Atlantic History Slavery in British and American Literature
by
Judie Newman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0159

Introduction

For some literary scholars, all literature that follows the establishment of Atlantic slavery is inflected by the existence of the “peculiar institution.” Toni Morrison has argued that the prevalence of gothic in 19th-century writing, particularly in America (not naturally a land of haunted castles and ruined abbeys), results from the repressed awareness of a dark abiding Africanist presence in American culture. Slavery thus underwrites the broad generic qualities of the national literature. In the view of Pierre Macherey, the silences and omissions in literature are as important as the presences. Slavery is a shrieking absence in many canonical works of American literature; “writing back “against such silences has become a major critical activity. White writers are now regularly examined in the light of the history of slavery: Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff as a black orphan from the slave port of Liverpool (in Wuthering Heights) or the Caribbean estate in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, for example. Almost all writers from the American South (and especially William Faulkner) can be viewed in this light. If little space is given in the current bibliography to canonical English writers who engage at some level with slavery, it is because the critical literature on their work is already extensive. More narrowly, in the English-speaking world “slavery in literature” includes the writings of slaves and former slaves, as well as works written about slavery by non-slaves. Though the field is dominated by American works, British, Caribbean, and postcolonial writers are also significant. Temporally the field includes the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, with a significant engagement by later writers with the legacy of slavery. Only one later genre, however, the neo-slave narrative, is formally connected to the literary tradition of the 19th-century slave narratives. “Literature” is a capacious category in this field and is not confined to conventional belles lettres (novels, plays, poetry) but includes significant examples of oratory, addresses, letters, folk material, minstrelsy and life-writings. There is also a dynamic relationship between literary criticism and creative writing, and between popular blockbusters and the academy. Controversies over popular works have been a spur to the writing of both novels and scholarly works. Scholarship on slavery may appear in works concerning African American, Caribbean or English literature, and despite the exponential expansion of the field since the 1980s there is no single bibliography to be recommended. Nor is there a single journal devoted to slavery in literature.

General Overviews

The topic of slavery in literature is rarely the subject of a discrete work. More commonly it receives coverage in general overviews of African American literature or in discussions of race in literature. In one argument slavery inflects all American literature in a repressed subtext in canonical white writers (Morrison 1992). Criticism also varies in the degree to which it takes into account Latin American and Caribbean elements (Rosenthal 2004), African traditions (M’Baye 2009) or white writers (McDowell and Rampersad 1989). Recent scholarship such as Bruce 2001 has redressed the neglect of the early period and of the American North and there are now histories and companions that can be unequivocally recommended for their comprehensive coverage, including Andrews, et al. 1997; Graham 2004; and Graham and Ward 2011. For the scholar of “slavery in literature” the best friend is often the excellent index to such overviews.

  • Andrews, William L., Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris, eds. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    A thoroughly comprehensive volume with entries on more than four hundred writers, along with literary movements and forms, literary criticism, the novel, and a host of others. A broadly conceived image of African American literary culture allows for the inclusion of entries on iconic figures in African American literature.

  • Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. The Origins of African American Literature, 1680–1865. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    Significant for its challenge to the idea that African American voices were silenced in the colonial and early national period. And includes an important reevaluation of the fiction of James McCune Smith.

  • Graham, Maryemma, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521815746E-mail Citation »

    Fifteen essays by leading scholars arranged chronologically, covering the novel of slavery and its legacy, with particular attention to literary movements and periods, and an excellent bibliography.

  • Graham, Maryemma, and Jerry R. Ward, eds. The Cambridge History of African American Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521872171E-mail Citation »

    At 860 pages, this volume offers a huge amount of material on the literature of slavery, with works discussed on their individual merits and in relation to events in American history. Features excellent essays on early print literature of Africans in America and the neo-slave narrative.

  • M’Baye, Babacar. The Trickster Comes West: Pan African Influence in Early Black Diasporan Narratives. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    Explores relationships between African American, African Caribbean, and African British narratives of slavery and African literary influences—particularly the use of the Trickster motif in such figures as Anancy (Spider), Leuk (Rabbit), and Mbe (Tortoise)—in slave writers, including Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince and Phillis Wheatley.

  • McDowell, Deborah, and Arnold Rampersad, eds. Slavery and the Literary Imagination. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    The best starting point for any consideration of the impact of slavery on American literature, with all the essays by acknowledged authorities. Although the emphasis falls on African Americans, substantial attention is also paid to white writers. Hazel V. Carby provides a valuable essay on the historical novel of slavery.

  • Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this groundbreaking study, the Nobel Prize–winning novelist argues for a deep abiding Africanist presence in American culture, delineating the effect of a racialized history on Willa Cather, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, and Mark Twain. The discussion of American gothic as a repressed awareness of dark others was highly influential.

  • Rosenthal, Debra J. Race Mixture in Nineteenth-Century U.S. and Spanish American Fictions: Gender, Culture and Nation Building. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    In a thoroughly transnational comparative study, Rosenthal broadens critical discussion of American literature to include Latin America, examining interracial sexual and cultural mixing, and fictional treatments of skin difference, incest, and inheritance laws, in major writers from the United States, Cuba, Peru, and Ecuador.

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