of the colored people” – by their opponents, and they subsequently spent much energy to deny the slander. (p. 217)

Still, for all the denial of common humanity that seems to have been necessary for its success, the overthrow of slavery was a success, and thus The Mighty Revolution should be counted as a valuable case study of the working reality of freedom.