Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
First Committee Member
Second Committee Member
Third Committee Member
Fourth Committee Member
In "Trouble in Paradise: Rupture of the Pastoral Plantation Myth in American Literature, 1832-1921," I argue that nineteenth-century African American and white writers use the plantation space in their texts as a barometer of American politics and life. Beginning with a case study of John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn (1832 revised 1851), "Trouble in Paradise" argues that the plantation is fraught with contradiction, conflict, and decay, but it also accommodates other views that are not visible from the big house windows. Therefore, I use Plantation Geography, a spatially-driven model, to reveal the sociopolitical costs of slavery through a comparative analysis of what Patricia Yeager calls "themed spaces." In this framework, the big house acts as a hub that may regulate the widening places--forest, coffeehouse, tavern--which were nonetheless imagined to radiate from it. Feeling the normative pull of the big house, these far-flung places decenter the master's home as the plantation's symbol of power and stability, and locates alternative pathways and their accompanying activities as primary locales of antebellum life. Therefore, while Kennedy intended to preserve the whimsical charm of country life in the Old Dominion, he more publicly remapped the plantation space as national attitudes shifted. By focusing on a variety of plantation spaces--cabins, kitchens, sheds, and stables--and the routes between them, "Trouble in Paradise" challenges the limits of African American democratic participation suggesting that their activities transform and exceed plantation boundaries. Writers throughout this period take a cue from Kennedy's novel by revising the plantation space in vastly different ways.
Chapter One, "A House Divided: The Abolitionist Deployment of the Plantation Landscape, 1850-1862," looks at how Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and Frederick Douglass's The Heroic Slave (1853) utilize the plantation as a means of abolitionist protest. Specifically, this chapter discusses the ways in which Uncle Tom and Madison Washington expose, challenge and transform their positions through their activities in a myriad of spaces including alternative sites beyond the plantation. Therefore, distant places in both novels have a proclivity to either promise or peril; while the cotton gin-house shed, tavern, Quaker home, and ship are potential sites where a slave's minority status could be reaffirmed, their distance from the plantation proper decreases the big house's power and pull. However, as much as these spaces present real opportunities for change, their transitory nature constantly challenged the assurance of a former slave's subjectivity. As promising as these spaces are, the real challenge was to renegotiate the United States as a nation that would eventually support the incorporation of African Americans into its body politic as American citizens.
Chapter Two, "Paradise Lost: The State of the Myth during the Civil War and Reconstruction," explores two distinct literary visions of the South as their protagonists' struggle to reconcile themselves to the demise of their plantations during and after the Civil War. Joseph Addison Turner's The Old Plantation: A Poem (1862) reveals a perspective of the plantation through the son of a slaveholder, who tinges southern nostalgia with melancholy, pathos, loss, and decay. However, the poem reveals the limits of his vision because the plantation cannot be replicated and maintained on a national scale. Although Turner's Reconstruction writings reveal an angry and bitter southerner who criminalizes African American movement and pathways, his works also reveal the hope of a new South as a Phoenix, primed to rise from the plantation ashes. Harper's novella counters Turner's lament by chronicling the journey of a man and woman who discover their African-American ancestry. This revelation holds the big house and the White House accountable to the slave cabins of the South and suggests that a radical restructuring of spaces is vital to the South's rebirth. This in effect reveals the conflict between the crippling power of the pastoral plantation in the hearts and minds of white southerners and the courageous endeavors of the emerging African American community as they all participated in the reorganization of the South.
Chapter Three, "The `Good Ole Days': Reconciliationist Literature and its Discontents" argues that Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings (1880) and Charles Chesnutt's Conjure Woman (1899) utilize the pastoral plantation in sharp contrast to their antebellum counterparts. While the harmonious spaces of the plantation and Uncle Remus's cabin serve as a framework for the predatory world of the animals in the folktales, these spaces also foster amnesia about the brutality of black bondage and the Civil War by focusing on the good ole days of slavery. Episodes of hostility, violence, toil, and sacrifice by blacks are encrypted exclusively as a series of folktales told by Uncle Remus to the little white boy within the confines of his old slave cabin. However, Charles Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman presents a vision of the plantation as a site of business created to extract wealth from slave labor and the land. Published in The Atlantic Monthly as early as 1887, these stories reveal local and national connections to the plantation through John and Annie's relocation to North Carolina from northern Ohio. At the heart of these tales are Julius's unpleasant memories of an Old South rife with thievery, conjuring, and murder as he seeks to renegotiate his claim to the McAdoo plantation with John and Annie. Both writers reveal a complicated recollection of the pastoral plantation that the earlier Kennedy could not imagine.
Concluding with Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods (1902), "Trouble in Paradise" continues to explore the pastoral myth's inconsistencies, appeal and contradictions incepted by John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn. In the opening scene of Dunbar's novel, a slave cottage much like the one in Kennedy's novel is resurrected and misery once again intrudes upon Eden. In a dark rebuttal, Dunbar challenges Harris's positive conclusion and suggests that everyone eventually bears the costs of the plantation, including whites. Furthermore, while several scholars argue that Dunbar's ending does not offer social or political alternatives to the plantation model, The Sport of the Gods revisits a space--the urban milieu--as a site where African Americans continue the process of creating a new identity away from the plantation proper. In doing so, this project presents a comprehensive paradigm that enlarges the plantation's boundaries and a narrow definition of "the South."
vi, 253 pages
Includes bibliographical references (pages 233-253).
Copyright © 2013 Nicole Michelle Gainyard
Gainyard, Nicole Michelle. "Trouble in paradise: rupture of the pastoral plantation myth in American literature, 1832-1921." PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2013.