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Antislavery Poetry from San Francisco

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The Pacific Appeal was the leading African American newspaper on the West Coast during the early 1860s.  A newly-published set of eight antislavery poems from the journal's inaugural 1862 volume captures the sense of expectancy within the African American community for the imminent end of US slavery.  These poems include the work of James Madison Bell, a San Francisco plasterer, brickmason, and poet.  Read more... 
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The North and the South, or, Slavery and Its Contrasts

Proslavery novel by Caroline Rush, published in response to Harriet Beecher Stowe (Philadelphia: Crissy and Markley, 1852). Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.

 

Caroline E. Rush was a mid-nineteenth century Philadelphia writer who, alongside The North and the South (1852), published three proslavery novels. These novels were Way-marks in the Life of a Wanderer: The Incidents Taken from Real Life (1850), Robert Morton, or The Step-mother, a Book Founded on Fact (1850), and The Dew-drop of the Sunny South; A Story Written from Everyday Life (1851). Her literary reputation, never large, was limited to the decade of the 1850s. There are no critical treatments of her writing currently available, and only the briefest mention of her proslavery novels appears in the critical literature. Little biographical information currently is available concerning her life.

The North and the South, or, Slavery and its Contrasts, defends Southern culture and slavery by comparing the supposed benevolence of slavery with the rapacious social cruelty of the Northern states. Rush writes in explicit response to public sentiment against slavery aroused by publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published beginning 1851 serially in the Washington antislavery newspaper The National Era. This novel belongs to a wave of counter-fiction and prose attacks against Uncle Tom’s Cabin. See Alan Dowty, “Urban Slavery in Pro-Southern Fiction of the 1850s,” Journal of Southern History 32 (1966) 1:25-41, and Barrie Hayne, “Yankee in the Patriarchy: T.B. Thorpe’s Reply to Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” American Quarterly 20 (1968) 2, 1:180-195. One of many Northerners writing pro-South texts, Rush makes clear that her purposes lie in defending slavery, beginning the first chapter in an authorial voice and writing:

“I do not for a moment imagine that any thing I can write can equal in style, logic or depth, that far-famed work of Mrs. Stowe, which has aroused a nation’s sympathy. ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ is a highly wrought fiction, abounding in touching incidents, and clothed with dangerous sophistry, that indeed looks so much like truth, that it is often mistaken for it.” (9)

The truer slavery, Rush argued together with many defenders of slavery, lay in northern industrial cities where exploited workers ‘toil their weary way from the cradle to the grave, and whose worn, emaciated frames…sink into that quiet rest never known in life.” (10) Rush writes that she had daily social contact with abolitionists and opposed slavery, but lived in the South for three winters and learned that plantation life was entirely different from her suppositions. She states that Stowe’s book is “an unjust and unfaithful picture of Southern life and character,” and “I do not deny that some such facts may have occurred, but as to their being matters of common incident, I do most fully, certainly, and unconditionally deny.” (12) For a discussion of Rush and the factuality of romance literature, see Zeno Ackerman, “’Working at Romance’: Poetics and Ideology in Novels of the Antebellum American South, 1824-1854,” Ph.D. dissertation, Universität Regensberg, 2004, at 193ff.

Rush writes from a deeply racialist, racist and white supremacist position. She states that while she would not refuse blacks kindness, the white race has “more honor, honesty, affection, virtue, every thing in fact, that tends to exalt the mind, and purify the character.” (14) She believes blacks to be “an idle, worthless, and improvident race,” and suggests that her Philadelphia readers walk through the mostly-black Seventh Ward with its “abodes of sin and debauchery” to witness the truth of her assertion. (15) Rush condemns northern abolitionists for philanthropic hypocrisy, comparing her own charitable contributions and those of proslavery Southerners with those of ungenerous members of the Anti-Slavery Society. (17; also 47) She points to malnutrition and starvation among factory workers and the poor in northern cities as a manifestation of “white bondage” (21) that she alleges abolitionists ignored in favor of intervention into Southern culture. The tragic hero of her novel is a young woman, Gazella, “one of those White Slaves of the North whose sufferings are unheeded…in whose gentle, uncomplaining life of toil and privation, is crowded more real and degrading slavery, than falls to the lot of any twenty slaves of the South.” (31) Or, when poverty causes a white mother to relinquish a child for adoption, Rush writes:

“Say what you will, the affections of the Negro are never so strong as those of the white man. The tenderness that is bur natural in the breast of a white mother, is very much lessened in the blacks, and I have here convinced you that the bondage of poverty, forces a lady to give up her child to the care of strangers, with scarcely a hope of ever seeing her again. So then, here is another proof of the slavery that exists in the North.” (238)

Throughout the novel, Rush elaborates an antagonistic comparison between poor Northern whites and satisfied Southern black slaves, arguing that slavery protects blacks from far worse exploitation and oppression. While she voices concern for the welfare of the urban working classes, that concern is deployed to instantiate alleged failures of abolitionists to reform conditions in northern cities. Frequently Rush employs personal witness interspersed in the narrative to evidence such conditions. For example, she complains:

“How little do your Abolitionists seem to think or sympathize with such cases of cruelty as this…I lived, myself, within a few doors of a so-called respectable family, who had a little bound girl…They dressed her in the meanest tatters, fed her with what was scarcely fit for a dog, and made her to work so hard, that the flesh absolutely left her bones, and she was little more than a walking skeleton. They used to whip her so unmercifully, that her cries for help resounded through the neighborhood…” (99)

Rush compares this adversely to the South, where she asserts that masters used whipping very sparingly and only as a disciplinary last resort. Rather, she states, “No one has a right to draw inferences and declaim against abuses, until they are positive that such abuses exist, and it is very certain that no intelligent, sincere, plain-spoken man or woman will go through the Southern country, as I have done, and come back and write a book on the cruelty of masters to their slaves.” (100) Concern for distant uncertainties, Rush argues, is misplaced where there are near-at-hand certainties of poverty, she informs readers, where “you live in the midst of poverty that you never see; while your houses are within hail of those poor wretches, who are starving for the bread thrown to your dogs, and while you continue to grind down the wages of that most desolate and pitiable class of all the poor, the plain needle-women.” (131) With such arguments and a sentimental novel plot upon which to illustrate it, Rush provided a prose fiction echo of Southern demands that the Northern states not interfere with slavery and instead recognize the suffering caused by their own economic system.

Plot Summary

The novel traces the mostly-declining fortunes of the Harley family, from a wealthy merchant home in New York City to obscure poverty in a Philadelphia slum district. Frank Harley, the father, makes a poor business decision under the influence of alcohol, goes bankrupt, loses his health, and can no longer work. Once a rich woman, Mrs. Harley becomes a seamstress in order to support their seven children, work in which her eldest daughter, Gazella, joins. Despite hard work their living conditions remain desperate; an infant daughter, Ida, dies of fever. Entries from Gazella’s journal constitute long passages of the novel. They describe and ever-continuing process of impoverishment, degradation, and the depredations of disease.

To reduce household expenses, the Harley family apprentices its children and a continuing string of tragic consequences result. One daughter, Lily, goes into service with the Anson family, where she is severely mistreated and whipped. Another son, Harry, is placed with a Chester County farmer, Timothy Hardgripe, and gets heavily overworked and beaten. Ellen, placed with another farm family outside Philadelphia, is so abused that she commits suicide by drowning herself in the Schuylkill river at age ten. Yet another son, Frank, is disabled and can help his family only by weaving baskets. Only Rose, twin sister of Lily and adopted by the Atlees, a proslavery Quaker family with homes both in Philadelphia and on Maryland’s eastern shore, receives a good education and opportunities.

The father, Frank Harley, eventually succumbs to his ill-health and is buried alongside his two children who pre-deceased him. After Harley dies, his widow bears a final child, once again named Ida. The family’s misfortunes are further compounded when the now-widowed mother is seized on a false and malicious complaint and lodged in Walnut Street prison, from where she obtains release through the assistance of the Atlees. Dire circumstances cause the loss of another child. During a visit in the North from her Mississippi plantation, the wealthy Mrs. Dunlap pays a charitable visit to the Harley family and adopts Ida, now age two.

Troubles continue to plague the Harley family; some survive them, and others succumb. Gazella, who has sustained the family and her mother, dies after a long illness. Harry fights with his master and is imprisoned on false charges of horse-stealing. He gains release after a trial that reveals his master’s abuse, and is offered a sailor’s berth on a merchant vessel owned by Mr. Norton, whose wife has befriended the Harley family. He becomes a sea captain; his brother Frank becomes a scholar. Lily lives with her mother, but as a woman embittered by her childhood mistreatment. Rose becomes a governess at a Southern plantation, marries well, and becomes a satisfied mother. Ida, raised in Mississippi, becomes the happily-married mistress of her adopted family’s plantation.

Digital Editions

Two further Rush novels are available in digital editions via the Wright Collection at University of Indiana: Way-marks in the Life of a Wanderer and The Dew-drop of the Sunny South.

— Joe Lockard